By Ron Coello
Ron Coello is a London based photographer. He traveled to Lebanon in November 2015 to document ANERA’s work. Here he met ANERA education field coordinator and Palestinian refugee Oyoun Shabayta. Compelled to document her story, he returned in April 2016 to Ein El Hilweh camp, where Ouyun lives. This is an excerpt from his project.
Inside the Most Dangerous Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon
I first traveled to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein El Hilweh in southern Lebanon shortly before the 2006 Lebanon War.
“The majority of [the camp’s] population is Palestinian, and the eldest refugees have been here for 68 years.”
Ein El Hilweh was established in 1948 to house Palestinian refugees fleeing northern Palestine. It is based south of the port of Sidon, close to the Mediterranean Sea. In the early 1950’s, the canvas tents that once housed the refugees were replaced with concrete shelters, making the camp a more permanent home.
To some extent, Ein El Hilweh epitomizes how quickly and how slowly things can move in the Middle East. In the last four years the population of Ein El Hilweh has swelled to 120,000 because of the number of Syrian refugees entering the camp. However, the majority of the population is Palestinian, and the eldest refugees have been here for 68 years.
Ein El Hilweh Palestinian camp, the most populated refugee camp in Lebanon, is prone to violence.
One day before my arrival in Lebanon in April 2016, Fatah leader General Fathi Zeidan was assassinated just outside the camp. The camp has four checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army. Access to the camp can be difficult at the most peaceful of times, but with the recent unrest in the camp and the assassination just outside of it, security was at a heightened state.
Because camera equipment is not allowed into the camp, my kit was hidden around the jeep I was travelling in. This went without any real problems – although the soldiers were curious to know why I was carrying a camera flashgun in my bag (I had forgotten to hide it) – and I was allowed in with just the words that I was “very brave” to be entering.
The purpose of my visit was to work with Oyoun Shabayta who I met in the camp at the end of 2015. Oyoun is the field education coordinator for ANERA. She is 24 and has lived in the camp her entire life, as have her parents, and since 1948, her grandparents. I was so moved by the work I saw her doing with a young Syrian boy traumatized by the death of his parents in Syria that I decided to return to find out more about her and her family.
Ouyoun Shabayta at Ein el Helweh camp, where she was born and raised.
Oyoun’s Life as a Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon
I met Oyoun and her friend Said at the ANERA office in the camp, where we had coffee. The two of them had grown up together in Ein El Hilweh, and their families had both left the village of Hittin in northern Palestine in 1948.
Oyoun skillfully works with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the camp to provide educational and psychosocial support.
Oyoun received her education in the camp. She wanted to study media and communications to become a reporter. However, as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, she is prohibited from working in many fields. She eventually enrolled on an applied business computer course at the national university in Lebanon. However, after three years of being unable to get any work in the corporate sector, she moved into the humanitarian sector. She initially worked with the NGO Action Against Hunger, then moved to ANERA, where she is involved in the refugee education program.
During my visit, we talked about a broad range of subjects: football – she is a Juventus fan; her dreams and ambitions; and the one subject that unites all Palestinians – the ‘right to return’. She showed me a painting by one of her pupils with a key central to the artwork. The key represents the ‘right to return’. When I was in Ramallah a few years ago, I was shown a key by a young man that had been given to him by his grandfather. It was the key to his family home that he had not seen since 1948.
Oyoun was kind enough to invite me to her family home in the Palestinian refugee camp to meet her brother and sister and their little daughter, her parents, and her paternal grandmother Mahmouda Mohammad Shabayta.
Mahmouda Mohammad Shabahta, Oyoun’s Grandmother. Ein El Helweh.
A Palestinian Family History Unfolds
Her grandmother was born and raised in the northern Palestinian town of Hittin. In 1948, there were rumors that the Israeli army was moving from village to village, forcing – at gunpoint –all Palestinian civilians to leave their homeland. In May 1948, when she was eight years old, heavily armed soldiers reached Hittin. The entire village was forced to leave, and her parents were left with the promise from a British officer that they would be free to return to their house in a week.
They headed north, and after a walk of many days, reached the port of Sidon in Lebanon. They, along with the other refugees in Lebanon, were housed in a church there. After a short time, the family made their way to Tripoli in the north of the country and stayed there until 1951 when they returned to the newly developed Ein El Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, where she has been ever since.
Mahmouda Mohammad Shabahta holding some pebbles from her Palestinian village of Hittin. She has been a refugee in Lebanon since 1948.
She has returned to Hittin three time since – her last trip being in 1995. Travel for all Palestinians to their homeland has since became more and more restrictive. Since the second Intifada in 2000, all such travel has been stopped. Oyoun and her generation have never been allowed to visit Palestine. Any attempt to cross the border by Palestinians is met with force. Oyoun’s own efforts to return have been unsuccessful. On her last attempt, she and her friends were fired upon.
Before I left, Oyuon’s grandmother showed me some pebbles from the lake at Hittin that she collected on her last and final visit. She, her children and grandchildren simply want to return to the place they call their home and hang onto any memento’s they can.
Before I left Ein El Hilweh, I was taken to a meeting center set up for all those in the camp who can trace there routes back to the village of Hittin. There is one like it for each village in northern Palestine. I was shown some fascinating photographs of how the village looked before before 1948. The final shot I took was of an elderly, very dignified, Palestinian sitting in front of a picture of Hittin taken in 1934. He, like Mahmouda Mohammad Shabahta, was forced to leave the village in 1948 – and has been as refugee in Lebanon ever since.
Palestinian refugee sitting in front of a picture of his home village of Hittin in northern Palestine
PHOTOS: ©Ron Coello