This post was originally published on Lebanon-based blog Hummus For Thought.
Every day throughout the month of October, the Humans Of New York-inspired Humans of Al Rashidiya page will feature one story from the Al Rashidiya Palestinian camp, located in the south of Tyre, South Lebanon. The project intends to dispel the numerous myths and stereotypes plaguing Lebanon’s Palestinian society.
Humans of Al Rashidiya was founded by Mary Mitchell, a British media arts PhD student at Royal Holloway University in London who first went to Al Rashidiya and Al Bass camps with the British charity UNIPAL, and Mohammad El-Assad, her student at the time and a student at the German Lebanese University in Tyre. Mitchell explains the philosophy behind Humans of Al Rashidiya:
The project is a framework through which people in Al Rashidiya can share their stories with the wider world, and one another. The camp is very isolated with many preconceptions and stereotypes in Lebanon about Palestinian refugees, and so we hope to counter some of these by showing the common experiences of humanity. In the West, very few people know there are Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – they think only of the West Bank and Gaza – so we hope that this project will present new stories in an easily accessible way.
Besides the conditions within the camps themselves, which vary from camp to camp but never surpass the barely tolerable, discrimination within Lebanese society is still very prevalent. At least 20 major professions are denied to the 450,000 or so Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps across the country, regardless of their educational background. One notable example is Iqbal Assad, the world’s youngest doctor, having to travel to the US to practice medicine.
According to Visualizing Palestine and the International Labor Organization (ILO), only 2 percent of the 75,000 Palestinians who are part of Lebanon’s workforce have an official work permit, 20 percent have a written contract, 66 percent are below the poverty line, 75 percent earn less than the minimal wage ($305 for Palestinian women, $369 for men) and 95 percent have no health insurance. Despite having contributed $14 million to Lebanon’s National Social Security Fund, Palestinian workers are denied benefits of health coverage (unlike, say, French workers.)
Co-founder El-Assad is intent on dispelling the numerous stereotypes that plague Palestinian society:
Many people think that our camps are security time bombs, while others haven’t even heard of us. Stereotypes dating back to the Civil War haven’t really faded away and recent events such as the 2007 Nahr Al-Bared War haven’t exactly helped us, despite the fact that most of us have always opposed all forms of violence.
Despite the tough circumstances, the camps’ inhabitants are trying to make the best out of their situation. We help each other out,” El-Assad said. “We were 28,000 in 2012, but since the Syrian crisis started, the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria increased our numbers.”
But despite it all, the security situation remains stable, and in no small part thanks to the inhabitants themselves.
We’ve opened more classes in our schools (run by UNRWA) and have included a curriculum close to the Syrian one for some of our most recent students. Our literacy rates are far higher than our illiteracy ones and they’re increasing every year. We are opening more classes, especially for secondary school. The uneducated youths usually resort to immigration, most legally but some illegally. This is due to the unemployment crisis which not only affects our camps but Lebanon as a whole.
Finally, the project reflects the inhabitants’ desire to do good in what they consider to be their second homeland:
We have several awareness-raising programs run by the youth of our camps on the importance of the work of the army and its sovereignty. Lebanon is our second homeland and will remain forever in our hearts. It has welcomed us for the past 68 years.