Cedar of the Libanese flag in a white pigeon – both peace symbols; @ ifa/Grassmann

Creating perspectives and space to grow – cultural projects in Lebanese refugee camps

Interview conducted by Dorothea Grassmann

Yalla, yalla – the maze of tiny alleyways is thronged with people. A scooter weaves around them, tooting its horn, a man wheels his vegetable barrow, all threading their way between the tighly-packed houses. To left and right, people are standing in open doorways, chatting or watching the world go by. The street is dotted with food stalls. Above me there is a jungle of wires, snaking through the narrow alleys like the muscle fibres of a giant animal. Here, it's almost impossible to see the sky. Through the tangle of wires, the sun casts its dappled patterns onto the damp, stony ground. A number of the walls bear posters of famous politicians, such as Yasser Arafat. I am in Burj el-Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Beirut.  According to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), this is home to 16,000 Palestinians. This neighbourhood is the most densely populated refugee camp in the Beirut area.

Posters of famous politicians in the Pales; ©ifa/Grassmanntinian refugee camp Burj Al Barjneh

Two months ago, a musician opened a cafe in Burj el-Barajneh. The plan is to set up a cultural programme, and there is already a little library. This is where I meet Leila Mousa, who is working on ifa's Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy for Refugee Camps? project as part of its Research Programme "Culture and Foreign Policy". I am there to ask her about the situation of refugees in Lebanon, how they are being treated by the government and the local population, and also about what cultural work can achieve here and where the challenges lie.
ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen – Institute for International Cultural Relations): How many refugees live in Lebanon?

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen – Institute for International Cultural Relations): How many refugees live in Lebanon?

Leila Mousa: According to the official figures published by the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee relief agency, since 2014 one quarter of Lebanon's six-million population are refugees. This includes 1.2 million Syrians, 45,000 Syrian Palestinians and around 280,000 Palestinians who have been living in Lebanon for many years. There are also small groups of Iraqi (6,000) and Sudanese refugees (170). Unofficial estimates suggest that there are currently some 2 million Syrians in the country, so the number of undocumented cases is clearly quite high. The Lebanese government has asked that they be referred to as displaced persons (nasihe in Arabic) rather than as refugees.

"One quarter of the Lebanese population are refugees."

ifa: How are Syrians and Palestinians from Syria who are now in Lebanon affected by being labelled as nasihe?

Mousa: It basically means they do not fall under the protection of the UNHCR in the traditional sense. Instead they are treated more as tourists and are required to extend their residency permits at regular intervals. Many of them simply can't afford to do this, so they find they lose their legal status. Lebanon has a long history of Syrian guest workers. In the past they would leave the country every six months in order to renew their residency permits. But at the beginning of the year the Lebanese government closed its borders in order to prevent any further influx of migrants. This has already been the case for Palestinians from Syria since autumn 2014. But this new regulation means that many guest workers and Syrians who are not registered as refugees are suddenly finding they have lost their legal status. Lebanon has also stopped the UNHCR from registering any more refugees. Without this registration, it is very difficult for refugees to gain access to the help that is available. Human rights actors stress the fact that Lebanon has explicitly asked people to avoid using the word refugee. In this way it is clearly distancing itself from providing the protection that refugees are entitled to under the terms of the Geneva Convention. Officially, there are no refugee camps, only unofficial 'gatherings'.

Murals in the city center of Beirut; © ifa/Grassmann

ifa:  How are these unofficial 'gatherings' different from refugee camps?

Mousa: Camps are recognised by a UN body and the host country, but this is not the case with 'gatherings'. This means they are not run by a UN organisation or the government, so they do not enjoy the same levels of protection. The word 'gathering' describes any kind of refugee camp that is not officially run.

ifa: How has the crisis in Syria affected people's everyday lives?

Mousa: Syrian refugees are spread across approximately 1,600 municipalities in Lebanon. Those who can afford it have rented somewhere to live. But others are living in a wide range of emergency shelters, including unfinished buildings, shops, garages, disused schools and tent villages. In the cities, many Syrians and Palestinians from Syria have rented apartments or rooms in existing Palestinian camps because they are cheaper than in the surrounding area. This means that some Palestinian camps have seen their numbers double, leading to a shortage of housing and soaring rents. Some smaller Lebanese towns have also seen their populations double in size.

ifa: How have people been affected by the government's restrictive policies?

Mousa: The main effect is the steady increase in the number of people who are in the country illegally. They are much more vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. They are exploited for cheap labour, charged inflated prices for places to pitch their tents and have no protection against attacks. Palestinians from Syria have been integrated into the UNRWA school system, but one of the main challenges is how to integrate Syrian children into the Lebanese school system. At the moment only a quarter of school-age children are attending public schools in Lebanon, so Syrian children are mainly taught in the afternoons. But most of them are simply not attending school, or they are only getting lessons in maths, English and Arabic thanks to a number of alternative local teaching initiatives.

ifa: How are relations between the refugees and the Lebanese people?

