By Christopher Robbins
I took another trip into the camp of Bourj al-Barajneh this morning with our guide and guru Adel Nayfeh, whose cousins live there among the tenements and squalor. Joining me was Noha El Maraghi, a fellow journalism student who wanted to ask about electricity and services to the camps. I was there to ask about Palestinian workers’ rights.
Adel’s cousins invited us into their home and served us Arabic coffee and breakfast called mantoushe, Lebanese flatbread covered with cheese or thyme. Their hospitality amid the tough conditions of the camp was more than friendly and helpful, it was incredibly kind – I had not eaten breakfast yet or had any coffee so I gratefully obliged myself to their offerings.
While there we met Ahmed Mustafa, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine responsible for assisting in the management of the camps. Mustafa acts as a go-to guy, when services in the camp are lacking or residents have a grievance he is someone who they go to.
The essential problem with the camp, said Mr. Mustafa, is that it was built to hold 400 to 500 people, but an estimated 22,000 currently live within its walls.
The Palestinains have no right to own propey and are limited to the kind of work they can get outside the camp. Some jobs are available to Palestinians – farm labor and construction were given as examples – but these were hard jobs that break men educated to be lawyers, doctors and professors. Within the camp there are opportunities for work, but educated professionals often settled for jobs as grocers or shopkeeps.
The electricity problem within the camps are tied to it’s overcrowding. Currently Bourj al-Barajneh depends on 4 power stations for its electricity, but it needs at least 7 to make do. As a result power outages are constant throughout the day. One resident told us that they could not keep perishable food on a day-to-day basis, whatever they ate had to be bought close to meal times to make sure it did not spoil.
In the summer it is more difficult as residents need more electricity to try to cool their homes and keep their food. Often one of the power stations is damaged by overuse and the suffering of the camp’s residents is exacerbated.
The infrastructure within the camp is built in a haphazard and dangerous manner. Water lines run next to electrical lines just barely overhead. An exposed wire could mean death for passersby. Our guide showed us a poster of a Palestinian child killed by such a short, electrocuted in his early teens by a simple lack of planning and resources.
Until two decades ago the sewers in the camp ran in trenches along narrow alleyways sometimes no more than 1 meter wide. Though UN aid helped to bury the sewers, they run very close to the surface and in some places flood the walkways when it rains. Even during the dry season they are close enough to smell.
Currently, planning is going on to improve the infrastructure within the camps. I ask what was the impact of US aid to UNRWA, the United Nations agency in charge of overseeing assistance to the camps. Mr. Mustafa says that US aid totals only $4 million – and there are 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon. That comes out to $10 per person, hardly enough to undertake the massive infrastructure project needed to make their homes safe and livable. Nevertheless, Mr. Mustafa says he hopes such projects are completed or under way in 18 months.
At midday trash piles up outside of the houses, where a UNRWA employee is supposed to come by and collect it. It has sat there all morning waiting for collection, and the residents shrug when asked whether they expect collection to come.
Hope hangs by a thread here, even in the most menial of issues.