Author : Annie Slemrod | Readings : 277 | Date : 2012-07-03
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon: Manal enjoys talking about her old home, especially the kitchen, where the sink was the length of one wall. She decorated it slowly over a number of years, putting all her extra money into new paint and windows. “I was proud of my home,” says the mother of four. In 2007, Manal was one year away from completing her masterpiece when the Lebanese Army and the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam fought a battle that laid waste to the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared where she lives. As for her precious fifth floor home, “in a moment it was gone.”
Now, Manal shares three rooms of aluminum covered temporary housing with her husband and children. They are lucky to have the third room in the shelter that residents call Baraksat, which they acquired after another family left.
There’s no word on when their house will be rebuilt. Along with many other families in the camp, they feel there is little refuge in between the thin walls, and even less on the streets the Army still patrols.
Manal is still a bit house-proud: There are potted plants outside one of her doors and a jasmine plant growing up the wall. But she gestures at her small sink with disdain, explaining that she doesn’t like to have friends over now because there is nowhere to keep her dishes out of sight.
The family’s rooms are connected by a hallway that is shared with other displaced refugees. It is this and the noise from the neighbors’ children that most galls Manal’s eldest daughter, 17-year-old Doaa.
She lounges with her sisters and friends on a mattress on the floor, her hair uncovered as the room is full of women. But if Doaa wants to go the bathroom or wants a glass of water, she has to put her headscarf back on. It annoys her. Further, as the teenager who has clearly inherited her mother’s chattiness explains, “I can’t wear sleeveless tops!”
“If I need to go to another room, I have to change ... I can’t go from one room to another without wearing all these things because there are men around, there are neighbors.”
These might seem small complaints given the abject poverty of the camp – which is a problem for the family, too – but the lack of personal space in these shelters is a real concern for refugees who have already lost their homes and feel they don’t control the camp.
Manal’s husband, Ahmad, works in construction, rebuilding what is known as the “old camp,” which was destroyed five years ago. He describes the emotions he goes through every day, when he comes back from work.
“Every time you pass the checkpoint you feel humiliated, like your dignity is being belittled,” Ahmad says. “It’s upsetting when you have someone supervising you every time you go in or leave the camp. People are watching you when you are going home.”
Like his daughter who longs to sit bare-armed with her friends in the heat of summer, Ahmad says it’s impossible to be completely comfortable in this state. “You feel like a stranger is watching you, watching your every move.”
Manal says some families even encourage their kids to find work and live outside Nahr al-Bared, just to avoid the pressure of checkpoints and patrols.
A sit-in in the camp is currently demanding an end to the permit system at the camp’s entrances and a speedup of reconstruction.
There are few women taking part in the sit-in that has among its demands an end to the permit system at the camp’s entrances and a speedup of reconstruction, but that doesn’t mean they don’t agree with its principles. Some bring food to the protesters, others participate in meetings.
Because what Manal considers a “siege” by the Army affects every part of life here, last year, Doaa attended school outside Nahr al-Bared at the nearby Beddawi camp.
The teenager remembers how if one student on the school bus forgot their ID, the bus risked being turned away at a checkpoint.
It would circle the camp, searching for another entrance with less meticulous soldiers. Or, she giggles, she and her friends “would hatch a plan” to pass IDs between them when the soldiers weren’t looking, hoping they wouldn’t notice differences in appearance.
Sometimes she’d be late returning, eager to get past the checkpoint to return home to her mom, who would be worried about her in the place they call home for now.