Palestinian Refugee Camps: Where the Desperate Get Shit Done

by Tony Chavira

I may have been really naïve, or maybe just didn’t read or watch enough news, but when I went through a Palestinian refugee camp on the way to Baalbeck in Lebanon I didn’t expect it to look like a small city. Four or five story buildings in densely-packed neighborhoods where people just take care of business, day in and day out. You live, work and try to somehow have a fun time within the confines of the limited space.

The Lebanese government never expected that the camps would be around for this long, so most of them are smashed up right alongside ancient ruins. Why ruins? Because the land belongs to the government and essentially wasn’t in use. It would be as if we were hosting a community of people who lived in Griffith Park. Right next to a cool touristy destination like the Observatory or the Greek Theater would be 30 acres of super-condensed community. Although the Lebanese government didn’t formally sanction the initial development of the camps, they thrive at locations around the country, somewhat separate (generally speaking) from the Lebanese cities, governance-wise.

refugee camp

The hyper-dense guerilla planning effort it took to put the camps together is about as unrefined as anything you’re ever going to see. Misaligned buildings are situated along wide roads. Any single structure has no choice but to serve several functions for several groups of people. Salons, markets, homes, restaurants, schools ... every doorway leads to every service the refugees may need, with no more rhyme nor reason than to be convenient. Without euphemizing any further, the neighborhood is a forcefully-organized slum with few to no alternatives available for re-planning.

Because the refugees are collectively leasing these restrictive plots of land from the Lebanese government and their population grows each year, they have no choice except to build upward. What was once a two-story building is now a four-story building. What was once a field for farming becomes a multiple-use structure. What was once a large community room becomes several smaller rooms for shops, which will eventually become even smaller, more condensed spaces once the need arises. What’s more, since the refugees were never able to purchase land in Lebanon, they are only given restrictive uuse of the land they occupy. One of the most noticeable restrictions—of course—involves the permanency of their structures, which were never originally built with foundations. Since they can’t buy land or lease any more public space from the government, there’s absolutely no opportunity to build outward. Instead, streets—which may or may not be straight—are haphazardly paved whenever the community can find the money, while structures with no foundations are renovated over and over again to take on more floors, more space, and more people.

Improvised living conditions would not be as terrible a situation if it weren’t for the everpresent sense of transience. It’s almost as if there’s a collective understanding that the Palestinian refugees are only going to be there for “just a little while,” and the hasty, indiscriminate layout of spontaneous slums next to historical sites was only arranged that way because it was a temporary solution. The structures are fully-functional and the neighborhoods do the best they can with what they have, but because the community is so insular and because the Lebanese government has a restriction on the kinds of jobs that refugees can work, there is little to no option for upward mobility.

refugee camp

The system of education in the camps is generally comparable to other public systems in the world, as the UN provides much of the support for educational development. But furthering your education (thereby improving your overall quality of life) is almost pointless. You may hold a law degree from Harvard, but what are your options afterward? Stay in Boston, thousands of miles away from home? Move back into the refugee camp and be restricted from practicing?

In most cases, if the camp communities didn’t come together to rebuild, reorganize or reconstruct their leased property, nothing would be built. But an incident involving a confrontation between the militant Sunni group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese government has led to unique planning circumstances. In May 2007, Fatah al-Islam members committed several high-stakes bank robberies near Tripoli, leading to a showdown as they held down their position in the nearby Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The Lebanese army, clearly unwilling to take any bullshit from mutinous expatriates in government-imposed slums, lined up with rifles ready and unloaded on the for an entire day. The “conflict” didn’t end until the following September.

As many of the actual refugees were able to flee to other camps, as the camp had little remaining after the complete annihilation of both buildings and bank robbers, and as the government took a huge public relations hit, it was decided that second-time refugees who were relocated during the madness probably wanted to move back to their original camp (and were given no other option). So the United Nations recently decided to essentially design a planned community and replace roughly 1,500 shelled-out, bullet-riddled homes with new prefabricated houses. My first thought was, “Finally, a correct use for the modular housing process.” But how and what should this community look like? How much could this community really do? How much money is going to get invested in its redevelopment, assuming that little to none went into the urban development of any of the original slums?

alley in refugee camp

When you have the opportunity to plan a community that will be that densely-populated, you have the chance of a lifetime to show just what smart planning and density can do for a community and its economic livelihood. Sure, most of the local economy of Nahr al-Bared is black market goods that the local Lebanese indulge in to keep their living costs manageable, but, hey, the world’s a tough place. Certainly the UN doesn’t have the expertise to plan and construct modular homes for a community that never had the expectation of planning or community design in the first place, but it doesn’t mean that great things can’t be achieved. Up until now, the Palestinian refugees have been given no choice in the structure of their communities, leading to communities that are unsustainable disasters waiting to happen. In this respect, the UN is finally giving them ability to try something new, and sometimes that’s the most important thing you can give a community. I hope the benefits of urban design research, smart development, density studies, and economic and environmental sustainability won’t be lost on the UN simply because everyone still considers the area just a Palestinian refugee camp.

Wherever we live, that’s our home; so why not work collectively to make it the best possible place to live? It’s the very least that everyone on Earth deserves, especially refugee communities as mismanaged as the Palestinian refugee camps.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


Me and my wife are both disabled but want to help someone or couple that needs a home. Children welcome too. We are not rich but we might be able to be sponsors. Don’t know where to start your help is invited. Larry and Nancie.

2011-06-11 by Larry Duane Shaffer

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