Camp life: the good the bad and the ugly

Huda Dawood | 10-05-2016

Sky view of the Ein El Helweh camp
View of the camp from Huda's home

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the word “camp”? In the West, you probably think of nature, roasting marshmallows over a fire and hikes. But when talking about the Middle East, your mental picture is probably refugees crowded into dilapidated buildings, sewage in the streets and hungry kids begging for coins.

I grew up in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp, the one most often in the news due to what often appears like “madness and mayhem”: Ein El-Helweh. But for me, it is simply “home”—80,000 people squeezed into just 1,500 square meters (less than one-tenth of a square mile).  It is often wracked by violence, has noisy cars and is marred by too many people and dirty streets. And yet it is where I feel most comfortable when I take a break from university; it’s where I turn for the warmth of people’s hearts.

Camp to me is my old elementary school, Al-Naqoura, and the narrow path where my friends and I fell down time after time as we ran with our heavy bags full of books. It is the old woman, Um Mahmoud (mother of Mahmoud), who sells hitalleye (a sweet made of milk and sugar) and tormos (beans with salt and lemon) to students. It is the blue windows and doors of UNRWA schools, which annoyed me when I was younger because they looked like prisons with their uniform color. It is my middle school and the math teacher who feared the sound of bullets—hiding under the table when they rang out. Meanwhile, we all ran to the windows to check what was going on, at least until we realized it was something serious and we should be scared.

Camp to me is the magical spirit of Eid (the Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan). It is the Eid prayer in the morning, the takbeer (“God is great” in a song or chant) by the mosque and trips to the cemetery to honor the dead. It is people visiting each other bearing sweets prepared at home, such as Kaak El-Eid—cookies dusted with powdered sugar, made by neighbors who gathered days before the holiday to prepare them. It’s Eideyeh (money given to children and youth by parents and the elderly on the first day of the Eid holiday) and the feeling of responsibility when you grow up and start giving rather than receiving. It’s the new clothes we bought a month before Eid in the souk (street market), both for ourselves and people in need. Prices are less there than in shops outside the camp, so we used to find Lebanese people buying clothes there too.

Streets of Ein El-Hilweh

It is the streets made noisy during the holiday by the horses available to ride for a fee, and wood and metal swings on which to play. It is me and my friends begging our parents to let us stay out one more hour.

It is a gathering for a sit-in or protest in support of the Palestinian cause. It is the Palestinian accent we all speak comfortably in the camp without fear of being ridiculed or treated differently in a society where we are deprived of many rights. Instead, we could be proud of our heritage. , with no need to hide it.

It is the taxi drivers and their long stories, and that feeling of happiness when they call you Khayta (“my sister” in Arabic with a Palestinian accent). It is the children in my neighborhood using a small sack full of old clothes as a ball, being creative when they have no other choice.

It is the hard-working students studying by the light of a candle when the electricity is off, often for seven hours or more a day. Students hope to to leave the camp to get better education and a better environment. But many others leave school for work, or to join a militia and carry guns.

All of these memories are precious to me. However, they cannot hide the dark side of the camp, they cannot convince me this is a healthy place to live and raise children. Yes, I am used to the sound of bullets, but I don’t want to lose a loved one to them. Yes, it was fun playing in the streets because we had no better place, but I don’t want my children to do the same. We must push back against ignorance and violence to create a healthier place for the next generation—and to keep the Palestinian cause pure and alive.

Posted May 9, 2106
Mentor: Pam Bailey

 


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