SWEET SPRING IN LIMBO
Life in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest refugee camp.
Located a few kilometers outside of Saida in southern Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh was created by the Red Cross in 1948 for Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel. Roughly translated from Arabic, "Ain al-Hilweh" means "sweet spring," and over time, people internally displaced by the Lebanese civil war or government closure of other refugee camps in Lebanon settled there as well.
Today Ain al-Hilweh is the largest refugee camp in Lebanon by both area and population. While the majority of those living in Ain al-Hilweh are Palestinians and their descendants who came directly to Lebanon from Palestine, since 2011 many of the newer inhabitants are Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians: Palestinian refugees who went to Syria after the Nakba, had children who grew up there, only for these next generations to displaced by the Syrian civil war.
Ain al-Hilweh is controlled by the numerous political parties and militant groups operating from within its borders, and the Lebanese army is not allowed to enter. Shoot-outs are common due to political infighting, high tensions and lack of judicial channels to resolve disputes. Turf wars and power struggles between rival political factions often escalate into armed conflict and many residents of Ain al-Hilweh are unwillingly drawn into the crossfire. As a result the Lebanese media typically characterizes Ain al-Hilweh as a "terrorist breeding ground," or "zone of unlaw," furthering stigma against Palestinian and Syrian refugees waiting in limbo to return home or finally be accepted into Lebanese society.
However, laughter abounds amidst limbo for this refugee community, with large numbers of community mutual aid initiatives bringing together residents of Ain al-Hilweh in the face of institutional neglect. Despite high levels of multigenerational poverty and vulnerability, the danger poised by frequent political violence, and an almost complete lack of prospects for upward mobility, in Ain al-Hilweh life goes on and the resilience of the Palestinian people endures.
(left) The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a Marxist, Revolutionary Socialist and secular Palestinian political party which advocates for Palestinian statehood.
PFLP's members among the Palestinian diaspora long for an internationally recognized and sovereign state of Palestine in order to realize the "Right of Return," whereby those displaced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could leave their refugee lives behind to live freely as citizens in Palestine. Most of the main Palestinian political parties and PLO members have a presence in Ain al-Hilweh: Fatah, DFLP, Hamas, PFLP, as well as regional Salafist-Jihadist militant groups: Junud al-Sham, Daesh, Fatah al-Islam, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
(right) A PFLP spokesperson sits inside the party's headquarters in Ain al-Hilweh. In the corner stands the Palestinian, PFLP and Lebanese flags, and along the ceiling is the red PFLP flag/logo alternating with the Palestinian flag.
The PFLP is the second-largest political party within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
(left) Families watch as students perform a traditional Palestinian Dabke dance during a joint Land Day (March 30th) and Children's Day (April 5th) celebration in Ain al-Hilweh. Events such as these teach the younger generations about their Palestinian heritage and break up the monotony of life in limbo.
(right) A boy high-fives someone in a panda suit wearing a sweatshirt with the European Union and UNRWA logos on it. UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, a UN body that focuses solely on aiding Palestinian refugees, started in 1949 just after the Nakba. Nakba, or "catastrophe" in Arabic, is how Palestinians refer to the 1948 war and subsequent forced exodus of almost a million Palestinians from their homes in Palestine, marking the creation of the current state of Israel.
International aid logos are everywhere in Ain al-Hilweh. Kids carry notebooks and pencils bearing the Unicef brand, and clothes, blankets, food, and almost every donated item in the camp bears the mark of an organization. Most residents in Ain al-Hilweh are dependent on foreign aid in some way or another, as Lebanese law does not grant official work permits for Palestinians, forbidding them from working in over 60 occupations. This means that despite holding graduate degrees from Lebanese universities, educated Palestinians are barred from practicing law, medicine, and a whole host of other professions. With no ability to earn income in the formal sector, many residents of Ain al-Hilweh are small business owners, unemployed, or look for informal work in construction or sewing factories, or as embroiderers, cleaners, or seasonal agricultural workers in the fields around Saida.
