IGP Stories

Revisiting the research field in the midst of a Pandemic

RELIEF Mass Displacement Middle East

Samar Maqusi

Reflections from Burj el Barajneh camp and Beirut city

It has been a year since I last visited Lebanon to conduct my field research; investigating socio-spatial forms of vitality that displaced communities construct to maintain livelihood and resist a protracted displacement; a joint work with Prof Nick Tyler through the project RELIEF. When I left Lebanon back in November of 2019, the country was in turmoil grappling with various challenges, most prominent of which was the people’s uprising. In fact, the uprising can be seen as the final act of the year 2019, in a chapter full of accumulated economic woes.

Beirut city

As soon as I touched down in Rafiq Hariri Airport three weeks ago now, embraced by the usual collective clap Arab passengers award every time we reach a destination safely, I knew some things have not changed. This was strangely re-assuring at a time when everything and everywhere seems to be changing, and quickly so. Like other airports globally, the airport in Beirut has put the common Pandemic measures, yet in Lebanon, it surely comes with a special flair of ease. Indeed, this easiness was apparent not only inside the airport, but also outside and all the way into Beirut and Burj el Barajneh camp. I did not know what to expect, although it was a clear intention of mine to observe how the city and the camp have been affected by the Pandemic and the port blast. It turned out, in the Lebanese street, the former two are not on top of the list of Lebanese worry. Lebanon has been experiencing a financial crisis directly related to the crash of the local currency against its guardian; the American dollar. Lebanon’s lira has been tied to the dollar since the mid 1990s, with both accepted as legitimate currency of retail across the country, while reserving the superiority of the dollar through locking import/export exchange to it. In other words, Lebanon’s incoming and outgoing resources which guarantee its livelihood are tied to the dollar, and not its local currency. If the dollar falls; so does the livelihood.

Burj el Barajneh camp

Three days into my stay in Beirut, I was able to grasp the impact of all of this. I was eager to visit Burj el Barajneh camp; the Palestinian camp where I conduct my research in, located in Dahyeh suburb, an extension of Beirut city. I wondered if the camp shared a similar mood as the city, and whether the effects of the covid-19 pandemic would be visible.

Palestinian camps in Lebanon, and all Near East host countries, are serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which has been experiencing its own existential challenges, very much due to financial and political abandonment by its major donor; the United States. Nonetheless, the Palestinian camp in Lebanon is a unique and complex space. Although it has always enjoyed a reputation of being recalcitrant when compared to other spatialities in Lebanon, the Palestinian camp is in fact a space always in harmony with its host geography; continuously reforming itself to respond to the never ending challenges it finds itself inhabiting. For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, socio-spatial reinvention is perennial. At a time of a global pandemic, this inclination is no different. In a spatial density of “80,000 people/km2,” Palestinian refugees are in practice left to fend for themselves. Therefore, is it fair that we observe socio-spatial behaviors and adherences in response to the pandemic the same way we would if we were observing Beirut city, or any other non-camp space for that matter? I would presume not.

When I arrived at the camp, I immediately understood the mood. It was one of, “We don’t trust the governments or the media, so let’s listen to facts on the ground.” The refugee community does not think the virus is a hoax, far from it. Yet, within a volatile context in today’s Lebanon, and an uncertain geography as the Palestinian camp there, refugees and even many Lebanese communities found themselves forced to address and manage livelihood beyond the virus. A prime shared concern in the camp is the acute rise in unemployment amongst refugees –who overwhelming depend on labor markets, further burdened by the lack of incoming monthly stipends many refugee families depend on from abroad due to the Lebanese financial crisis. “According to Adnan Al-Rifai in Ein El-Hilweh [refugee camp], the effect of the pandemic has been to increase the unemployment rate amongst Palestinian workers from 60 to 90 per cent.”

