An hour after I left Shatila, I could still taste it. The refugee camp was crowded when it was created in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross to accommodate Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel. Today, it’s a slum with an estimated 20,000 people packed into one square kilometer. Snarls of electrical wires sag overhead while rivulets of wastewater outline the uneven walkways underfoot. The smell of humanity is trapped in the airless passageways; I’m told by our guide that new studies indicate Shatila’s residents are Vitamin D deficient due to the lack of sunlight in the camp
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— an impossible thought during Lebanon’s relentlessly sunny summer.I’ve been invited to celebrate Eid (the end of Ramadan’s month of daily fasting) with Shatila’s teens at the Youth Center. We join other residents in paying respect to those passed on – sort of a Middle Eastern version of Mexico’s Day of the Dead without the tequila. We pick our way among the ruts and garbage heaps. “I know the smell is bad,” confesses Abu Moujahed, the director of the Youth Center, perhaps in response to my involuntary revulsion at seeing an old woman atop a trash heap smash a watermelon to find salvageable bits. “It’s part of the mixture,” his hand sweeps the
slummy landscape. I practice surreptitious breathing through my lips. Lebanese Palestinians, ghettoized politically, professionally, and educationally, are further beleaguered by the influx of Palestinian refugees from Syria. The Syrians, on the other hand, are shocked by these conditions: In Syria, they live in spacious apartments, hold jobs, have passports, enjoy basically all the rights Syrians do except the vote. Tucked into makeshift crannies in Shatila, 250 Syrian families primarily from Yarmouk (a suburb of Damascus I visited in 2008), languish. The UN agency in charge of Palestinian welfare (UNRWA) provides the equivalent of 30¢/day in relief, I’m told. “They spend more on cats,” our guide spits. We squeeze into one family’s quarters. Abdullah Abu Hared fled Yarmouk in April, when bombing destroyed his street. “Both sides were bombing,” he shrugs, answering my questions through an interpreter. “We got blind and deaf [during the] bombing. I have a son, he’s 25, who got injured. He sat for 24 hours without help! He is OK now, but I worried about my other children.” Two younger sons sleep on a mat, snoring gently, oblivious to our visit. The younger boys play quietly in a dark corner while a toddler waddles over the thin mat that served as a tablecloth for the meager lunch we’ve interrupted. Abdullah’s wife fidgets nervously, tugging on her hijab and twittering back and forth to avoid my camera. Two sullen young women on their 20s answer my questions in monosyllables while they furiously fan in the relentless heat.“My shops were destroyed to the ground,” Abdullah is saying. “If I go back, I
must start from zero.”To be a bit low-impact, I attempt to photograph them without my flash, lit only by the single bare light bulb hanging treacherously from the low ceiling. There is no sunlight here. # # # # #