"Mukhayamat/Camps" - Palestinian life in Lebanon



 
Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar is trying to counter the misrepresentation of Palestinians in the Lebanese media - devoting a page every week in their society section to the coverage of life within Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. MENASSAT spoke with Al-Akhbar about the new section.
 
By SASEEN KAWZALLY
 
camps akhbar.jpg
"Mukhayamat" or Camps in Arabic: Al-Akhbar's page devoted to the daily lives of Palestinians in Lebanon. © Al-Akhbar

February 10, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Official estimates put the number of Palestinians living in the 12 official refugee camps in Lebanon at over 400,000. And despite their significant presence on the political and social realities of Lebanese life, ordinary concerns of the Lebanese Palestinian refugee population barely make a dent in Lebanese media.

If there is reporting on Palestinian life in Lebanon, the focus is on the “security concerns” the refugee camps pose to the Lebanese state, or the political and social concerns they pose if Palestinians are somehow “naturalized.”

Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar has begun an alternative approach - treating Palestinians as "full residents" in a special page within their society section that is devoted specifically to life inside Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.

For 5 Mondays now, Al-Akhbar has been publishing "Mukhayamat" or "Camps" in Arabic. Reporter Doha Shams has been heading up the new section. “Palestinians live in this country like everyone else, their specific political sensitivity is taken into concern, but now, with 'Mukhayamat' running, it feels strange it was never done before,” she told MENASSAT in an exclusive interview.

Camps are 'unruly enclaves'

From a security perspective, the Palestinian camps have been “no-go” zones for the Lebanese military since 1969, and that has meant the Lebanese state has had to rely on the internal policing within the refugee camps.

The adage in security circles here is that there are "Palestinian arms inside and outside the camps," and this impression is reinforced in the Lebanese media, more so after the 3-month battle in the summer of 2007 in the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in which the Lebanese army defeated some 400 Sunni Islamist fighters holed up in the camp.

More than 450 were killed in the campaign, including 50 civilians caught in the crossfire, and the camp was completely destroyed by the Lebanese army in the process.

Even cursory analysis of the Lebanese media since the 2007 Nahr al Bared conflict reveals subtle and not so subtle levels of racism in the reporting, and always present in the tone of the reporting is a sense that Lebanese society considers Palestinians to be “a temporary presence” - refugees until they have an independent state to return to.

They have no voice outside their classification as refugees, and further, the Lebanese generally blame the Palestinians for starting the 1975-1990 civil war that cost some 250,000 lives.

The specter of naturalizing the Palestinian population is none too welcomed either, given that a sudden influx of Palestinian (Sunni Muslim) voters would likely unbalance an already strained sectarian electoral system.
 
Which is why Al-Akhbar’s new page "Mukhayamat" will likely ruffle some Lebanese feathers because Shams and her reporter corps are treating Lebanon’s Palestinian population more as "citizens" than as strangers.

Ordinary stories

When MENASSAT spoke with Shams, she said that Mukhayamat was the result of years of experience reporting in the camps. “I didn’t want to wait for special occasions or sensational events to write about them anymore.”

"I come from a poor background, I know what is it like for a family trying to support itself, while providing education for its children in hope of a better life,” she said, adding, “I see Palestinians with incredible talents living in the refugee camps. But we rarely hear of these people. They suffer because they lack basic services, and more than that, because they are denied their full rights.”

Al-Akhbar's main approach is a class approach, and Shams said the Mukhayamat is making parallels between the poverty in Lebanese society and the impoverishment of the Palestinian camps.

“Demanding civil rights for Palestinian refugees does not mean demanding they acquire Lebanese citizenship, conditions inside the camps are drastic, and denying them their civil rights only heightens the crisis for the camp's residents,” Shams said.

Qasim Suheil Qasim is a 25-year old Palestinian from Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp south of Beirut. Qasim contributes to Mukhayamat. “Journalists only go to the camps to cover security incidents, and the Lebanese youth generally has a biased perception of Palestinian camps, some students ask me if they will see weapons if they go to the camps, they ask me if they can take a camera in, but image changes after they visit a camp,” Qasim said.

Focusing on the stories of ordinary Palestinians, Qasim is highlighting the dreams and aspirations of “people trying to live a better life.”

He recounts one story in Burj al Barajneh when kids resorted to playing in a cemetery “which was 70 graves short of being completely full” because there was no other place for them to play in the camp.

“People removed the side walk to expand the overloaded graveyard in the Shatilla camp.”

Recruiting talent

Lebanese reporter Rajana Hamiyeh also works for Mukhayamat. Reporting from the camps, she says, requires reporters to spend time their "getting to know their concerns."

Informal discussions are what often lead to the best story ideas, Hamiyeh said.

"We are still building our connections, at the end we want the residents of the camps themselves to write about their problems and lives. Some of them have already begun contacting us with criticism, others present new ideas.”

It is a new approach that is mirroring the efforts of similar online citizen journalist ideas like the Indypendent Media Center (www.imc.org).     

Shams said Al-Akhbar is scouting for talent within the camps capable of writing about life there. "We’ve been locating writers by word of mouth, which is more problematic when dealing with more remote refugee camps.”

“But we’ve been faced with a lack of proper (journalistic) training. Many recruited rely too much on ideological language", she added.

Although the barriers to training reporters in the camps are beginning to erode, Shams said other obstacles for recruiting reporters are likely to emerge.

Palestinian reporters inside the camps are subject to intense pressure from the camps political parties, “Issues that might not be as much of a concern for outside journalists entering the camps,” Shams said.

Aspirations

Al-Akhbar hopes that a continued presence in the camp will increase the credibility of the section, and Shams said Mukhayamat would likely increase to 2 or 3 pages once a reliable team was set up.

“We are hoping to staff at least one person from each camp in the months to come.”

Shams also told MENASSAT she sees the possibility of expanding coverage to Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Jordan.

Admittedly, Al-Akhbar is also attempting to highlight the areas of common interest between Lebanese society and Palestinian society in effect countering the racist interpretations in other Lebanese media.

In Shams’ own words, "We hope other (media organizations) follow suit, and open up to a Palestinian voice. Let the competition be for the best coverage” of the camps.