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Monday in Lebanon - Who is my Neighbour?

Does anyone love the Palestinians?  Today we visited the Bourj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where 22,000 Palestinians are forced to live. It is one of twelve such official UN camps in Lebanon. When their homes and properties were taken from them in 1948 most went into exile outside of Palestine.  Those who went to Jordan and Syria were eventually given citizenship and able to rebuild their lives.  Those who stayed and survived continue to live behind the wall in today's Palestine. Those who fled to the north and into Lebanon were put into UN refugee camps where they remain to this day 62 years later.  At some point they traded their tents for concrete structures, but with narrow alleyways and water running down the streets like an open sewer it is easy to see why Dennis said it is like stepping back in time and into a medieval ghetto of 600 years ago. The conditions are ripe for a plague, but would anyone care if disease swept through the camp and destroyed all 22,000?  Just as long as it doesn't creep out beyond the borders of the camp.
 
Does anyone love the Palestinians? Most of the people have a roof over their head and a meal at the end of the day, but don't mistake it for a home, because home it isn't.  When you enter an apartment, if you can call it that, there is often a key over the inside of the door.  The keys of course are to the doors of the homes they left in Palestine - homes long ago leveled to make a place for another people.  Unlike a Medieval village, twelve feet overhead in Bourj el Barajneh, is an unbelievable scramble of wires going here there and everywhere, carrying electricity, telephone and internet to those who can afford it.
 
Television and the internet offer a fantasy world from which to escape the harsh realities of life in the Bourj el Barajneh camp. They also offer glimpses into the manner in which the other half lives, but there are plenty of those glimpses just outside the camp in the bustling streets of downtown Beirut where you can see cars as luxurious as anywhere in the world.  Beirut is called, 'The Paris of the Middle-East,' with its night life and Mediterranean beaches. These offer plenty of glimpses into the other side of life. But Palestinians need not apply for a life outside the refugee camp. Does anyone care for these people?
 
Hezballah - the party of God - controls the community that surrounds the camps. Both groups hate the neighbor to the south with an equal passion, but while Hezballah seems to keep guard over the camps they must seem like prison guards to some inside.  One group is Shia and the other Sunni and the animosity which often exists between these two groups is no secret.   So the Palestinians are guarded, but only guarded from getting access to citizenship, or education, or proper health care or any kind of life outside the camp. They are guarded from hope.  Let them watch their televisions and play games on the internet because no one seems to care for the Palestinians.
 
Do the Sunni Lebanese even care about the Palestinians?  When the PLO headquarters was in Lebanon they were blamed by many for upsetting the political balance in the country. The PLO headquarters are gone, but the people still get blamed.  Almost all of the Christian Palestinians were able to leave the camps and take citizenship in Lebanon to replace the dwindling population of Christians and help keep the tenuous balance.  The Palestinians in the camps represent a threat to that delicate balance, a balance embedded in the Constitution, but not a balance that has enabled the country to avoid civil war within, or attacks from their neighbours beyond.  Everything in this country is complex and not easily explained, and we have only been here one week, but one walk through the camp will impress upon you that something is deeply wrong and it will cause you to ask, Does anyone care for the Palestinians?  It is just not right.
 
However, just when you feel all hope is lost you begin to see cracks of light breaking through like a flower that grows in a split in the asphalt.  We saw such light in the midst and it gave cause for hope. 
 
Rob and Hariet care for the Palestinians.  I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they spoke to us about the camp prior to our visit. Rob and Hariet, a young Dutch couple, have been working with a charitable organization designed to help the Palestinians trapped in the camp. I met Rob as a person of faith who identifies himself simply as one on a journey with Jesus. He is not an evangelist or a pastor, but he loves the Palestinians and through his work he has developed an educational program in the camp to train young men to be electricians, plumbers and in the skill of repairing air conditioners and refrigeration units. We met one of the classes - the young men couldn't have been a day over twelve!  "They are so young," someone commented, but they are beyond the age of school provided in the camp and why bother going to school if you will never be given entrance to a university anywhere in the world?  A young student could be the brightest scientist in the world but he or she will never make it beyond grade eight, or the greatest basketball player in this basketball mad land and never see over the wall.  Does anyone care?  
 
Rob and Hariet do.  They also bring in eye surgeons to restore the sight of those with serious eye troubles. Hariet works among the youth of the camp.  One day she came upon two sisters seriously wounded a year and a half ago only months before their parents were killed.  With minimal medical assistance they were unable to get much attention. She discovered they were living in an apartment, not only without parents, but without an operational toilet. Rob took us to their small place and we watched graduates from his program installing a new bathroom. Harriet also gathers the elderly women in the community for common meals - the few left who can remember and tell the stories of Palestine.
 
