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Cultural Hubs Give Voice to Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

22 August 2017

In Lebanon’s dusty, overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps, conditions are dire. Two community groups are determined to drive change from the bottom-up and give hope to the young generation.

Ashraf el-Chouli (pictured right), founder of Jafra meeting place, with team in Borj Al-Barajneh camp in Beirut, Lebanon © EED

The heat is stifling. Power cables dangle perilously overhead the maze of alleyways. The air is heavy with the stench of uncollected rubbish and sewage. Originally built for 3,000 in 1949, the Borj Al-Barajneh refugee camp in southern Beirut is home to up to 44,000 people according to latest estimates. More refugees trickle in every day, this time casualties of the Syrian conflict.

Like the other 12 Palestinian camps, known as ‘informal settlements’, spread across Lebanon, Borj Al-Barajneh has grown into a permanent micro city plagued by cramped living conditions, unemployment, and poor infrastructure.

The city does not provide any municipal services to the camps, which are largely self-administered. Unsurprisingly, tensions sometimes boil over. Marginalised and lacking any real prospects, young refugees, in particular, make easy prey for extremist groups operating in the country.

In the midst of the labyrinth, an unassuming doorway leads to Jafra meeting place. It is a welcoming space, with walls adorned with colourful murals, poetic verses and images of Palestinian icons.

Founded in April 2015 by Palestinian musician Ashraf el-Chouli, Jafra is a hub of ideas and cultural and social initiatives. El-Chouli is himself from the Rashidiya camp in southern Lebanon. He says that conditions in Beirut are even worse than those he experienced growing up.

“The camps don’t offer any economic opportunities or minimum levels of liveability. We’re suffocating here. In the camp where I was brought up, there were many cafes. I wanted to replicate that with Jafra,” he says.

In such a hostile environment, the meeting place gives young refugees a place where they can step away from the difficulties of everyday life. The first of its kind in the camp, the venue is run by a team of 8 volunteers – six men and two women.

Anyone can drop by to play music, read in its small library, learn English or simply share a cup of coffee and a chat. There is also a makeshift recording studio where musicians can record tracks.

“We’ve hosted concerts and poetry events. It is also the first mixed gathering place for males and females, which is unusual in the conservative camp environment,” says El-Chouli.

As well as encouraging mixing within the camp, Jafra also exposes Palestinians to the world outside the camp.

“The Lebanese tend to avoid going to the camps. This reinforces negative stereotypes on both sides. We want to break barriers between the camp community and the local population, by actively encouraging visitors and inviting artists.”

More than a quarter-of-a-million Palestinians still live in the 12 UN-registered camps across Lebanon. Relations between the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees have always been uneasy, with their presence a recurrent source of tension and debate and a catalyst of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Although born on Lebanese soil, Palestinians do not enjoy citizenship, nor can they own property. There is a widespread fear among many Lebanese that if Palestinians are integrated, they will upset the delicate confessional balance that prevails in the country.

Refugees, even those with university degrees, are barred from most skilled professions and their refugee status effectively prevents them from leaving the country. Forever suspended in a state of waiting, the camps and their residents remain trapped in poverty, shackled to their past.

“Young people are exhausted by politics and have stopped believing in the leaders. We need to believe in ourselves, that we can make a change independently. Jafra is just a start.”

Funding from EED will allow Jafra to purchase technical equipment for the studio and develop a web-based radio station and monthly cultural magazine. The idea, explained El-Chouli, is to give young people a platform to showcase their musical and artistic talents. They will also receive training to develop their journalistic skills.

“There are many talents in the camp but opportunities to share and learn are few and far between.”

Originally, Jafra had wished to maintain its independence and not accept funding from donors. However, EED’s approach and flexibility marked it out as different.

“Usually donors come with money and their own ideas. EED is unusual in that it actually asked what needs we have,” says El-Chouli.

“We are sick of other people telling our stories. With these facilities, now we can do it ourselves.”

EED has already funded a similar initiative in the Baddawi Palestinian Camp in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. The Baddawi camp was set up in 1955 to harbour Palestinians who fled the 1948 war with Israel and later, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Like Borj Al-Barajneh, Baddawi was built originally as a temporary refuge. It is now a teeming, unplanned city-camp. Conditions have deteriorated while the population has multiplied. Generations have grown up with little more than a symbolic hope that they would return to a Palestinian homeland.

The camp hosts the Camps Cast Community Media initiative, borne out of the Arab Palestinian Cultural Club (APCC), previously funded by EED.

Run by Ammar Youzbachi, a long-time volunteer at APCC, Camps Cast, is “a collective of artists”. A singing group, media group, hip-hop artists, and 3D animators - all avail of the initiative’s workshop space and makeshift audio-visual studio.

Camps Cast has already broadcast several programmes, ranging from experimental short videos tackling social and political issues in the camp, to piloting oral vox pops and a highly popular inter-schools quiz show.

“Our goal is to produce community-focused ‘television shows made by refugees for refugees’. People here have never had an outlet where they can discuss everyday issues in the camp,” says Youzbachi.

A grant from EED is helping the group to professionalise. Dedicated staff, training opportunities and new equipment will help to improve the production quality. Professional television producers have come to the camp to teach them the ropes.

Ideally, Camps Cast will play a vital role too in mentoring JAFRA.

“We appreciate that EED’s support is not just material. It also offers opportunities for sharing ideas. Linking up with other camps helps us all ‘think bigger’ and learn from one another,” says Youzbachi.

“Ultimately we want to reach out to the whole community and give people a voice and a stake in their own future. This is only way we can bring about change.”

Photo compilation of project visits in Lebanon: EED Flickr page

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