A Walk Through Shatila Camp

Since arriving in Iraq, I have struggled with new feelings. Longing for the winding, dusty roads of Palestine, I have largely been in mourning for a place I didn’t know I had become so connected to. I feel the rumble of the Israeli jets in my veins, the panic of gunshots still lives under my skin and my stomach still feels the stress of sound bombs. I’m not sure how to match these feelings with my new environment.


New friends here have become my lifeboats in a sea of monotony - lesson plans, discipline sheets and marking. Hailing mostly from Lebanon, my friends have become my connection to the Middle East I have fallen in love with - kisses on the cheek to greet someone, endless cups of coffee, cigarettes, laughter and kindness. My friends embody the spirit of those I encountered in Palestine: persistent in kindness, consistent concern for others and muted conversations of politics, memories of war and stories of hope.


One of these friends, Mohammad, is a Palestinian refugee who, before moving to Erbil, had been living in Beirut with his family. Upon meeting, we shared an instant connection with Palestine as our catalyst. Smoking shisha one evening at a open-roofed beer garden in the Christian district of Erbil, he sheepishly asked me to tell him stories of Palestine - a land he calls home but has never seen himself.

As time moved on, we shared more conversations about Palestine and details of how each of our lives brought us to Erbil. Planning my vacation to Beirut, Mohammad asked if I would like to visit one of the many refugee camps within the city for Palestinians. I’m not sure if he sensed my almost panicked desire for connection to a land I had been longing for or if he wanted me to see a glimpse one of the central issues of Israel’s continued destruction of Palestine - the refugee crisis, but either way, I humbly jumped at the opportunity.


Mohammad picked me up from my friend's house in the mountains of Beirut, in a town called Shuwayfat. Getting into his car, I tried to hide my nerves and make basic small-talk. As the conversation shifts towards the camp and his experiences as a Palestinian in Lebanon, I swear I can feel the familiar breeze from Mount Gerizim wash over my body in his car. The rain pours down on the car, with black clouds overhead. I couldn’t explain this to Mohammad at the time but, the weather was the perfect companion for the lump growing in my throat.


As we drive through Dahieh, Beirut’s so called ‘Hezbollah stronghold’, Mohammad explains the grossly unjust laws and policies facing Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. My cheeks burn red from my own ignorance as he explains Palestinians living in Lebanon cannot apply for citizenship, own property or even hold certain jobs. The lump in my throat grows.


We stop to pick up Mohammad's cousin Kassem, a writer and reporter living in Beirut - the man who has organized this day for me. Jumping into the car with us, he initially seems leery of me. Mohammad explains my passion for Palestine to him, choosing his words carefully and methodically. With guilt pulsing through my veins in recognition of my undeserved privilege of calling the land he calls home once my own, I tell him that I previously lived in the West Bank, in Nablus. He smiles in acknowledgement of my experience with tired eyes, glancing up at the rear-view mirror to make eye contact with Mohammad. I wonder then then how many foreigners he has met who have told him the same.

Quietly looking out my window, I see men pushing carts of fruit, vegetables, cigarettes and other sellable items in the rain. I watch women shelter their heads from the rain with newspapers and children jumping in the puddles covering the quickly narrowing streets. I see colourful paintings of Arafat and my soul smiles with a guilt I’m not sure what to do with. After winding the narrow flooded roads, Mohammad pulls over and announces our arrival in Shatila Camp.


Shatila Camp, currently home to over 22,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees, was originally constructed to house families forced to flee Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. Many of the families and children living in Shatila now are third and fourth generation Palestinians - many of whom who have never seen the country they call home. Their grandparents and parents have lived through the Lebanese civil war and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 where in just two days, Lebanese Christian soldiers murdered over 3,000 residents of the camps under the guise and protection of the Israeli army.

Walking through the camp in the rain, our umbrella proves futile. My hair is soaked and the water seeps into my boots, making a home like it belongs there. I watch shoes placed in front of doorsteps begin to float in the muddy water that flows through the maze of narrow streets. Infrastructure in the camp is catastrophic. Prohibited from building underground pipe systems, tangles of high voltage cables and black tubing used for water hang above every street. With the recent influx of Syrian refugees, residents are forced to build their homes on top of existing buildings. Not surprisingly, from time to time, entire buildings collapse under strain.

Arriving at the camp’s administration building, I find myself surrounded by men, who seem to have aged more from exhaustion than time, engaged in what seems to be a very serious and stern conversation. Translating for me, Mohammad and Kassem explain that they are speaking of their homes in Palestine that now, they speculate, either sit empty or house Israeli families. They laugh with a sadness in their eyes I remember from the worn men in Jerash Camp (Gaza Camp) in Amman, Jordan - “We even had a summer home by the beach,” laughs one of the men.

They begin a conversation about the state of the camps, explaining to me in broken English, with the help of Mohammad and Kassem, that they aren’t even permitted to have windows without iron bars covering the glass. For a moment, the men speak softly, forgetting to translate for me, and then break out into loud laughter with each other. Mohammad leans close to me and whispers the joke the men shared to me, “They might as well gas the whole camp, it would be better than living here every day for the rest of our lives.” Shaken but not surprised by their dark humour, I do my best to fake a smile. The lump in my throat grows more.

Sipping cups of tea, watching these men speak, I am transported to the Tamimi household in Nabi Saleh,a small village in the West Bank I frequented during my time in Palestine. I rub my eyes and try to focus on the men in front of me but each time I open them, I see only Bilal Tamimi and Bassem, discussing Friday’s protest and the latest violent attack from the settlers of Halamish settlement.

Dizzy and disoriented I stand to say goodbye to these men. My cheeks burn red again as I place my hand over my heart, trying in vain to express my gratitude for their kindness in speaking with me, answering my naive questions and sharing their stories of home with me.

Walking through the camp, I recognize a familiar tremble in my hands as they grip my camera. Distinctly aware of the magnitude of what I am seeing and witnessing, my eyes meet with Kassem's. His stern eyes flash me a quick smile. Without speaking, he acknowledges the clumsiness guiding my steps. I become distinctly aware of my debt to him for organizing my day within the camp. The words he so casually said in the car earlier ring in my ears: You must tell your friends and family about what you see.

Exiting the camp, we pass the memorial for the men, women and children killed during 1982 massacre, posters for the PLO and martyrs cover the walls. My heart becoming unbearably heavy with every step, Mohammad encourages me to take photos of everything - the graffiti on the walls, the mess of wires overhead. I don’t have the courage to tell him that photos could never match the heaviness and mourning expanding inside my chest. Instead, I smile and take as many pictures as my shutter speed will allow.

Driving back to Shuwayfat, Kassem asks me to choose one word to summarize my experience in the camp. Reflecting quickly with embarrassed clumsiness, I chose the word ‘overwhelmed’. Turning backwards in my seat to look at him, I ask the same of him, for one word to describe the camp. Responding with devastating clarity, he looks at me and says, “Life”.