Lebanon: Ahmed, 72, Palestinian refugee, 'I am a guest here'

© Dina Debbas

Twenty years ago, when she first moved in, Itaf, 54, could see the airport from her house. Today it is no longer visible - the view is blocked by buildings that jostle for space in the densely-packed Burj el-Barajneh camp.

Houses grow ever taller, as extra storeys are added to ease the overcrowding below. Burj el-Barajneh can only grow upwards, as its boundaries have been enveloped by the ever-expanding suburbs of the capital, Beirut. Itaf lives here with her 72-year old husband, Ahmed, and she tells the story of how he arrived here over 60 years ago.

“Ahmed left Palestine on May 15, 1948, when he was just 10,” said Itaf. “After a long journey, with many stops and starts, he arrived in Tripoli and moved into a tent. Later he came to Burj el-Barajneh, where there was again a tent, provided by a UN agency.

“Now it’s all different - a house has been built and floors have been added so that my sons could live here too. The one-storey house is a tall building now.”

Despite the extra space, living conditions are still basic.

“We have electricity for only a few hours a day, we have constant power cuts and the water is salty, but it’s all that we’ve got.”

Itaf and Ahmed’s extended family now comprises some 50 people, not all of whom have stayed in the camp. One of their sons was killed during the War of the camps in 1987.

Ahmed welcomes us, saying, “My house is your house.” He has recently lost his sight, as a result of a cataract. He used to work in a petrol station, but now relies on social handouts. For the past two years he has also been receiving support from an MSF psychiatrist.

Itaf describes how Ahmed’s behaviour had changed over time.

“He was a quiet man before, but he became very aggressive and he could not endure anything anything longer: the shouts of children, the laughter of neighbours, the noise of moped. He was shouting with no apparent reason, he was smashing furniture in anger, he was a nuisance to relatives and neighbours, he had headaches. He even tried to commit suicide...”

The mental health support Ahmed has been receiving has helped him to cope with his psychological pain. He has returned to his former self: quiet, but with a broad, gentle smile. He tells us: “Here, in this camp, I’m not at home; I’m a guest. I used to like the good things in life. I loved life - I was a friend of the “kief” (???). I danced with my wife at every opportunity, especially at weddings, and I loved to sing.” He addsedwistfully, “I would so love to return to Palestine, if only it were possible…”