People grow old quickly in the camp.  One of our guides was the teacher of the boys. He looked at least 65, but I learned he was 50 at the most. I am convinced you grow old faster when no one loves you. Does anyone love the Palestinians? Our friend Rupen Das does. Rupen was the Director of the Development program at Humber College before giving it up to move to this place to work with the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development.  Rupen has seen poverty in camps all around the world having also served as a National Director for World Vision in various hot spots around the world. Rupen and his wife Mamta are members of Yorkminster Park Church in Toronto where I serve, but he serves among the poor of Lebanon which brings him to places like Bourj el Barajneh. Rupen is the first to say there are situations of more intense poverty in other parts of the world, but few situations anywhere as hopeless as a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.  He pointed to a mural on a wall which the youth had drawn to illustrate their dreams - most of the images were violent ones. As long as no one cares Hamas - the Islamic Resistance Movement - will offer them a sliver of hope in exchange for taking up arms. As long as no one offers an olive branch a gun is very tempting for these youth who have so little to lose.  Does anyone care?
 
Julie cares.  She is a remarkable young woman who graduated from Queens and went on to do graduate work under Rupen at Humber. He describes her as the best grad student he ever had and he was delighted when she chose to come and do her work with him. She is not part of any faith community, but she has come to see faith in a far more meaningful way as she journeys alongside Rob, Hariet and Rupen, and also with the camp's Muslim cleric.  Julie came to the camp almost a year ago as a young feminist concerned for the plight of poor and oppressed women. Julie and her roommate - a doctoral student from the University of Montreal, both moved into the camp. She speaks minimal Arabic, but she cares and that is a language so few outsiders have spoken in this place in such a long time. She moves through the streets and alleyways as if it is her home. Last night there was gunfire which led to a larger fire.
 
A tangle of wires hang overhead and all around like spiderwebs.  As Julie and I chatted in an alleyway she told me of a young man who had been electrocuted trying to fix some wiring.  It apparently happens with some frequency, but who can blame them for trying to fix it in this land where the power is usually out six hours a day and that is outside the camp?   How much worse it must be inside the camp. The women of the camp look out for Julie. You can see it in the way they care. One night recently as she walked through an alley way a woman reached out through a doorway and pulled her to safety only seconds before gunshots were fired. Julie is aware of abuse of women in the camp and hopelessness is at the base. For if no one cares for the young men and their only dream is to take up arms to fight a battle that can't be won, someone else will be the victim of their frustration and anger - an anger induced by hopelessness.  Often the women of the camp are their victims.
 
Julie cares.  Though she makes no profession of faith, of which I am aware, by living in the camp Julie points to the One who took upon himself the brokenness of our humanity by living and dying among us. Death lives in the camp too. We saw it.  Rob walked us down an alleyway and under a newly constructed water tower that is empty because having drilled 500 meters down there is still no water to be found. But death was there in this dry and thirsty place.  Beyond the empty reservoir was the cemetery. It was the cleanest place in the camp.  Every white stone glistened in the sun like nothing else in camp. And on each grave was planted an olive tree - I had only seen one other tree in the whole camp, but here in the camp's cemetery stood one tiny tree after another.  Is death the only one to offer an olive branch to the Palestinians?
 
It was Rob who drew my attention to the natural comparison between ancient Israel in Babylon and today's Palestinians in Lebanon.  Isreal was exiled from the sacred land of Palestine and held captive in Babylon, but one day God opened the door for them to go home.  Is death the only way for the Palestinian refugee to return home to the olive orchards of ancient Palestine? As we left the cemetery I commented to Rob on my slight limp due to a twisted ankle and asked about his limp. It was then that he told me of the horrific car accident he had been in a year and a half ago while travelling in Jordan. He was thought to be dead when they took him to the hospital. He too must have dreamed of going home - if not to heaven at least to Holland with his wife and young family where he would have to learn to walk again.  But Rob came back to Bourj el Barajneh. I would have loved to have been there to have seen the look on the faces and to hear the things being said the day Rob walked back into Bourj el Barajneh, because when he did they knew not only that there is someone who truly loves them, but they would have sensed the presence of something so rarely if ever seen in that camp - hope. It was the hope of one who would rise up again in the name of the one who conquers even death.  If Rob can walk again alongside the Palestinians maybe there is a way home for them to the land of the olive grove.
 
God bless Rob, Hariet, Julie and Rupen and all who venture into that place with the gift of love. God bless the people of Bourj el Barajneh.
 
Peace 
Peter

2 Comments

Thank you Peter
Julie is my oldest daughter and her Mother and I are very proud of her and the work that she is doing there.
And yes God bless the people of Bourj el Barajneh

Thank you Peter for this expose. I was in Lebanon last year and witnessed what you have seen yourself; it was sad. I visited the same camps 55 years ago just before leaving Lebanon for Canada; I am sorry say not much has changed. We need more people like Rob, Hariet and Julie. God bless their ministry and God bless you Peter.

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Rev. Dr. Peter Holmes

Peter Holmes, BA, MDiv, DMin is the Minister of the Congregation at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church

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