Ouyoun is an Anera education field coordinator in Ein el Helweh camp. She is a third-generation Palestinian refugee and resident of the camp.
Story and photos by Ron Coello, 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 Oyoun lives. This is an excerpt from his project.
Inside the Most Dangerous Palestinian Refugee Camp
I first traveled to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein El Hilweh in southern Lebanon shortly before the 2006 Lebanon War.
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.
“The majority of [the camp’s] population is Palestinian, and the eldest refugees have been here for 68 years.”
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 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.
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.
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, Oyoun’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 Shabayta, was forced to leave the village in 1948 – and has been a refugee in Lebanon ever since.