LEAP volunteers discuss life in Palestinian refugee camps

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 12:08am

LSA student Jenna speaks to her experiences volunteering in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the difficulties Palestinians face in East Quad Tuesday.

LSA student Jenna speaks to her experiences volunteering in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the difficulties Palestinians face in East Quad Tuesday. Buy this photo
Darby Stipe/Daily

In light of the continuing Palestinian refugee crisis, leaders from various Arab culture organizations convened for a teach-in Tuesday night about the reality of life in Lebanese refugee camps. The information session was hosted by Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians, an educational enrichment program supporting Palestinian youth in Lebanon, along with the Lebanese Student Association, Arab Student Association and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.  

LSA sophomore Nada Eldawy, who is a copy editor and Michigan in Color editor for The Daily, and Jenna, a LEAP volunteer who asked to be identified by only her first name, led the presentation to a group of more than 30 students.

Since the adoption of United Nations Resolution 181, which partitioned the Palestinian territory into Jewish and Arab states in 1947, around 5 million refugees qualify for aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a UN program that assists Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most of these displaced people settle in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hostilities between Israel and Palestine forced about one third of Palestinian refugees to live in camps in neighboring areas such as Lebanon and Jordan.

According to the UNRWA, there are currently more than 450,000 refugees living in Lebanon. Jenna said the UNRWA was established to provide necessary aid to Palestinian refugees. Despite this, she said the program often discriminates against Palestinians and fails to offer sustainable solutions to issues like power shortages and lack of health care.

“The classes are over-packed, that’s one of the reasons that the UNRWA schools fail,” Jenna said. “A lot of the kids don’t want to go, a lot of them work in the middle of the day, and it’s one teacher with 50 students. They were recently criticized because the kids were not allowed to sing the national anthem, Fida’i, in the UNRWA schools. UNRWA is trying to silence the Palestinian identity of the Palestinians.”

Last summer, Jenna and about 20 others participated in LEAP’s Project Shine, a program that sends volunteers to teach English and other recreational activities at the Burj Shemali and Rashidieh refugee camps in Lebanon. The program emphasizes full English immersion in its teaching in order to prepare Palestinian refugees for their high school admissions test, which is administered solely in English.

Jenna said the lack of English education hurts Palestinian refugees’ chance of attending high school and eventually university. She noted many refugees do not attend secondary schools because of the lack of resources and opportunity.

“LEAP was initially founded in order to bridge the gap where there is not really a lot of English proficiency in Palestinian refugee camps,” Jenna said. “That is mainly because there is not a lot of English-focused education, and the funds for UNWRA do not provide a lot of English lessons.”

Jenna and Eldawy discussed a typical week in the life of a LEAP volunteer, which included English education, art classes, trips to Lebanese cultural sites and lesson planning. Jenna said while her students were passionate about their future careers, they knew Palestinian refugees are barred from working in about 20 professions and struggle to find jobs even if they hold advanced degrees.

“Some days, the (students) come in and they’re having a bad day and their motivation is very low, because all they’re thinking is ‘Ok, say I do this, and then I take the entrance exams and I get a donor to pay for my college, I do all of that and I don’t even end up getting a job,’” Jenna said.

Eldawy said the decaying infrastructure in many Lebanese camps is discouraging for many refugees and makes it difficult for them to continue their education.

“Over half of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon live inside of the 12 camps,” Eldawy said. “This leads to a lot of issues like overcrowding, poor housing, sewage water issues and electric issues. We were living outside of the camps, directly outside of Burj Shemali, and we experienced power shortages hourly almost. That was not even inside of the camps.”

Jenna said she hoped students understood that even though many Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps were born in Lebanon and have never seen their homeland, they are proud of their Palestinian identities.

“There is a saying: ‘The old will die and the young will forget,’” Jenna said. “When it comes to Palestinian refugees, that has never been more untrue. A lot of the older people there hold on very strongly to their memories and very strongly to their roots and that translates. You see how they passed it down to their kids and their grandkids, because their grandkids were the same people in our classrooms drawing and talking about their homeland because they know and they fully believe they’re going to reclaim their homeland one day.”

LSA senior Ahmed Alabed said the mistreatment of Palestinian refugees was shocking, especially because both Palestinians and Lebanese identify as Arabs.  

“To see inside of Lebanon is so different than inside of the West Bank,” Alabed said. “It was really surprising to me to see how Palestinians were treated inside of Lebanon. I thought that, ‘Oh, Arabs would be there for each other,’ but I feel like it’s just as bad as in the West Bank.”

LSA sophomore Maya Chamra said hearing about the Palestinian refugee crisis from volunteers who experienced life in the camps first-hand was more powerful than learning about it from the news or in class.

“The hopelessness that the Palestinians experience because they face so many barriers to get out of the camps,” Chamra said. “I think that’s really important. You hear about the struggles that they may face, you might read about it in the news, but when you hear personal experiences, you hear it directly and it hits a lot closer and you realize the gravity of the situation.”