IN PICTURES: Inside a Palestinian refugee camp
In a tiny Palestinian refugee camp that stares at the azure Mediterranean Sea, sweating workers toil at a noisy concrete mixer as they raced before sunset to finish construction of the last pillar that will hold the upper level of a small house.
The house belongs to Hiyam Kawash, a camp resident who has just decided it was time for her elder son to get married and have his own house.
Hiyam herself, now 55 years old, was born in a shabby tent in Mieh Mieh camp in South Lebanon when her parents were expelled from their homes along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Israeli troops more than 60 years ago.
All other refugees of her generation were also born in tents, which later became mud houses, then tiny concrete structures with tin roofs. The tin roofs have now become concrete and most of the houses have gone higher and bigger.
“We are more and more entrenched in this camp but we still think if Palestine…it’s our land and our home, so how can we forget it,” she said. “Who knows, we might return some day? If not me, perhaps our children or their children. We were born here but we belong there. [Our] rights will never be lost.”
Hiyam’s family once lived in the tiny North Palestinian village of Miroun, which was occupied by Israeli forces along with hundreds of other villages and towns during the 1948 war that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians.
Dreams of home
When they fled their homes to escape the carnage, Palestinians settled in the Lebanese town of Bint Jbail just near the Palestinian border not far from their villages that have now been turned into Israeli settlements.
The United Nations gave them tents and blankets and told them the shelter was only temporary pending their return to their homes. A year passed but nothing happened, prompting the UN to move those thousands of refugees to Jwayya village away from the border, with promises of a return in few months.
“We waited for the UN to fulfill its promise and we are still waiting. It’s nearly 62 years now,” said 80-year-old Abu Al Hassan, Hiyam’s father. “Many of us still have the key of our homes. These keys have rusted but they prove that we the rightful owners of that land. Many of my compatriots have died here in Lebanon but the dream of returning home will never die.”
Although they have become more and more integrated into Lebanese society, the Palestinians still have their own world inside the nearly 12 refugee camps that house more than 350,000 residents, mostly from North Palestine.
Mieh Mieh is still the smallest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon although swarms of new refugees have streamed in over the past 10 years to escape conflict further South and in North Lebanon.
From fewer than 2,000 people, Mieh Mieh now has more 5,000 Palestinians, crammed in an area of about three square kilometres.
Located on a hilltop facing the Mediterranean, the camp still suffers from unemployment and poverty in the absence of jobs as they are barred from employment in Lebanese institutions under the country’s laws.
But poverty has not prevented these people from struggling to create decent houses for their children as most of them have now become higher and bigger.
The expansions have been prompted by the rapid growth in the camp’s population and the fact that many of them have grown up and need separate housing to accommodate their new families after marriage.
“We have to live our lives here and help our children as our parents had helped us,” said Mahmoud Shehadi, another Mieh Mieh refugee.
“I am now building a house on top of my house for my daughter, who has just married. I want her to be close to me. But of course we are not going to forget where we come from…this is only a temporary house, a temporary camp and a temporary life. We must always keep that in mind.”
The ban on jobs for Palestinians in Lebanon have prompted many of them to migrate to the Gulf or Western countries, while some of them are employed by Palestinian institutions operating in Lebanon.
A minority get financial assistance from Palestinian resistance factions but such funds have sharply declined over the past few years because of the drop in aid by major global donors and growing needs inside the occupied territories, where thousands of houses have been destroyed by Israel.
Health services in Mieh Mieh are provided by a tiny UN medical centre while most of the residents get their drinking water from a massive well drilled by the late camp leader Kamal Kawash. Electricity is provided free as bills are believed to be paid by Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal.
But it is not only social agony. Over the past 40 years, the residents of the camp have been through a hell of Israeli air strikes, clashes with the Lebanese army and a savage onslaught by the Christian forces, which in 1990 destroyed the eastern part of the camp close to the Mieh Mieh Christian village.
A few years earlier, Israeli troops entered the camp when they invaded most of Lebanon in1982. They arrested most of its young residents and transferred them to a concentration camp inside Palestine before releasing them two years later.
What adds to their daily misery is that the Palestinians feel they live in a big prison as the entire camp is beleaguered by Lebanese troops, barricaded at the village’s entrances where they check all those who come or leave the camp.
But the Palestinians appear to be oblivious of their agony as they have apparently become accustomed to it. They do complain from time to time but they have no choice but to stay strong and carry on with their lives.
“We must remain strong. Life is not easy in this place but we have to live it as we have no choice for the time being. We must not let despair overcome us because this will kill our dream for returning home,” said Fayez Kawash, who left his Palestinian village when he was only five years old.
“We should show our children that we are not weak so they will carry on with the struggle and keep this dream alive. Without this, we will end up here for ever…this dream has to be kept alive and active in order to be fulfilled.”
Nadim Kawach is among those people who calls Mieh Mieh home.
IN PICTURES: Inside a Palestinian refugee camp