By Isabel de la Cruz
I have been living in the Middle East for over 20 years, most of the time working with Palestine refugees in the West Bank, sometimes with UNRWA, sometimes not. I have been to Jordan and Syria and the beaches of Taba, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv, but I had not yet been to Lebanon. Having been transferred to work with UNRWA’s Public Information Office at headquarters two years ago, and therefore covering all of UNRWA’s five fields of operations, it was time to visit this enigmatic country of beauty and contradictions.
My brief was to photograph the refugee camps and its people. The refugees. Not an easy task when you only have three days to cover six camps. Trying to capture their soul, their essence will be tricky. In three days, all I will be is a spectator behind a lens, looking from the outside in, but it’s what I’ve been given and what I’ve got to work with.
I crossed into Lebanon from Syria and approached Beirut from the south, passing through a tightly packed neighbourhood presenting a cacophony of contrasting impressions in impossibly adjacent settings: a Maronite church on a street lined with political billboards; martyrs’ posters dating from this war or the other, hanging from lamp posts that divide lanes of Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs. The soundtrack is peppered by the sound of a squillion cheap mopeds, the air is heavy with late-summer Mediterranean heat framing giant billboards that host glitzy advertising campaigns for Lebanon’s francophone high-society: Beyrouth Souks!
Passing by the car window on the right is Shatila refugee camp.
A poster in English reads: “We will never forget”.
After some refreshments at UNRWA’s Field Office, I’m off to do my job: Shatila and Burj Barajneh camps. After some 20 years in Palestine, this is a totally different reality. We are a couple of kilometres from the shoreline, maybe three. As I photographed my way through the narrow alleyways, with barefoot kids and dripping laundry lines, I ask UNRWA’s camp services officer if the communities mix: “Do the refugees ever walk along the corniche?” With great patience, he responds that for these kids, the camps are their life, their universe. They know nothing else. Hoda, one of UNRWA’s public information officers in Lebanon, adds that these kids dream of one day seeing the sea.
As I smell the air heavy with salt, I tell myself: “Silly question”.
We walk past posters of Abu Ammar and Abu Jihad and I realise something: 1948 is everywhere. Every picture on the wall and every writing on the wall. Street names and school names. Ramallah school here, Lubbiya street over there. In Lebanon, the Palestine refugees are still Palestine refugees.
They are not at home away from home, nor have they blended in with their surroundings. They are actually still in Palestine with their hearts and souls and minds - and waiting to go back.
I take aim and shoot all over the place, looking for the human inspiration for our “Peace starts here” campaign. Hoping to find it around the next corner, always. Still looking. Maybe tomorrow in Nahr el-Bared or the next day in Tyre....READ MORE