Al Jazeera World

Seven Days in Beirut: Life Inside Burj al-Barajneh Refugee Camp

A British-Italian man spends one week in a Palestinian refugee camp where thousands have lived, stateless, since 1948.

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, Pietro 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 – without Lebanese citizenship.

This film documents Pietro’s stay, from meeting Ahmed at the camp entrance until he departs the alleyways and the maze of overhead electrical cables, notorious for falling and electrocuting residents a week later.

Students my age have graduated from college as doctors and engineers, but they're unemployed. 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.

by Ahmed Shehadeh, refugee/unemployed nurse

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 the Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’.

He and his father and siblings went to the Lebanese border 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.

Pietro takes in as much camp life as he can during his week-long stay. At 6am, he accompanies Abdullah’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.

One evening, Pietro meets some Palestinian women, many of whom have lived virtually all their lives in the camp. Like 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.”

He 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 cafe, singing at weddings and teaching traditional dance, Dabkeh, to Palestinian children.

Seven days inside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon

“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.”

Fired up by his experience, Pietro returns to the UK to lobby two British politicians, Jenny Tonge and Tommy Sheppard. Baroness Tonge – who was herself expelled from her former political party for speaking out in support of the Palestinians – asks a formal question in the House of Lords, wondering if the British government can “really be content to let this continue for another 70 years? Or will the Palestinians be allowed the right of return to their homeland as prescribed in international law?”

“The camp is no longer a story for me; pictures I can see in a book or refracted to me from the TV screen, from which I’m removed and can remove myself at any moment,” says Pietro.  “The camp is in me.”