North Africa, West Asia

Radio Hakaya Podcast, episode 5: Majdi - A Palestinian perspective

Episode 5 of a podcast series about the socio-political climate faced by Syrians and their host communities through their own eyes as the pressure rises for refugees to return to Syria.

Radio Hakaya
6 March 2019
Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.

All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.

Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.

Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.

Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

This is the fifth podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Majdi, the football coach of the Palestinian women’s team in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. Born and raised in Lebanon, Majdi has never been able to return to his homeland in Palestine.

Shatila refugee camp was established by the ICRC in 1949 to accommodate the thousands of refugees who came from Palestine after the creation of Israel in 1948. Located on one square kilometer of land, and originally built for 3,000 people, the camp today struggles with overcrowding, exacerbated by an influx of Syrian refugees which brought the camp’s population to nearly 22,000.

From his rooftop apartment in the heart of Shatila, Majdi witnessed the gradual arrival of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as the war in Syria raged on. As well as Syrian refugees, many Palestinians from Syria fled to Lebanon, going through a second displacement after the one that brought them to Syria from Palestine in 1948 and 1967.

Majdi explains how Palestinians living in camps across Lebanon have hosted new refugees with kindness and generosity, understanding only too well the meaning of war and exile. However, he also acknowledges the strain placed on host communities by the arrival of so many new people in a camp already overcrowded and lacking basic resources.

When asked about a Palestinian perspective on the war in Syria, Majdi points out that Palestinians have been divided on the issue. On the one hand, many Palestinians in Syria joined the Syrian uprising seeking reform and democracy. Yet at the same time many Palestinians both in Syria and abroad sided with the regime, seeing Syria as a protector and ally of the Palestinian cause.

Remembering the involvement of Palestinians in Lebanon’s civil war, Majdi argues that Palestinians should not take sides, but hope for a brighter and more peaceful future for all.

His experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Palestinians in Lebanon hold on the hardships of being both a hosting and hosted community. As such, this interview should be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous and forthcoming podcasts.

Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below

Read the transcript:

Podcast #5 Majdi: A Palestinian Perspective

Introduction:

Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكاياthe official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.

Today’s podcast is an interview with Majdi, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon’s refugee camp Shatila. The camp was established by the ICRC in 1949 to accommodate the thousands of refugees who came from Palestine after the creation of Israel in 1948. Located on one square km of land, and originally built for 3,000, the camp today struggles with overcrowding as the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues. The current camp population is estimated to be around 22,000.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Majdi has never been able to return to his homeland in Palestine. In this interview, he speaks about the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, how the residents of Shatila have managed the arrival of Syrian refugees and his reflections on the difference between the meaning of return for Palestinians and Syrians.

Interview:

I am a sports activist and a football coach. I run a female football and basketball team in a gym called Palestine Youth Gym in Shatila refugee camp.

We try to break the belief that women should not practice sports. We say the opposite: that women must practice sports in order to be able to develop and improve themselves and their self-esteem. Women have a role in society and must be allowed to play that role.

Our situation in Shatila is very hard. As we are categorized as ‘Palestinian refugees’, the life we live cannot be compared to that of local Lebanese citizens. Our first concern is unemployment, because the Lebanese government prevents us by law from having certain jobs such as doctors, lawyers, teachers... We are only allowed to work in factories, in construction and maintenance, or to have private businesses like shops and farms, or to be employed in the private sector.

Despite the fact that we work in Lebanon and take part in its economy, we lack full citizenship rights. And not having full rights adds insult to injury.

Our situation is very different from the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in that we do not have a homeland to which we may return once the war is over, whilst the Syrians will be able to return home once the war is over in Syria.

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Life has always been harsh for Palestinians in Lebanon, but it became even harder after many Syrian refugees came to stay in Shatila. Like in most of Lebanon we miss several standard services and suffer from numerous problems – our water is polluted, there is a shortage in power sources, and our homes, already overcrowded, became even more crammed as we accommodated 5000 – 6000 new refugees. These people are also looking for houses, for work, for a life…so the problem is: how can they find such things here when the Palestinians struggle themselves with the same problems?

