CHILDREN LIVING IN DESPAIR
By Vincent Lyn and contributor Sawssan Abou-Dahr
What a broken day of heart-rending sadness, an impotent feeling of powerlessness. I’ve known the Hazineh family for about five years and they have welcomed me with open arms into their spartan home in Shatila Refugee Camp. One of the twelve refugee camps in Lebanon, Shatila has 27,000 men, women and children crammed together like sardines in one square km. Shatila camp was established in 1949 and is located in Beirut, east of the Sports City stadium, falling within the municipality of Ghobeiri. The camp was devastated during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and frequently targeted during the Lebanese civil war, resulting in extensive destruction and dilapidation of shelters and infrastructure. Shatila camp, and the adjacent neighborhood of Sabra in Beirut, were the scene of a massacre on 16–18 September 1982 that claimed the lives of 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. The massacre was committed by Christian militias in an act of retaliation and revenge after the assassination of elected Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel whose killer was Lebanese and not Palestinian.
Initially comprising around 500 residential units, the camp has grown tenfold since its establishment. Most of the growth has been vertical, with new shelters being erected on top of existing ones without proper foundations. The poor construction and unstable electrical grid and combination of puddles of water everywhere is a disaster waiting to happen and a common occurrence with at least one death a day due to electrocution.
The Hazineh family comprising of the mother, four sons and three daughters lost their father who was murdered in 2016 trying to stop drug dealers inside the camp. The murderer had a prominent Lebanese lawyer who ironically had also been appointed to defend both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The lawyer managed to get him released from prison after serving only eight years. Justice clearly was not served. Their father was extremely well respected and because of his empathy for many families in the camp became a martyr and his poster is openly displayed throughout the camp walls.
The oldest daughter Yasmine has been running the Mustaqbal Kindergarten School for 12 years and has been supported until very recently by Emmaus International in Sweden. The school has 100 children ages three to five-years-old comprising 60% -40% girls to boys. The school is in desperate repair and standing on the top floor is a death trap waiting to happen. At any moment the roof and rust laden girders could buckle and the entire building could collapse. Children having to suffer in deplorable conditions, subjected to breathing in asbestos, lead paint, damp, cold, no carpets on the floor, no heating because of the lack of electricity, no clean running water, the list is endless and wondering if and when the roof will cave in on everyone.
At the beginning of this year Emmaus International decided they will no longer fund the school. The yearly budget of $40,000 dollars which paid seven employees, four of which are teachers, meals for the children, books and scholastic supplies. It barely covered the expenses but Yasmine managed these past 12 years to keep the kindergarten alive, a promise she made to her father. There are no toys for the children. Actually, today was a treat for 22 of the children as they got to go to a recreation park and play on the swings. Yasmine showed me photos of the children happily playing like all kids should be and stupidly I asked if they get to do this once a month and Yasmine replied, “Once a year”.
You feel inadequate and useless a paralyzed feeling that makes you want to scream at the top of your lungs. It is times like this that I question God, is he asleep, does he not see what is happening? But we need to be asking a more realistic question: How can human beings be subjected to such inhumane cruelty in many ways not fit for farm animals. But let me not digress otherwise I really will go on a tirade.
After spending hours at the school looking it over from top to bottom and hashing out ways of what we can do to help, I asked if I could get lunch for the family or simply buy some groceries. Nirmeen (Yasmine’s younger sister), told me that her mother would decide. So we walked through the labyrinth of alley ways ducking under the strewn overhead criss-crossing of electrical cables that looked more like a maze of deadly puzzles. The spartan home consists of a few rooms for eight people and remember no electricity which if you’re lucky might get 30 minutes a day. Mohammad their brother got out his pliers and cut some electrical wiring and set up some light using a small motorbike battery.
A blanket was placed on the shabby carpet flooring and the food was laid out. We all sat on the floor around the blanket and many dishes came out. Salad, seasoned rice, omelette, egg plant, french fries, pita bread, fried chicken breast, local Lebanese dishes called mdardara (rice, lentils and fried onions), moutabal (eggplant, tahini, olive oil, and garlic) and hindbeh (cooked dandelion greens tossed with a lemon and olive). All of these items, rice, vegetables, potatoes and especially the chicken are very expensive for them. It was all very delicious and like many times before they’ve always made me feel so welcome like a member of the family. I’ve traveled the world far and wide and I’ve never known of this kind of hospitality. I wanted to at least pay for the food that was bought, but as is customary would be considered extremely rude and disrespectful. It’s even seen as an offense because as I’m a guest, and a guest is always welcome and greeted with generosity no matter how hard the economic situation is. Sitting for an hour or so I could feel the dampness in the room and even asked Sawssan if she felt the cold in her bones. It was very apparent.
By now the sun had set and the make-shift light that Mohammad had made was barely enough but all of a sudden to our surprise we were blessed with the electricity turning on. We might be fortunate to have 30 minutes if the stars are all aligned. But don’t count on it…
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts
Sawssan Abou-Zahr — Contributor
Independent Journalist, Editor, Consultant in Lebanon
Human Rights Activist