(left) 12 year old Malak writes her name on a map of greater Palestine, over the location her family is from. The activity was organized by a social inclusion center in Ain al-Hilweh, which provides classes and after-school programs for UN school dropouts and at-risk kids. School dropout rates are sky-high, as many children have behavioral and learning problems stemming from prolonged and unhealed inter-generational trauma, or, due to few educational options past the high school level, many don't see the point of continuing and instead leave school, choosing to work and help support their families from an early age. UNRWA and Unicef programs are also typically conducted in English or French, and kids from Arabic-only families often find it hard to keep up.
During this activity, kids could tell the coordinator the name of their ancestral town, and then got help locating it on a map of Palestine, if they didn't know where it was already. In this way memories of loss and belonging are upheld, with older generations passing knowledge and reminders of Palestine down to younger ones.
Malak's grandparents came to Lebanon from Jenin and all she knows of Palestine comes from their stories and geography lessons like this.
(left) A memorial photo for the assassinated former Secretary-General of the PFLP, Abu Ali Mustafa. In the corner of the frame is a red Estelada, which is a symbol of the Catalan Independence movement. The traditional Catalan flag has only red and yellow stripes, and in the early 1900s, Catalan separatists began using a modified version of this flag, the Estelada, with a lone white star and blue triangle on one side. In the 1960s, a group called the Partit Socialista d’Alliberament Nacional dels Països Catalans, (Socialist Party for the National Liberation of the Catalan Countries), or PSAN created the red Estelada.
As a color, red has been politicized to symbolize communism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism and left-wing movements, and both PSAN and the PFLP adopted the color to make their socialist and Marxist ideas clear. There has been a long tradition of solidarity between the Palestinian liberation and Catalan independence movements: when asked about the sticker, a PFLP spokesperson said that the PFLP supports independence and liberation movements sharing its ideals, all over the globe. Likewise, left-wing Catalan independence parties have called for an independent state of Palestine along pre-1947 historical borders.
(left) A communist monument on the coastal road heading south from Beirut. This road, if you keep driving down from the capital, would take you to past Ain al-Hilweh to Haifa, Jaffah, and then eventually Gaza. Only you can't cross the border between Lebanon and historical Palestine, and there's a blockade restricting movement in and out of Gaza. For residents of Ain al Hilweh whose families come from northern Palestine—if checkpoints and borders didn't exist—their families' villages would be less than two hours drive away.
(right) Hair, lovingly braided, comes loose as kids jostle and queue to take turns jumping on a trampoline. In Ain al-Hilweh, birthdays pass year after year with little change in the situation for Palestinians growing up in forced diaspora there. Since 1948 one generation has turned into two, and for some even the third or fourth generation queuing to jump on a trampoline supplied by an NGO in this refugee camp in Lebanon instead of in a backyard in Palestine.
(left) Palestinian breakfast in the home of Safiyah and Sabri, Om and Abu Yusef. Over eggs, za'atar, olive oil, bread (hobz), jibneh, yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tea, Safiyah, Sabri and their son Yusef shared their family's story. Yusef's grandparents had fled to Lebanon after the Nakba, leaving their home, property and life behind in Palestine. Thus, Safiyah and Sabri grew up in Lebanon, and Yusef was born there.
Said Safiyah and Sabri, "We are Palestinian but we do not know Palestine." They keep their traditions and Palestinian heritage alive through meals like this one that taste like home, sharing customs, hospitality and kindness with all who pass through their doors.
(left) A grandmother and their grandchild, both residents of Ain al-Hilweh. The younger generations of Palestinians living in the camp have never been to Palestine, and those of the older generations still alive have not been able to return since fleeing in 1948.
(right) A painting of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, an iconic Islamic monument marking where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven with the angel Gabriel.
Lining the alleyways of Ain al-Hilweh are murals of scenes from Palestine. They are constant visual reminders of a homeland lost.