Bourj El-Barajneh is a municipality located in the southern tip of Beirut, Lebanon. It houses a majority of Palestinian refugees, some Kurds and Iraqis, and most recently, incoming Syrian refugees. There are some Lebanese who live there due to their lower income base, as well. As a refugee camp, the conditions are horrendous. The schools are not that great, and the infrastructure is dangerous to say the least. Electrical wires hang inches above one’s head through narrow corridors as you walk through the camp. Many have died from fallen lines.
On my fist day in Beirut, I made a visit to the camp. I wanted to see first hand how the women here survived, and what obstacles they faced. What I found was an amazing story of resilience, as the women made their lives, and the lives of their family members, a home to be envied with what little they had.
It wasn’t my first time visiting, though. I came once before in 2005, but I wanted to see if there was any change. The only I found different was the increase in refugees from other Arab countries.
We walked through the maze with some extended family members and received a tour of what they called home. One of my guides was an older women in her late 60s. She was a widow at age 22. I felt an immediate connection to her as I, too, was a widow at that age. Her husband was assassinated for working with a Palestinian organization. He was a high ranking official and was much respected. They had three children at the time. She never remarried.
As we walked, she slid her arm through mine, and pointed at different sites. We passed children playing; some passing the soccer ball to each other, while others playing what looked like cops and robbers.
“Look at them,” she said. “Not a thought in their mind that there is more outside these walls. They make do with what they have.”
My new friend never saw Palestine. She was born in the camps.
“Do you like it here?” I asked, as we passed free roaming chickens.
It was all that she knew. She explained the sense of family the camp has with each other, as she stopped to smack a young boy on the back of his head. He was sitting in a car with two others smoking a cigarette.
“Do you know him?”
She knew everyone. And everyone knew her. In fact, she was kind of a celebrity. Because of her husband’s position, she was treated with respect. Every person, every older man that walked by stopped to say hello to her and asked if she needed anything. She held tightly to my arm as she said, “This is why I never remarried. My husband left me with three children and a high position of esteem. No one could have replaced that, and I never needed more.”
We walked to the cemetery in order to visit some relatives of hers who passed away. She took pride in their make-shift resting place for the dead. Patriotic flags and maps of Palestine lined the area.
“Look at all the fruit trees. In a month they will be full with everything. It’s like a park,” she said.
A couple of feet away, where the older graves lay, were mounds of trash. She directed me to look at the beauty of the place. “That’s a problem all over. No room for the growing population.”
We later passed by a Red Crescent Hospital where she bragged about how great the facility was. The truth is, it lacks a lot of necessities, but she would not know the difference. Grateful there was a hospital at all, she thought of her camp as a beautiful place.
As we walked down another corridor I found a mother spanking her child as he screamed, “It wasn’t my fault!” She paused briefly from disciplining her child to greet my guide. She kissed her on both cheeks while she kept a firm grip of the kid with her other hand before saying “Excuse me,” and then proceeded with the discipline.
“Do the kids know not to touch the hanging wires?”
They know everything. The kids here are smart. They don’t touch what can hurt them. They know not to go in the dangerous buildings that are falling apart, too. And when they do things they are not supposed to, someone is around to teach them right from wrong, like the mother we just saw,” she replied.
She laughed and said only the stupid would do such a thing. My hand was mid-air as I asked. I had to keep reminding myself to not touch anything. Only the strong survive in a place like this.
On the other hand, unlike places in the West, this village raised each other. They looked after each other. Every woman was a mother, not only to her own children, but to the other kids in the camp as well.
“Do you think life would have been different if you had remarried?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “The thought never crossed my mind to remarry. Marriage is good. I did it once. And in my mind I am still married. Maybe if I never had children I would have thought about it. But I felt complete. Why did you remarry?”
I told her after ten years of being a widow with one daughter, I felt alone. I wanted to share my life with someone and have more children.
“Look around us,” she said. “I have never been alone. I am strong. I am a Palestinian woman in a beautiful country with a camp of people that are all my family. There was never time to feel alone.”
“What about Palestine? Do you want to go there one day?” I asked.
She stood closer to me with our arms intertwined and said, “If all the Palestinians in Palestine are like you, then yes, I’d like to go see it one day.”
I laughed and called her a politician, and she replied with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes, “And that is how women survive in this world–no matter where you live, in a refugee camp or a mansion on the beach, or how much money you have–if you know how to win the hearts of people and keep God close, you will be good in life.”
She definitely won my heart.