wake up to grey skies and a cold, rainy day on my second day in Lebanon. Sheikh Ghaleb Chehade, the director of the American-based Zakat Foundation in Lebanon, and his wife are taking me to Sidon, where the largest Palestinian refugee camp, `Ein Al-`Ein Al-Helwahh, is based. The drive from Beirut to Sidon is flanked by the ocean on one's right. At one point, the ocean meets the river,and the blue against brown is a mesmerizing sight. The only sign of destruction I see along the way is an overhead bridge which was bombed. It now simply hangs.
Sidon is a charming little town, dominated by an old Roman citadel. The fishermen's wharf is bustling and seaside restaurants are well-patronized. Just two roads up from this evocative scene, we reach a far more emotion-provoking habitat. Well-guarded checkpoints line the entrance. The road inside is covered with large potholes and ditches. Rubbish bins overflow with rotting garbage. Children run about, absorbed in their childhood games.
The tiny room-like houses have corrugated iron roofs. Corrugated iron forms walls between homes. We park the car on a main street. Sheikh Ghaleb says it's better for me to place my laptop in the car trunk, and not leave it on the backseat of the car. We first visit the home of Sajida, a woman who has lived here for 59 years.
We then make our way, passing through narrow alleys, to the home of Shaadi, a 26-year-old man. As we pass other homes in the alley, rain drips noticeably from broken roofs into homes. Shaadi's sister, Fatima, greets us at the entrance of their home, which has a flimsy door over which a curtain hangs. We step into a dark, cement-floored hall which is the kitchen. Four doors lead off from here to two bedrooms, one bathroom, and the lounge. Sheikh Ghaleb enters a room and we follow. Shaadi's mother is sick and is in bed. The rickety bed is the only piece of furniture in the room.
Fatima takes us into the lounge, which is proudly shown. A simple lounge suite displays itself. Pictures are pasted on the walls, and a cabinet holds mementoes. When Shaadi walks into this simply furnished sitting room, there is a palpable change of atmosphere. Shaadi exudes dignity — a dignity of pure honor. Fatima's demeanor changes too. She loosens her stiff expression, Shaadi's natural, warm smile being contagious. With his large frame, he could easily be threatening, but his physique makes one feel protected. He relaxes into a comfortable position, talking candidly about his life.
"I was born here. This is my home, my life", he remarks. `Ein Al-Helwah came into being over fifty years ago, in 1947, when an agreement was made between the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government. It now houses over 100,000 people within the small space of 40,000 m.
The only life Shaadi has ever known has been fraught with tension and pain. Poverty is not an idealistic issue he'd like to combat. He lives in poverty and with a real sense of misplaced identity. Born in Lebanon, he is a Palestinian. Yet he is neither a Lebanese nor a Palestinian citizen. `Ein Al-Helwah is considered a temporary home by the authorities. But it is a permanent home for Shaadi. "The Palestinian Authority, at the time of the camp's conception, together with the Lebanese government, agreed that the Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to live in good homes and have good jobs, or they wouldn't return to Palestine," he explains. In his twenty six years, Shaadi has received a sub-standard education in the UN camp school, he has not been allowed to get a university education, he can work only in a job demanding not much skills, and he has to pass through a checkpoint each time he leaves or enters the camp. In this land in which he was born without choice, he lives an ugly, surreal existence. "Qadr Allah" [God's fate] is the simple, but potent response to how he feels about his life here.
The conversations Shaadi has with his friends are typical of any group of young male talks: politics, cars, life, work, and sports — with a distinct exception. Girls rarely feature in their discussions. At 26, Shaadi is neither married nor engaged. The same goes for many of his friends. In a society where most are married by 25, Shaadi and his friends are considered anomalies. "My parents are pressuring me to get married," he comments. "But I don't want to because I cannot give my wife the life I want her to have." The meager $150 salary he earns as a mechanic's apprentice goes to supporting his family. They are a family of five, and receive only $250 a month from the government. As for his friends who are married, the pressures they face are too much for Shaadi to risk in terms of the lifelong commitment. "I see what they experience. They are weakened by the humiliations life throws at them, and in trying to rise above these trials, in trying to be strong before their wives, their manhood is slowly eroded," he says frankly.
Shaadi has many hopes which are universal, of which the most important is to live a comfortable life in peace and freedom. But for now, he has an overwhelming dream. He dreams of living in Europe, either Germany or Belgium. He is not bitter about the life he leads here, but he yearns for a better existence. "I know that in Europe I can live a life of freedom and dignity," he enthuses. He's certain of this, and has no qualms about being an Arab in Europe, because he has a brother in Germany and a friend in Belgium. "They were fortunate to leave this behind, and are now living like human beings," he says. Shaadi wants to join his friend in Belgium, which he believes to be better than Germany. "I will not be abandoning my family. Instead, my leaving will help them as I will be able to send more money to support them."
Shaadi's eyes shine with spirit as he talks about Europe. As he talks, he has escaped to the world he dreams of. Shaadi talks of a life with dignity and freedom. What is clear to me, though, is that no matter where he may live, he will always have dignity.
If you would like to help Shaadi achieve his dream of going to Europe, or will be able to provide him with a job, please contact the writer.