Mousa: To begin with the local population were very welcoming towards the Syrian refugees. But tensions have developed in face of the continuing crisis and the soaring numbers of refugees. The local people often say they feel they are being swamped by foreigners and worry about shortages of water, electricity and jobs. Problems have also arisen from the way that aid was distributed at the beginning, as it only went to Syrian refugees, while the difficulties experienced by people in the poorer regions of Lebanon and the Palestinian camps – who are at least as poverty-stricken as the incoming refugees – were ignored. This has led many Lebanese and Palestinians to conclude that Syrians are stealing their jobs and receiving aid from international organisations while the local population are left empty-handed. We also should not forget that Lebanon has a complicated relationship with its former occupier Syria, and that it has a long and difficult history with regard to Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon for decades and have often been viewed as a security risk. However, the presence of the Syrians seems to have helped them to garner a little sympathy.

"Things like painting, singing and writing provide a space where people can express themselves and tell their stories."

Olive tree made of barbed wire and wood by artist Abdulrahman Katanani, grown up in the Palestinian refugee camp Sabra in Lebanon; ©ifa/Grassmann

ifa: Uprooted, unwanted and without prospects...can cultural programmes help these people?

Mousa: Absolutely. Sport, music, theatre, writing, painting, filmmaking...all these are fun and keep people busy. But they offer more than that. Things like painting, singing and writing provide a space where people can express themselves and tell their stories. This is particularly important when they have no other opportunities for co-determination, decision-making, self-determination and growth. They provide a way for people to stay in touch with their roots and formulate or reformulate their identities. They also give them the tools to rebut the view that they are just helpless refugees. As far as the Syrians are concerned, it is clear that many artists are keen to be recognised as Syrians and artists, rather than simply being relegated to the role of refugees. Here I am thinking about some of the very professional theatre productions that have played to a broad public. They have tackled some of the key issues that are currently affecting refugees, such as the loss of close family members or how to journey onwards to other countries. These productions have also tried to break down stereotypes and prejudices and build bridges with the local population. This has also been the case with a number of projects, such as hip hop productions, which have been organised in the Palestinian camps over recent years. Sport can also play an important role. A representative of an NGO involved in providing alternative schooling reports that playing football together in 'school' has encouraged some of the Syrian children to start attending school again.

ifa: What challenges are being faced by cultural actors as they try to set up their projects in the 'camps'?

Mousa: One of the main challenges for people setting up cultural programmes for Syrian refugees is the fact that they are scattered across the whole of Lebanon. So they have to think hard about how to reach them and what their objectives should be. Another problem is the refugees’ difficult legal situation and their associated lack of prospects. Whenever they get the chance, the majority of Syrian and Palestinian cultural actors and established artists leave Lebanon.

ifa: Are Palestinian cultural programmes also transferable to Syrian refugees?

Mousa: The two groups are very different in terms of culture. The Palestinians have lived in Lebanon for generations. They feel their education system is severely lacking and are demanding a greater focus on essential subjects such as Arabic, English, and their own history. Most of the many cultural activities that take place in the camps are organised with the help of local NGOs. Most of them concentrate on maintaining Palestinian traditions. But they need to be based on a good basic education. Unfortunately this is lacking, as are activities and spaces for developing creative, critical and constructive capabilities. With regard to the Syrian refugees, we have to draw a sharp distinction between a growing arts scene in which artists are distancing themselves from their image as refugees and creating cultural productions, and those activities that see culture as an instrument for social change, as a way of coming to terms with traumatic experiences, keeping children occupied or building bridges between refugee communities and host societies. Overall, their situation remains very volatile and their structures are built on sand. But we should emphasise that a good basic education is vital for any kind of arts education to make sense.

"A good basic education is vital for any kind of arts education to make sense."

ifa: What is expected of international organisations?

Mousa: Local NGOs and cultural activists in the refugee communities are not looking for international organisations to provide them with complete concepts that they are expected to carry out like puppets. Instead they are seeking financial support so that they can develop their own projects to meet their particular needs. They also need investment in long-term cultural projects and infrastructures, so cultural capacity building. They need to create spaces for creative growth and genuine debate.

The results of the ongoing “Foreign Educational and Cultural Policy in Refugee Camps?” research project will be published in the ifa-Edition Culture and Foreign Policy. Planned publication date: autumn 2015

Leila Mousa, M.A. in Geography, has done extensive and in-depth work on the topic of the refugee camps in Lebanon since 2004. Her work is carried out in the space where Political Geography intersects with both Cultural Geography and Refugee Studies. Within the scope of her responsibilities as an assistant professor at the University of Heidelberg (2006-2010) she coordinated and implemented the DFG-funded research project "Urban Governance in Humanitarian Spaces". In this project dealing with the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, she worked closely together with a range of local NGOs and initiatives. At present, she is working on her PhD thesis, which focuses on elements of this research.
Contact: mousa(at)ifa.de