Posted by: thebluemusicblog | November 18, 2011

AROUND THE MIDDLE EAST IN 16 DAYS – CHAPTER 2: THE FORGOTTEN “PROBLEM”

In November 2002 I sat at Yasser Arafat’s table In his Presidential Palace in Ramallah. I was the leader of the delegation and sat side by side with Arafat. We spoke together for an hour. Then I felt his hand searching for mine, and he got up, and hand in hand we were half running through the corridors of his Presidential offices, or what was left of them after heavy shelling. In fact only the corner with the President’s office was intact, the rest of the building was in ruins. The guards saluted us as we passed them. A few months after this he was dead.

Today this memory came back to me as I was entering the Palestinian refugee camp Bork Shemali in Sour, South Lebanon. The “streets” in the camp were very narrow, and we could look through open doors and windows and see the small rooms in the basic, simple buildings, the homes of the Palestinian refugees since 1956 in this camp. On  10 000 m2 a camp set up for 6000 people now hosted 21000 refugees. There is no space for sports or recreation, no rooms to congregate and socialize. No space at all, only overcrowded and overwhelmingly full, like living on a platform just before the train arrives.

Mahmoud Jouma’a, Manager, me,  Mezyad Alyusuf, Vocational Training Expert and Samer Shihardeh, Vocational Training Coordinator

We are warmly welcomed by the partner of YMCA in the camp, the manager of Beit Atfal Assumoud, the Palestinian Youth NGO, his name is Mahmoud Jouma’a, and he talks in a deep, pleasant voice as he shows us around the Palestinian Cultural Centre. He speaks highly of the Lebanese YMCA, with which they have worked for many years in close partnership, not the least in vocational training in order to equip the young refugees to work in the field of work they are allowed to engage in outside of the camp.

We see the Kindergarten, simple equipment,but beautifully children friendly. Then I discover that there is barbed wire around all entrances, if you look carefully at my photo, you will notice the barbed wire. I see this for the first time around a Kindergarten. Please do not ask me why it is there, because I did not have the courage to ask. The dignity of these people forbid you to be a curious tourist. The severity of the surroundings humbles you as you walk around in this desperate hopelessness. The overwhelming size of this forgotten “problem” strikes you as later on that afternoon we should pass one camp after the other on our way back to Beirut, and later on in the week to see bigger camps in Jordan and knowing the camps in Syria, and……

We visit the dentist’s clinic, and laugh with the dentist over the happiness not needing his services, the doctor tells us enthusiastically how he teaches youth about the realities of life including sexuality and we walk through one vocational training room after the other, plumbers, electricians, photographers, carpenters and so on. They tell us how they use the little equipment they have to repair houses for the worst cases in the camp. They make lists of the most needy and use them as case studies to learn at the same time as they bring some improvement to those in worst needs.

Not once do I hear a bitter or hateful comment. Not once. I hear no appeal for support or solidarity. I hear no begging or swearing. Just this calm, friendly orientation about facts. I hear the worry about the 70% drop outs from school. I hear the worry over insufficient health provision and lack of cultural stimuli and the enormous unemployment among young and old. I admire their calm dignity and their inclusive friendliness towards the YMCA as a good partner. I feel so good in their company. On my way out I see the barbed wire around the Kindergarten and I feel deep inside me the desperation over the forgotten “problem”.

The young people have made a photo exhibition, trying to portray life in the camps as they experience it.

I ask Mahmoud how long he has stayed in this camp in the south of Lebanon. He looks at me and says in his deep, warm voice:

– I have been here since the beginning, since 1956.

That is exactly 56 years of his life.

I can still feel Yasser Arafat’s hand in mine.


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