Despite all the problems we experience, there is perhaps one positive thing, and that is the fact that we can share and understand more than anyone what it feels like to be a refugee. We have been exiled for 70 years so we know what it feels like to need the basic requirements for life; how to find food, a shelter…and even shoes, in a foreign country.

In the beginning, we received the Syrians in a good way, doing our best to help them find accommodation in our camps and in our homes. And this we did regardless of the classifications that NGO’s and associations were putting on us, dividing as Syrian refugees; Syrian-Palestinians refugees or Lebanese-Palestinians refugees.

After the start of the war in Syria, many of these NGO’s were focused on helping only ‘Syrian refugees’, forgetting about the Syrian-Palestinians and also about the Lebanese Palestinians. Already the Lebanese Palestinians only manage to access support sometimes. When the Palestinians arrived from Syria they were not integrated into most support systems because they were not considered ‘Syrian’. Such classification is very arbitrary and should be condemned - especially when it distinguishes between refugees that have fled from the same war zones!

For example, both Syrians and Palestinians came to Lebanon from the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus. Yet the NGO’s favor the Syrians over the Palestinians, claiming that UNRWA is the UN committee concerned with the Palestinian refugees, while international associations should only be concerned with assisting Syrians. This has generated many problems and sometimes created anger and resentment toward these associations. I do believe this categorization has killed and banished Syrian-Palestinians twice; first through the war, and secondly through a discrimination based on their nationality, making distinctions between Syrians and Syrian-Palestinians

There have been many problems since many people came to the camp. I am talking of social and cultural problems, not problems of violence, or fights or so on.

The camp has become extremely overcrowded and people have brought with them their old rituals and customs. You know…there are customs specific to the Lebanese, and there are customs specific to the Palestinians. With new people coming here, their brought their own customs from their own places, things we are not used to here.

For example, the new refugees have gestures or ways of speaking which are hard to understand. Or, another example, women here are able to go freely wherever they want, whereas they keep their women locked at home. The society here is a more open society than the one many refugees come from. They are not used to seeing women walking around, especially with uncovered hair. Many of them were introduced to something which, for them, was not normal, and this created some difficulties as they had to learn to deal with things which were not familiar to them. Some of them adapted and stayed in Shatila, while others couldn’t and so moved somewhere else. Out of all Arab countries, Lebanon has the most open society.

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I have asked my Syrian Palestinians friends this very question, if the war ended in Syria, would you go back?

Some of them said yes, and some said no, mostly due to political considerations. There are three categories: if I am against the regime, I can’t go back. If I am not a supporter of the regime, but I haven’t done anything wrong, then maybe I can go back. And if instead I am a supporter of the regime, then I can go back. Generally speaking however, it all depends on the status of their homes in Syria, if someone is living in them or not, if they are still standing or not…

We should not judge Syrian or Palestinian refugees on the basis of their political stance. When their main concern is simply to find shelter, find work, or a means of living, you can’t ask refugees whether they are for or against the regime.

Here we host and treat everyone as human beings, respecting their freedom to choose, for example, to live in a neighbourhood that supports the regime, or in one that opposes the regime. That is their choice. But we must consider them as humanitarian rather than political refugees. And those refugees who don’t feel comfortable socially or politically in a specific area will move to a more politically suitable area.

For example, if I am a supporter of the regime, I should move to a neighbourhood that also supports the regime. However here in Shatila we don’t discriminate amongst refugees if they are against or for the regime, as all people must be able to have freedom of political belief. Here there are parties both for and against the Syrian regime. But our primary concern is not what happens in Syria. Our primary concern is to live together in solidarity and harmony, and to make decisions that benefit the Palestinian cause and all the people that live here.

So, yes, we do have supporting and opposing parties to the Syrian regime, but as Lebanese-Palestinians we have no hand in what happens in Syria. We only have our prayers for the good of Syria.

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