By Noha El Maraghi
Beirut, Lebanon – The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Palestinian refugee camp Bourj el Barajneh is the draping of electric wires overhead, a tangled canopy that fragments the view of the sky as you walk through the small alleys. The wires -- some thick, others thin -- are connected to small electric boxes located on the corners of alleys and are accessible to anyone who walks by. Some wires are intermingled with plastic water hoses, and they all snake through the camp, disappearing occasionally into rooms and windows.
People in the camp live in half-finished apartments - slabs of grey brick and cement. Refugees get electricity for a few hours during the day. An elderly woman yells at Ahmed Mostafa, a member of the Democratic Party, as he walks by: “We haven’t had electricity since last night, tell them to fix it.” Mostafa lives in the camps and is a member of the Democratic Party, one of the factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He says there have been many casualties from exposed wires and the mixing of electricity and water. “The biggest problem with electricity is the lack of electricity, and the danger of getting it to the houses, with elementary technology,” he says.
Mostafa says that the camp gets 4,000 Kilowatt-hours and 3,000 Kilowatt-hours more is needed. The refugees pay a very small amount per month, amounts like 90,000 Lebanese Lira, which is about 60 dollars.
Mostafa says the government provides this electricity instead of UNRWA, which is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the agency set up 60 years ago to care for refugees after the 1948 war which established Israel, and left millions of Palestinians homeless. According to UNRWA it “provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight.” This assistance does not include water or electricity. UNRWA is responsible for schools, some food and cleanliness, like trash collection. Refugees like Abu Hussein say that sometimes trash is left out, but cleaners come from UNRWA. He also says UNRWA is working on projects in the sewer system.
Abu Hussein leads us to a generator in an alley. Above the generator box is a picture of a boy who is approximately 15 years old. Abu Hussein points at the boy and says he died here from electricity. “People die from electricity all the time because it is mixed with water pipes and is exposed to everyone,” he said.
Abdallah Bouhabib, head of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon and former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, says the electricity problems are relative. “We don’t have it! Lebanese themselves don’t get electricity.”
Bouhabib says that Lebanese don’t feel responsible for Palestinian refugees because they didn’t create the problem by drawing Israel on the map; this view is not shared by all Lebanese. The Fares center’s official view is that UNRWA should be the “primary body” responsible for Palestinian refugee camps and should “initiate the development of a practical and serious rescue plan aimed at ending the ‘ghettoization’ of the camps.”
Approximately 22,000 people live in Bourj el Barajneh. Amina Hassan Banat is “over 60” and lives with her husband in the camp. They run a small kiosk with few household materials across from their home. The elderly couple has children working and being educated abroad, but like many others in the camp they still remain there with hopes of returning to their homes in Palestine. Amina says electricity is a horrible problem for refugees in the camp. “Three hours they give us electricity and 3 hours they take it, we cannot put anything in a fridge.” She says food is bought on a daily basis to be cooked that day, and anything leftover is thrown away because refrigerators are not feasible.
Most refugees in Bourj El Barajneh see the camp as a temporary stage of their lives and hope to return to their homes, despite having lived in the camp for decades. This is partly due to their segregation from the Lebanese and the limitations of rights they have in the country as refugees. Abu Hussien tells stories of when Palestinians were forced out of their homes in Palestine 60 years ago. “They were in pajamas with nothing, they were asked to go for a quick errand, but they never saw their homes again.” Despite this the attitude on the camp is that “God willing, we will return,” says Hussein.