Within ten minutes, not taking into account Beirut’s chaotic traffic, one can travel from the Mediterranean equivalence of the Champs-Élysées to an area resembling some of the roughest slums in the world. The living situation faced by those in the Palestinian Camps throughout Lebanon is nightmarish. It is impossible, even in the densest of crowds, to neglect the areas that, even in the light of day, become eerily cold and dark.
Within these camps lives a destitute community that has been left to rot by the international community, the Lebanese government, and the Palestinian Authority. Although the challenges encountered by those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have generally been well documented, the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon has been lost in the rhetoric of cease-fires and disputed borders. According to UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency), who have been delegated to handle the Palestinian refugee situation since 1949, there are approximately 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, with an estimated half living in the camps.
The scenery resembles a prison camp with the dangerous electrical wires running from building to building above, and the dampness of the unkempt and garbage-strewn path below.
The scenery resembles a prison camp with the dangerous electrical wires running from building to building above, and the dampness of the unkempt and garbage-strewn path below. This community is living under dire restrictions by the Lebanese government, which forbids them from registering property and working in many professional fields, and thus makes it difficult for them to leave the aforementioned camps.
Upon being exposed to this environment and the horrifying conditions in which these individuals are being forced to live, an outsider’s immediate reaction is one of empathy. Particularly distressing is the fact that the environment consists of individuals who exhibit an overwhelming sense despondency and feelings of abandonment. Upon a closer look, however, and after taking time to consult with a range of the youth, one walks away commending a resiliency fit for heroes. While these individuals recognize that they are being set up to fail and are destined for a difficult life, they have something that cannot be restricted by an ethnocratic government: a sense of hope.
They have hopes to study medicine, despite not being allowed to open their own clinics; to study engineering even if most major companies will not hire them; to become teachers, although they realize they are destined to teach in a refugee camp in sub-par conditions.
It was Nelson Mandela who once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For the Palestinians, no statement resonates more. Despite the years of occupation and constant war with Israel, the Palestinians have consistently proven leaders of education and literacy throughout the Arab world.
Educating the refugees comes under the mandate of UNRWA, which, like many other hardships faced by the refugees, is problematic to say the least. The statistics in Lebanon are horrendous; as of 2011, there were 40,000 children out of school and only 13% of the teachers were properly trained. Although the students who do end up graduating high school show better results when compared to Lebanese students, the dropout rate is overwhelming. From the 3,000 students who register for grade one, 2,800 make it to grade five, whereas only 1, 500 to grade ten, and merely 1,000 make it to their senior year. Anywhere in the world, a dropout rate upwards of 60% is alarming.
There are many reasons behind these worrying numbers. The educational challenges faced by these refugees begin in grade one. The children in these camps are not generally exposed to any pre-school education– something that the Lebanese curriculum falsely assumes is being provided. Furthermore, in order for grade nine students to advance to grade ten, they must partake in a state exam, which is administered in the English language – a language these students are not taught until grade five. Finally, the few students who do make it this far do not have any preparation for tests like the SATs, nor do they receive guidance for how to apply to universities.
While UNRWA has its faults, it is not entirely to blame for these deficiencies; the United Nations is an incredibly bureaucratic political organization. Although the organizations are well funded, a lot of the funding is allocated to high-level officers and headquarters. In addition, they must be extremely careful about what they teach, due to the fact that a lot of the funding comes from the United States. When Palestine was voted in as a member, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization, for example, underwent a 22% funding cut. Many UN organizations are forced to walk on eggshells for fear of a similar treatment.
UYLP allows children to see past their respective backgrounds and recognize each other for who they are rather than what they are labeled as.
Education is a critical tool in shaping national identity and honing a people’s collective history; it is also especially important for refugees. Considering the fact that UNRWA schools teach the Lebanese curriculum, whose history ends at the time of the Lebanese civil war, the system completely disregards the massacres faced by the Palestinians in Lebanon. Due to pressures from the West, the curriculum also tends to exclude the history of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Although grim, the conditions have begun to take a turn for the better, thanks in large part to a number of NGOs. To start with, The Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation, founded in commemoration of the late Palestinian author and journalist, Ghassan Kanafani, has been actively setting up kindergartens throughout the refugee camps. In 2011 alone, their work directly benefitted approximately 1700 people throughout 6 Palestinian camps, 780 of them children between 3-6, who were provided with a pre-school education. Moreover, they have set up habilitation centres for children with mental and/or physical disabilities.
Another organization is ULYP (Unite Lebanon Youth Project), which aims to unite disadvantaged youth from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Spearheaded by volunteers and in such a hotbed of political division, this organization has had a radical influence in the area. UYLP allows children to see past their respective backgrounds and recognize each other for who they are rather than what they are labeled as.
What is particularly special about this organization is their bridge academy. The academy is made accessible to Palestinians within the UNRWA schools, starting from grade 10. It sets out to improve the students’ English, help them with decisions pertaining to college and prepare them for the SAT or TOEFL exams. Once the student is accepted to university, they ensure the student’s tuition, books, accommodations and living expenses are all covered. Since 2010, they have been able to provide 235 refugees with full undergraduate scholarships. Every single one of the students admitted had to work harder than most to get into university and once admitted had higher stakes riding on their success—a fact which may explain their average GPA of 3.5.
Today, he is completing his first year at AUB, and when asked how it feels to have been cheated of three years of his life, he softly replies, “It could be worse.”
Most importantly, thanks to these volunteers and donors, the psyche in the camps has dramatically changed. Not too long ago, Palestinians attending AUB (American University of Beirut) or LAU (Lebanese American University) was unheard of. Now, however, students have the choice to attend universities in Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Granted, some choose to remain in Beirut, but these young adults have finally been able to trade in their “refugee” tag for a student ID number and enter a world where all that matters is their final GPA.
In closing, I will share the story of one aspiring doctor, who was awarded a scholarship by MasterCard due to his high school performance. Unfortunately, he chose to attend university in Homs, Syria, and due to the recent political escalations, was forced to leave after his third year. Upon returning to Beirut, he decided to complete his studies at AUB; alas, at registration he was told that due to his scholarship, his credits were not transferrable. Today, he is completing his first year at AUB, and when asked how it feels to have been cheated of three years of his life, he softly replies, “It could be worse.”
AUB’s motto reads as follows: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Here’s to him, and to all youth facing adversity; may they indeed have life.
Raed Ayad is from Toronto, Canada. A PhD Candidate at London Academy of Diplomacy with an MA from International Business and Diplomacy. Much of the information provided was collected during recent field research done in Lebanon.