In Burj al-Barajneh’s refugee camp, Palestinians live on Gaza time

Helpless witnesses to the ongoing massacres in Gaza, Palestinian refugees in Burj al-Barajneh’s refugee camp in Beirut are trying to alleviate their sorrow and bolster "the resistance” through different personal initiatives. 

In Burj al-Barajneh’s refugee camp, Palestinians live on Gaza time

Main street of Burj al-Barajneh camp, Oct. 11, 2023. (Credit João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

On the second floor of Fleur Bleue nursery school, much like everywhere else in Burj al-Barajneh’s Palestinian refugee camp — the most densely populated in Beirut with over 20,000 inhabitants — everyone is lamenting the plight of Gazans.

Israel’s war on the coastal enclave has already killed 13,300 people, according to local authorities.

But how are these Palestinian refugees, whose history of forcible expulsion and suffering go long back before Oct. 7, coping and reacting to the violence unfolding in Gaza?

In the nursery school, two kindergarten teachers, Roula and Rawan, looked after some 30 exuberant children, aged three to six, in their little blue uniforms.

They cheerfully repeated chants after their teachers: “Palestine is Arab,” “Palestine is ours,” and “Zionists go away.” Later, they haltingly recited a poem, “Mawtini” (My Homeland) by Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan.

Rawan then asked them about the situation in Gaza.

A girl with big brown eyes stood and said, "They're killing the children!" When prompted for more, she added, "They break toys..." The serious look on her face expressed more than her words.

In the teachers' lounge, Um Bissan, the headmistress, explained that the children are affected by the ongoing war.

“They are not impermeable to the daily news, on television or on phones. They listen to their parents talking every day,” Um Bissan said. “They are terrified.”

“We are trying to rid them from the negative energy through singing, shouting and dancing,” she added.

‘Come to the border’

Um Bissan said that when teachers impart the concept of resistance to children, it is done "with the tears of our hearts." However, despite the sorrow, there is an unwavering commitment to not lose sight of what is essential.

"In the midst of the horrors, childhood becomes a luxury that is out of reach for many children,” said Um Bissan, or the mother of Bissan, who named her daughter after her hometown in Palestine.

“Conversely, the ongoing massacre unfolding before us is expediting the education of our children about the significance of the Palestinian cause.”

For Um Bissan and her colleagues, the idea of a return to Palestine, a persistent glimmer of hope in a dull daily existence, was suddenly revived with Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7.

“I packed my bags on the first day,” said Aida, a teacher. “My sister, who lives in Ramallah, told me: ‘Come to the border.’”

“If Arab countries had opened the borders at that time, the situation would have been resolved,” Um Bissan, age 50, said. “But they all let us down and abandoned us, from Sissi to the King of Jordan.”

For her, western countries fare no better. “They say they defend human rights, but support the genocide in Gaza,” she said.

“The only country that is taking action is Lebanon,” Um Bissan added. “Despite being poor,” she said, saluting Hezbollah’s military operations on the border.

Her colleague Roula concurred. “My husband just came back from Mays al-Jabal, in the south,” she said. “I know full well that many Lebanese are also living in the shadow of war.”

Chest pain

Burj al-Barjneh Palestinians know that the ongoing conflict is reopening the unhealed wound in the area that surrounds them, a Hezbollah stronghold.

"We lived through the 2006 war here, as well as the August 2020 explosion,” said Mohammad Dib, a surgeon from the Haifa hospital, under the supervision of the Palestinian Red Crescent. “We received wounded of all nationalities.”

"But there's no comparison with Gaza," he added.

"The conditions under which doctors work in this open-air prison are impossible to describe in words,” Dib said, adding that he pursued his studies in Russia with five doctors from Gaza with whom he has lost contact.

"It's driving me crazy," said Lyana Khatib, an emergency doctor at Haifa Hospital.

Stethoscope around her neck, her complexion as pale as her white coat, she spends what little free time she has trying to reach her friends in Gaza.

"I met them in Cuba, where I studied,” Khatib says. “Since the bombardments have intensified, most of them hardly answer anymore, and when they do, their messages say a lot about their condition: 'If I die, tell them that Tamer loved life,’ one of them wrote to me to me recently."

