Every day in Lebanon, I do things I’ve never done before and never thought I’d do. Today, I visited a refugee camp for Palestinian Christians in Dbayeh.
“Refugee camp” is something of a misnomer. After all, the camp in Dbayeh has been there for 63 years. A whole generation of residents was born in the camp; now as adults, they’re raising their own children there.
From what are they seeking refuge exactly?
Living in this camp is like living in Limbo. The Palestinians have no real rights. They are not citizens of Lebanon — nor of anywhere. They don’t have passports, and they’re generally not allowed to work. You can’t say they’ve been displaced from their homes exactly, because for many, this makeshift village is the only home they’ve ever known.
Walking through the camp was jarring, to say the least. The camp in Dbayeh is unarmed, which means its residents can come and go as they please. There are no guards or checkpoints. But where might the refugees go? They’re not allowed to own property, and rent in and around Beirut is prohibitively expensive for most people.
The only school in the camp has been closed for years, having been destroyed by civil war. The closest school to the camp is said to be “horrible,” and most anyone who finds a job is doing daily labor and/or working off the books illegally.
For other camp residents, who have been deprived of opportunity and education for decades, the idea of leaving and trying to socialize with the Lebanese is intimidating at best.
As I stood, looking down narrow streets at trash piles, broken-down cars and ramshackle “homes” — no one is allowed to build new, nor to make major repairs — I didn’t know what to make of what I was seeing. It was a world I could hear and see and smell and experience, yet it was entirely surreal. This just cannot be, can it?
It hit me on the bus ride back to the hotel: This refugee camp reminded me of Over-the-Rhine.
“OTR,” as the trendy folks call it, is the neighborhood in Cincinnati where St. Anthony Messenger Press is located. Most of it is poor and carries the baggage of years of high rates of violent crime. It’s been featured in the news media and in motion pictures by virtue of its utter lack thereof.
Even today, as urban hipsters work to gentrify this neighborhood, a drive past Washington Park tells a different story than do trendy shops and of-the-moment eateries. Instead, you see the homeless sleeping under garbage bags, across from the glorious Music Hall. Outside our own office, you see police make arrests and hear of fatal stabbings around the corner. You pass people on the street who seem to have lost the light in their eyes. This just cannot be, can it?
Like the Palestinians, the people of Over-the-Rhine are free to come and go. No one is stopping them. Except that everything is stopping them. Where would they go with no education? What could they do? How would they socialize at work with the same YP’s who can’t make eye contact with them when they pass on the sidewalk outside the overpriced hot dog place?
Come to think of it, perhaps today wasn’t my first trip to a “refugee camp.”