Start with the obvious: not all refugee camps are the same. The experiences of some 60 million people — “one in every 122 humans,” according to the United Nations 1 — cannot be generalized. They live in tarp shelters, tents, shipping containers, or concrete buildings; in formal settlements administered by the UN, or in makeshift camps on the urban fringe. They are refugees, asylum seekers, stateless, internally displaced. Around the world, their numbers are increasing.
These are dense spaces of concrete and asphalt, urban materializations of an ongoing state of emergency.
In Lebanon, the crisis (or, rather, series of crises) has been going on since 1948. More than 1 million Syrians and 450,000 Palestinians — an astonishing one quarter of the population — live in twelve official refugee camps and hundreds of informal settlements. 2 The oldest camps, once considered temporary, are home to third- and fourth-generation refugees. These are not tent camps but dense spaces of concrete and asphalt, urban materializations of an ongoing state of emergency. 3
What goes on inside a refugee camp? How is it organized spatially and materially? 4 In these brief sketches, I invite readers to navigate the Palestinian camp of Bourj Al Shamali, 5 situatedhigh on a hill in southern Lebanon, overlooking the Mediterranean city of Tyre. Built as a temporary refuge in 1948, it is now an overcrowded, unplanned, permanent ‘city-camp’ housing 23,000 registered refugees in 135,000 square meters. 6 It would be easy to drive right past it, mistaking it for a poor district of the adjacent village that shares its name. Seven decades after the camp was founded, what distinguishes the supposedly temporary from the supposedly permanent is anything but clear. 7
The Entrance Checkpoint
Your first stop is a Lebanese Army checkpoint on the main entrance road. Foreigners need a permit to enter the camp. It’s not hard to obtain, but it takes a few days, and it helps to know someone who can shepherd your request through the mukhabarat, the army intelligence service. The permit system deters curious strangers and helps authorities monitor the population. It also makes the camp feel like an open-air prison. Strict access controls and constant surveillance discourage visits from friends and family members and remind refugees that their life is not entirely their own.
Leaving the camp is easier, at least in tranquil times. You won’t trigger any controls, other than a wave from the soldier on duty. But the checkpoint is fickle: it can be strict or lax, depending on current events and the mood of the guards.
Fifty meters down the road is a second checkpoint, run by Fatah. 8 Here a Palestinian soldier stands at attention, hand on his gun, while middle-aged men sit in white plastic chairs, drinking coffee and discussing politics. They don’t check papers. At most, you’ll get a hard stare. Bourj Al Shamali is one of the quietest Palestinian camps in Lebanon, and these are relatively quiet times.
Crossing the Border
If you don’t have a permit, you can still get in. There are five unofficial entrances: former village streets barricaded with cement blocks that allow pedestrians to pass, but not cars. The camp is irregularly shaped, following the property lines of land rented by the Lebanese government for 99 years. Within these borders, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has provided services since 1955.
When you cross that border, you are in a zone of urban informality. 9 The unplanned streets and haphazard buildings announce that this is a place of legal exception, outside regulation, where a state of emergency is the norm. 10 On every corner you see reminders of the Arab-Israeli conflict: political graffiti, posters of “martyrs” lost in battle, paintings of the Dome of the Rock and of keys that symbolize the properties left behind in historic Palestine.
There is no wall surrounding the refugee camp; in some cases, construction goes right up to the street barricades. On the southern and eastern borders, lush orange trees and banana plantations lie beyond a barbed wire fence.
Don’t Look for a Map
On public maps of Lebanon — paper or online — refugee camps are often shown as gray blobs, with no detailed view of the street plan. Useful maps of Bourj Al Shamali exist, but they are held tightly by international organizations who regard the circulation of such knowledge as a security risk. That partly explains the unplanned growth. To live without a map is to exist without a future, in a space forever uncharted. Maps of historic Palestine, on the other hand, are everywhere: on flags and banners, walls, keychains, t-shirts. 11
To live without a map is to exist without a future, in a space forever uncharted.
There are no signed streets or alleys, either. Here the hill helps you get your bearings, but it’s easy to get lost in the jumble of alleys (especially compared to the nearby camps Rashadiyeh and Al Bass, which were built in the 1930s for Armenian refugees and planned by the French on a street grid). The camp is divided informally into neighborhoods named after agricultural villages in the Safad and Tiberias regions of Palestine. When the first refugees arrived, they moved in groups and settled with others from their home villages. 12Even today, people in Bourj Al Shamali give directions that incorporate landmarks from those old villages. This way of navigating depends on a collective memory of place that is shared even by younger generations who have never visited the referents for the local toponyms.
That shared memory is maintained by groups like Al Houlah Association, which runs the main library in camp. Named after a lake in Palestine that bordered many of the old villages (now the Hula Valley Natural Reserve in Israel), the association aims to reconnect the community with its heritage and to reinforce a sense of civil society. Recently, signs have been installed on houses in camp that report details about the inhabitants’ villages of origin.
Just past the entrance is the camp’s main crossroads, which functions as a public square. Here you’ll find men waiting for work, or just waiting for something to happen, while around them cars and people pass in every direction. This is also the open-air depot where food is deposited. Boxes of produce and eggs pile up amid the watchful men. The cafes and streets hum with activity at all hours.
Unemployment is very high in camp — around 60 percent — in part because Lebanon prohibits Palestinian refugees from working in major professions, from medicine to engineering to architecture. The main opportunities are seasonal day labor in agricultural fields around Tyre, or illegal work outside the camp. Many families rely on funds from relatives abroad, and young people dream of emigrating. The hottest gossip is about migration routes and costs, and which mafia groups to trust along the way. Everyone shares stories of those who have made it to Europe.
Like many refugee camps, Bourj Al Shamali is located close to a transportation hub and to an international border. This vision of mobility just out of reach contrasts with the enforced immobility of the camp residents. Still, they have informal public transit systems tailored to their own needs. Rundown Mercedes operate as shared taxis, providing transportation on fixed routes for a small fee. Larger collective vans, laden with plastic pails, transport fruit pickers to orchards and fields near Tyre. Men and women of all ages are picked up at 5 a.m. and return at midday. On average, they earn ten dollars a day, or at least they did before the recent arrival of Syrian refugees drove down wages. Bourj Al Shamali is the poorest refugee camp in Lebanon, and about two thirds of the population works in agriculture. Elders who lack family support or a pension work in the fields as long as they are physically able.
Continue reading here. (Original posted on Places)