However, doctors in Burj al-Brajneh witnessed the war in Gaza also leave its mark on residents of the area.

“Just last week, a man in his fifties entered the emergency room,” Khatib recounted. “When I asked what was wrong, he broke into tears, saying that he had been closely watching the situation in Gaza and could not take it.”

“The stress has caused a sharp pain in the chest,” she added.

Last week, when the Israeli army initiated a raid on al-Shifa hospital complex, where thousands of Gazans had sought refuge, a call to demonstrate resonated late into the evening from the al-Fourqan mosque at the entrance to the camp.

"I'm four months pregnant and not supposed to walk,” Khatib said. “I know it won’t change anything there, but I couldn’t help it, so I joined the protest for three hours.”

It's her way of combating what she despises most, "a sense of powerlessness, especially when I witness premature babies teetering between life and death due to a lack of incubators."

In his hardware store, in which sits a replica of Al-Aqsa Mosque and a Palestinian flag, Abu Mohammed reflected on his past marred by a 70-year-old conflict.

He spoke of his parents’ forced displacement from Haifa in 1948, and his time with the fedayeen (guerrilla fighters) at the age of 11 with the Fatah Movement, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.

He recalled when he moved to Burj al-Barajneh, where he became father of two children, who are struggling to find work because of the many work restrictions Palestinians living in Lebanon face.

For Abu Mohammad, who is a member of the Fatah-Intifada (a faction that split from the Fatah Movement in 1983 and is close to the Syrian regime), Oct. 7 marked above all “a turning point in the Palestinian cause.”

With this attack, “Hamas fulfilled two objectives: It reminded people that the Palestinian issue remains fundamental, and it is only fought with arms,” he said. “Hamas also freed prisoners from Israeli jails.”

Abu Muhammad is convinced that “they [the resistance] have the upper hand now that they took hostages.”

“Burj al-Barajneh is our small nation, and Palestine is our big one,” Abu Mohammad said. “The camp’s youth are ready to join the fight at the slightest signal.”

Abu Mohammad spoke about other forms of resistance. “Yesterday, a young woman even started painting a portrait of Abu Obeida [Hamas spokesperson], on the wall in the opposite street.”

“This, too, is an act of resistance,” he said.

‘We laughed one day and we've been crying ever since’

The young painter is Nihaye Ibrahim, 24.

Armed with a palette of colors, a paintbrush, pots of paint and a small wooden stool, Ibrahim was adding the finishing touches to Abu Obeida’s keffiyeh.

She was on her second day of work on the mural, which will also feature the portrait of Abu Hamza, the spokesperson of al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad.

"I need to do something, anything,” Ibrahim said. “I express myself through drawing.”

Her other frescoes depict Palestinian women in embroidered garments, or the map of historic Palestine painted in Arabic calligraphy.

“Before Oct. 7, I wasn't interested in politics,” Ibrahim said. “But Abu Obeida and Abu Hamza have done something very important: Now the Palestinian cause is back to the forefront across the entire world.”

But what does she think of Hamas’s violence during their attack on Oct. 7?

Ibrahim said the international community has been silent on Israel’s decades-long killing of Palestinians.

"We're not terrorists and we don't like violence, but an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," she said.

But the vengeance was short-lived.

"We laughed one day and we've been crying for 41 days," said Nour, 24, who works in the Soufra restaurant on an adjacent street.

"On the first day of the attack, we danced the dabke and distributed baklava in the street,” she said. “But after that we haven't had the heart for anything.”

“In the restaurant, wedding parties have given way to solidarity evenings where we teach camp residents to use social networks to learn about Palestine and to boycott products supporting the occupation,” Nour added.

The camp inhabitants, however, fear that the war could spill over into Lebanon.

"We fear that the Palestinian camps will be among the first targets,” Nour said, adding that "many people have already packed their bags in case a war breaks out.”

This article was also published in French.

On the second floor of Fleur Bleue nursery school, much like everywhere else in Burj al-Barajneh’s Palestinian refugee camp — the most densely populated in Beirut with over 20,000 inhabitants — everyone is lamenting the plight of Gazans.Israel’s war on the coastal enclave has already killed 13,300 people, according to local authorities.But how are these Palestinian refugees, whose history...