The effects of the pandemic on social activity and behavior was also evident inside the camp. The usual buzzing of street passersby and the common moments of conversation along the way are absent. In fact, the movement inside the camp felt more like movement for access –into or out of the camp, rather than sociality. The social greeting has also understandably changed, whereby the common embrace of two kisses on the cheek (and three if done the Lebanese way) were no longer practiced, and instead, an apologetic visual embrace sufficed.

Recent official data show that, “As of 5 October, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) the total number of Covid-19 cases among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was 1,282 with 478 active cases and 31 deaths.” This has prompted the UNRWA to utilize its only Vocational Training Center “Siblin” to become a quarantine center, so as to respond to the lack of spatial options to physically distance inside the camps. While I have come to realize that most of these cases exist in Palestinian communities living outside the camps, the feedback from inside surprised me. While in the camp, I was frequently inquiring about known existing cases from community members I met, and from Haifa hospital located inside Burj el Barajneh camp, while constantly receiving “we have no cases” as an answer. As I was writing this piece, I asked one of my local partners in the camp to update me on the most recent number of covid-19 cases admitted to the Haifa hospital in the camp. The feedback I received was zero cases admitted, thankfully. It is very difficult to ascertain the reasons for the lack of covid-19 cases, yet, while discussing this in the camp, some thoughts included the fact that the camp’s environment is not, and has never been ideal, thus the Palestinian refugees believe they have developed an immunity system stronger than for those who live outside the camp. The salty water that runs through the camp’s pipes since the civil war, and is used in shelters for bathing and house chores –while the drinking water is purchased in gallons, is also argued to be directly associated with immunity. While this is a phenomena worthy of its own study, one other attribute to keep in mind while studying the camp in the midst of a pandemic, is that while the camp is very much integrated in the Lebanese context, it nonetheless underwent a history of state-led stigmatization which alienated the camp in various forms. This resulted in the absence of a dynamic sociality coming into the camp from the outside, thus in some ways, confining the camp to its inner content.

Building construction --expanding space— inside the camp continues to be a feature unearthed by these events. I have always argued that spacehas always been a catalyst for managing and living out protracted displacement in the Palestinian camp, and the events of the pandemic had little impact on it. Inhabiting a displaced geography which has undergone relentless episodes of destruction and reconstruction, means that you understand space to be malleable; plastic like. Cement is no longer that rigid, hard material. In a displaced geography, cement is more elastic than rubber. As I contemplated all of this with Salah (a longtime local partner in the camp) and his friend Tayseer, they immediately tell me; “I would never think of investing in space outside the camp.” Curious to understand further, I asked; Why would you choose to invest in “right-of-use” rather than ownership? With a gentle smile they remind me; “Samar, we are in Lebanon.” For the Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian camp with all its uncertainty and hardship, remains a more trusted and stable geography. This is of course a much-simplified conclusion. Yet, the camp offers a form of trustand accountability that non-camp space in Lebanon cannot afford to offer them. This is very much related to the violent history of Lebanon and itssectorization of the Lebanese geography. Thus, for the Palestinian refugees, if their property was assaulted inside the camp, they can trust that there would be pathways for accountability which do not exist for them in the Lebanese political system.

Figure 1: Showing continued construction of vertical space in Burj el Barajneh camp, even amidst a pandemic. ©Samar Maqusi 2020

Way forward

The way forward is unclear, not only for Palestinian refugees, but for the whole of Lebanon. To me, it seemed like communities in Lebanon are holding on to their last breath in hopes of a major shift in global and regional politics. For the Palestinians, the victory of Joe Biden as the next elected president offers a glimpse of hope --although fragile-- that funds to the UNRWA will be re-instituted and thus many abandoned programs of assistance can resume. For Lebanon at large, a form of global aid is also hoped for, to ease the immediate strains of the financial and health crisis. Yet, as many have informed me inside the camp and the city, regardless of how much aid Palestinians and Lebanese get, history has proven that large aid packages are unsustainable and easily violated by corruption. This prompted me to ask both communities; Do you trust your government and institutions to elevate you out of this crisis? The answer from both sides was a resounding “absolutely not.”

Image credit: Samar Maqusi

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