In early 2018, a researcher at the Palestinian Return Centre in London, Pietro Stefanini, attends a conference where he sees a video by a young Palestinian man. In it, Ahmed Shehadeh speaks passionately about the 70-year ordeal he feels his family has faced living stateless in Lebanon.
“I challenge anyone to stay in a refugee camp,” he says, “not for 70 years, because we were forced out of Palestine 70 years ago, but for just seven days”.
Inspired by Ahmed’s challenge, Stefanini takes time out from his day job and travels to the Burj Al Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut – a long-established shanty-like community where around 50,000 Palestinian refugees live – but without Lebanese citizenship. This film documents Pietro’s stay, from Ahmed’s meeting him at the camp entrance until he departs the alleyways and the maze of overhead electrical cables, notorious for falling and electrocuting residents.
Students my age have graduated from college as doctors and engineers, but they’re unemployed,” he says. “I studied nursing but I can’t find work. That’s why we need different citizenship, Lebanese or anything, even if it’s Somali or Indian.
Ahmed was born in the camp but his grandfather, Abdullah Shehadeh, was forced out of Palestine during the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, following the creation of the then new state of Israel. Palestinians refer to this as Al Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’. He and his father and siblings went to the border with Lebanon and eventually came to Burj al-Barajneh. The camp was set up by the Red Cross in 1948 to accommodate the influx of Palestinian refugees from what’s now northern Israel.
As family patriarch, Abdullah is known as ‘Hajj’ and assembles his sons, daughters and grandchildren to greet Stefanini. He points mournfully to the picture of his wife of 62 years and says she’s being treated in hospital.
“I wish she were here with us today,” he says, “to tell you about Palestine, its natural wealth and heritage… She’s been with me since 1956. The house is lifeless without her because she’s my entire life,” he later says, breaking into tears.
Hajj takes Pietro to a gathering of camp elders. A TV screen mounted on the wall plays archival footage of Israeli tanks during the 1948 war.
“Look at what Israel has done to us,” says Hajj, “how they’ve displaced and forced us out of our land”.
Stefanini takes in as much camp life as he can in his week-long stay. At 6am, he accompanies Hajj’s eight-year-old great granddaughter, Janna, to her only educational option, a school for refugees run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The Palestinian children have to cross Beirut, travelling an hour or more to get an education.
Our homes were demolished,” one woman explains. “Our life was destroyed. We still have our keys because we hope we’ll go back one day.
One evening, Pietro also meets Palestinian women, many of whom have lived virtually all their lives in the camp. Like Hajj Abdullah, they all still hope they’ll one day be able to return to Palestine. One even wears the key to her childhood home around her neck.
“Our homes were demolished,” one woman explains. “Our life was destroyed. We still have our keys because we hope we’ll go back one day.”
“What strikes me most,” Pietro says, “is that everyone I meet here is trying to find hope.”
Stefanini also spends a day with Ahmed whose challenge brought him to Burj al-Barajneh. Ahmed studied to be a nurse but is ineligible to work in Lebanon. Instead, he makes what money he can running a small café, singing at weddings and teaching traditional dance, Dabkeh, to Palestinian children.
“Students my age have graduated from college as doctors and engineers but they’re unemployed,” he says. “I studied nursing but I can’t find work. That’s why we need different citizenship, Lebanese or anything, even if it’s Somali or Indian.”
“Now I know to what depths of despair existence in this camp can bring a man,” Stefanini says quietly to himself.
Later in the week Hajj Abdullah’s wife is discharged from hospital. As younger family members wheel her into the house, the scars of the years of prolonged suffering are visible when Hajj bends over and tenderly kisses his wife.
“Welcome back my love. Welcome back. May God protect you.”
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