My summer at camp

Why? Asked many family and friends in Lebanon when I told them that I was volunteering at the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp this summer. Why put myself in danger? Why waste my time? Why give to people who are not my kind, my religion, who don’t belong here anyways, for this is not their land?

View entering the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut

Shatila is a part of the Lebanese war that will never be forgotten, but it is a part of Beirut that few want to remember. I’m an ex-resident of and a frequent visitor to Beirut, but I had never even known where any of the refugee camps were until I arrived there this mid-July.

The cab driver drops me off at the intersection of an airport bound boulevard and a small cross street. At the corner is a modern building housing a clothing store and a Pizza Hut. Fancy for a refugee camp I think to myself. Walking down the cross street, a dirt road filled with run-down buildings and garbage on both sides sneaks up on me. There’s no sign saying “Welcome to the Shatila refugee camp”, but I figure that I just crossed over to that squared kilometre housing about 17 000 Palestinian refugees, Kurds, and the poorest of Beirut. The contrast is surreal. Being fully aware that I have the word “STRANGER” printed in large on my forehead; I try to walk as confidently as possible, worrying that any sign of fear or confusion will cause a militiaman to kidnap me for ransom from the Canadian government. But no matter my efforts, men, young and old, stop to ask me whether I am lost, and if they can be of assistance. Children running around stop to let me pass as soon as they see me. I feel like an IRS auditor on my way to see the company documents, and all employees are either fearing me or playing nice to me. I finally let a teenage boy lead me through a dirt-filled maze of narrow alleys with a complicated network of intertwined electrical wires above blocking part of the sunlight. 4-5 story buildings stand on each side, with letters and numbers painted on some of them, I assume for identification purposes. I am finally at the Shatila Children and Youth Center where, for the next month, I am supposed to be teaching math to children of various ages.

I had contacted the community center directly and arranged to teach there 4 times a week mainly because I was fed up of spending my summer vacations going to fancy Beirut restaurants and lying on beaches in fancy resorts, ignoring the rest of the population in my native city. I am not an educator by training, but, believing that the route out of poverty is education, I am hoping I can at least get the kids a little excited about math during my stay.

Streets of Shatila
Streets of Shatila
Streets of Shatila

A few men, young and old, are sitting having coffee and invite me to join them while waiting for the centre to open. A young boy gets off his chair only to offer it to me, moving it towards the shade to get me away from the crazy July heat. It seems to be one of the main open yards of Shatila, housing a few communal buildings right next to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) housing complex. It still feels small, cluttered and very muddy. The men offer me coffee and cigarettes, and I refuse both. Then the lesson in politics, demographics and corruption begins. They compete to share their horror stories, as most present have been shot at least once during the many wars that have affected the camps in the 80s. They complain about the UNRWA’s inefficiency, the possible corruption inside the camp, and their rights (or lack there-of) as 4th generation refugees in Lebanon.

Soccer field at the outskirts of the camp

An elderly man going by the name Abou Khaled (which translates to Khaled’s father), who runs a small sports center, offers to give me a tour of the camp. At the outskirts is the soccer field, rented from a Lebanese owner, where the children are playing under the intolerable July sun. It all seems pretty chaotic as one cannot tell who belongs to which team. Abou Khaled says there are no funds to pay for jerseys. Further in through the maze is the elementary school run by the UNRWA. Due to a lack of resources, there are usually 40 some students per class.  Classes run for about half a day and many claim that the teachers are poorly paid and trained. Somewhere not far away is Al Najda, a local women’s community center.

Memorial for the Sabra and Shatila massacres

It has survived the many wars since the 80s and as a result has become a trusted refuge for abused women. With a mandate to fight illiteracy and violence, the center also gives remedial classes to children during the school year. The director of the center tells me that she runs across 8 and 9 year olds who still can’t read. The last stop and most chilling part of the tour is, ironically, a peaceful small yard hidden by trees at the edge of the camp in the municipality of Ghobeiry. At one end stands a small unimposing tombstone marking the mass burial of the hundreds that were brutally murdered during the massacres of 1982.

I finally enter the Children and Youth Center. It has a relatively spacious room filled with books, a few desktop computers, toys and arts and crafts. However, due to frequent power failures, it’s hot and dusty. As the children rowdily enter the center at about 1pm, I get the impression that they are regulars, and want to do anything but math during their summer vacation. According to a center employee, previous volunteers have attempted to teach them math with much difficulty. But I have come prepared; I will be teaching them math through games. My brilliant first game has one child purchase goods from the other children before going on a trip to Canada. I know, a little depressing for kids who have barely left the camp let alone the country. The first items to purchase are 3 suitcases, at $25 each, from the child owning a suitcase store. That’s my sneaky way of getting them to do multiplication. Before I get the chance to ask how much 25 times 3 would be, the traveler bargains her way down to $60 for all 3 suitcases. The transaction is made without me. It’s their world, their customs, and I’m just a spectator. From this point on I have no control over the classroom. I hear sounds of gun fire right outside the center; all I can think is that the war in Lebanon has just begun and I’m stranded in a Palestinian refugee camp. The laughs of the children and the director of the center quickly turn my fear into embarrassment. It was just a firecracker.

Three children walk in late with toy guns, seemingly under the protection of one of them, who is walking with an inflated chest like Rambo or something. He pushes kids around, very calmly and confidently, as he looks at me and smiles. A young terrorist in training I involuntarily think to myself. On their end, some of the girls are being lead by a young lady called Najah. She helps them cheat during games, defend them from the boys, and from me. Her threatening looks make me feel uneasy and unwelcome. By the end of my 2 hour class, I’m unquestionably overwhelmed and thoroughly relieved that my time is finally up. I am thinking of ways to explain to the center that I won’t be coming back. Wouldn’t you know it, on my way out, a young girl calls “Miss!!” from behind. When I turn around, she pulls me down and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I guess I will be coming back tomorrow.

As the days progressed, and with some time and motivation, many kids did want to show me their math skills. They were all very proud when they got answers right, showing off to their friends. That caused their friends to come to me literally pleading for more math problems to solve. Even Rambo wanted to learn, though we had to get past knowing how to write from one to ten first. I was the coveted dispenser of math, when they wanted me to be that is. On my last day at the community center, in between playing, cheating, and painting (sometimes on paper, and sometimes on the desks), Najah asked for some addition problems to solve. She took her time solving them and then gave me the paper in a very cold and bossy manner. “Look at all the answers and make sure to look at the bottom of the paper too.” I must say I skimmed through the answers so I could get to the bottom of the page. My Arabic reading skills are poor, but I gathered it to be a letter of appreciation, ending with the words “I love you” in English. I looked up at her and gave her a hug, which did not affect the cold look on her face. I guess at that point she was defending herself.

The children at the community center snapping away with my camera
The children at the community center snapping away with my cameraThe children at the community center snapping away with my cameraThe children at the community center snapping away with my camera

I highly doubt that those kids will go back to school in September begging the math teacher for more problems to solve. I can’t really tell what kind of an effect I had on them. Their effect on me was much more obvious. I was touched when the kids told me not to go back to Canada, to stay and play with them at least for a few more months. I had an ambiguous feeling of warmth inside me as I made my way back to my Montreal home while I left them to their squared kilometre of narrow dirt-filled alleys.

The website for the Shatila community center can be found here:

Rola Harmouche is a Canadian of Lebanese origin. She moved to Montreal with her family in 1989 during the civil war. She is now a PhD candidate in Computer Engineering at l’ École Polytechnique de Montréal .