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Burj al-Barajneh: The production of urban space and forms of local engagement in the Palestinian refugee camp.
Posted on Mar 24, 2021 |
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Many of Burj al-Barajneh camp’s Palestinian inhabitants originate from villages in the Northern Galilee, annexed by the state of Israel in 1948.The establishment of a refugee camp in Burj al-Barajneh in 1949 was due in large part to long-standing, regional socio-economic ties between Beirut and the villages and towns of the Galilee. Such ties between prominent families of Tarshīha and Burj al-Barajneh led to a number of families from Tarshīha finding refuge in Burj al-Barajneh in 1948.
the Author
Research Affiliate at Smith College
Burj al-Barajneh: The production of urban space and forms of local engagement in the Palestinian refugee camp.
©Adra Kandil

Many of Burj al-Barajneh camp’s Palestinian inhabitants originate from villages in the Northern Galilee, annexed by the state of Israel in 1948.The establishment of a refugee camp in Burj al-Barajneh in 1949 was due in large part to long-standing, regional socio-economic ties between Beirut and the villages and towns of the Galilee. Such ties between prominent families of Tarshīha and Burj al-Barajneh led to a number of families from Tarshīha finding refuge in Burj al-Barajneh in 1948.

The League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (LRCS)responsible at the time for the welfare of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon found it easier to disburse humanitarian aid to an already assembled group of refugees. Access to humanitarian aid, along with a desire to reunite with lost family members and fellow villagers, increased the number of refugees sheltering in Burj al-Barajneh. In 1949 the settlement was recorded by the LRCS as a refugee camp.

Living conditions in Burj el-Barajneh during those early years were dire. An insufficient number of tents provided the only shelter. Unrelated families were forced to share tents intended for single families. Many tents were already worn out from previous use, and even newly issued ones were badly damaged by the heavy winter rains. Toilets were communal. Water had to be filled in jars and cans and carried over a long distance.

The situation improved marginally when UNRWA was established in 1950. Each family was allocated a tent to itself, and refugees were permitted to reinforce their tents with low walls of beaten earth. Over time families were able to construct one to two room shelters from corrugated iron and scrap wood. However, the construction of more durable structures was strictly prohibited, as were private toilets.

 These strictures were strictly enforced by the Deuxième Bureau which maintained an office at the entrance of the camp. Initially established under the French Mandate as a military intelligence gathering and counterespionage unit directed at those deemed threats to French authority, the Deuxième Bureau was retained in this capacity after Lebanese independence, albeit for the new Lebanese state. Refugees were prohibited from leaving the camp between dusk and dawn. Permits were required to visit family and friends in other camps. Gatherings of more than a certain number were prohibited; hence even weddings and funerals required Deuxième Bureau permission.

These shared experiences of forced displacement, impoverishment, and the Deuxième Bureau’s control engendered a new collectivity based on living within the camp. This new collectivity was shaped by the kinship-based norms and practices of the pre-Nakba village, which were transposed on to it. The layout of refugee dwellings followed the pattern of pre-Nakba village houses in consisting of a number of rooms encircling an open courtyard or dār. Upon the marriage of a son, a new room would be built to accommodate his burgeoning family. Since relatives and former neighbours preferred to live next to each other, over time, hayys (neighbourhoods) came into being. As the number of family and village clusters grew, so did the need for directions. In giving directions, people began to refer to an area by the name of the family–or their former village in Palestine–inhabiting it. Many of these place names are still in use.

Over the course of the 1950s new social and economic ties began to develop between Burj al-Barajneh camp’s inhabitants and their Lebanese neighbours. Many refugees found work in the orchards owned by Christian families in nearby villages. The construction of the Beirut International Airport in 1954 provided additional employment opportunities to the refugees, as well as to Sunni and Shi'a rural migrants from the south and the Bek’ā, who also settled in the area. Having in common the experience of rural to urban migration and the class status of impoverished, new migrants to the city, ties began to form between the emerging migrant and camp communities. The formation of these ties was facilitated by a shared kinship-based ethos, and further cemented by intermarriage.

 These relationships were not uniformly harmonious and free of conflict. However, by dint of working and living together a solidarity came into being and was articulated through various discourses. At times it was expressed in the language of class; at other times as revolutionary pan-Arabism; and at other times in the language of kinship.

The establishment of the PLO’s base of operations in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was accompanied by the formation of a range of health, educational, and social welfare institutions in Bourj al-Barajneh that provided much needed services to Lebanese and Palestinians alike. Of these, Haifa Hospital alone survived the PLO’s withdrawal in 1982. Initially established as a clinic by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Haifa Hospital continues to provide a broad range of low-cost medical services to inhabitants of the camp, as well as its environs.

 Out-migration from the camp and the influx of Syrian refugees since the onset of war in 2012 have significantly changed the composition of the camp over the last two decades. The camp’s proximity to the city and comparatively lower cost of living has created an informal rental housing market that is an important and steady source of income for many families who rent out rooms and apartments to Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from other camps, and foreign migrant workers. Hence, the services provided by Palestinian NGOs established after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, as well as by Haifa Hospital, function as a potential bridge between the different communities that today inhabit Bourj al-Barajneh camp. 

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Mar 2021
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