How young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon keep hope alive 76 years after Nakba

5 min read
31 May, 2024

Just outside of the towering skyscrapers and seaside promenade of Beirut lies a small one-kilometre slum: the Shatila Refugee Camp.

Established in 1949 after the Palestinian Nakba, this labyrinth of narrow alleys adorned with tangled electrical wires and makeshift-turned-permanent shelters is home to over 14,000 refugees, some families having been here for decades.

Despite the bleakness of their situation, I arrived at Shatila to be greeted by a smiling Afraa Al Abdoullah, a 16-year-old refugee girl and student at the Malala-backed Alsama (“sky” in Arabic) Project school.

Afraa began learning English just a few years ago when she arrived as a refugee in Lebanon but has quickly reached the C2 level and developed an affinity for reading. She's helping Alsama combat illiteracy among young people.

Around 99% percent of those who start at Alsama are completely illiterate and innumerate in both Arabic and English. After just five months, 95% of these students gain literacy through daily language classes.

Despite their skills, refugees in Lebanon face severe hindrances to economic freedom.

Alongside not being granted Lebanese citizenship, which means limited access to public services, including education and healthcare, refugees are also not granted work permits, which means that they cannot work to support themselves and their families.

The exceptions are the construction, agriculture, and street cleaning industries, which allow the employment of refugees.

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Director of Alsama, Hiba Maarouf, 35, holds a degree in Biochemistry after being awarded a scholarship for refugee girls.

She is the first in her family to complete her education and receive a university degree. She credits her own hard work and the support of her family, who believe “[that] as refugees all that we have is our education which allows us to have a decent life.”

Nonetheless, she hasn’t been able to work in her field as a biochemist because she’s Palestinian. “But this didn’t stop me,” she said with conviction. “I followed my passion for teaching, and I became a teacher.”

Maarouf has been educating for over a decade and has been lucky enough to move out of Shatila Camp itself.

Not every family is as supportive as Maarouf’s. She explained that “every day,” Alsama teachers are up against students’ own families who sometimes don’t see women's education as worthy of investment, especially when girls are still married off relatively early in Arab society.

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Alongside her staff, Maarouf works tirelessly to run awareness sessions and speak to individual parents and families of girls to convince them to send their children to school.

“We focus on [lobbying] the fathers especially as they’re usually the decision-makers in the family,” Maarouf explained. “We give them examples of girls who are suffering because they are not well-educated.”

She believes it’s very important for girls to be educated and work to be self-dependent, even after marriage.

“[It’s possible] her husband might not be good with her, or maybe she might not get married at all,” she continued.

“And even if things are good, girls have to be educated to be able to teach their children in the house.” Their efforts have yielded massive success, with nearly 70% of the student body being women and girls.

Palestinian children enjoying a game of cricket in Lebanon [Anvee Bhutani]

After a Monday to Friday of gruelling education, on Saturday, the students head to cricket training, led by Palestinian-Syrian head coach Mohammed Khier, 38.

At first glance, cricket seems like an odd choice for a sport for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as it’s not really played in the Arab world, especially not outside of the Gulf countries.

The novelty of the sport forms a lot of the appeal though, and coupled with the fact that it is entirely non-contact, it’s an easier sell to parents.

“It was hard to get approval from the families to get girls playing with the boys, but we had awareness sessions with the families and invited them to watch games…half the cricket players are girls,” Khier said proudly.

Both Maarouf and Khier highlighted that physical training helps with the mental health of students. In a way, “cricket [is] supporting education and education [is] supporting cricket,” Khier explained.

A majority of the coaches are female students at the institute and receive McKinsey-inspired leadership training to grow their skills.

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Seventy-six years after Nakba, amidst Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip, it seems on the surface that there is no future for refugees in the camp which, since the Syrian Civil War broke out, has also swollen with Syrian refugees.

For some Lebanese nationals, the camp is a no-go zone, and populist party leaders have blamed the ongoing economic crisis on the refugee population.

In these desert conditions, Alsama tries to be an oasis, pioneering university partnerships which provide scholarships for students to study abroad and also employing former students in teaching or organizational development roles.

“But I have to be realistic — not all the students think this way,” Maarouf admitted to me. “Some students still think 'I am a refugee in the end, and I won’t have a future,’ but we try as well to encourage these students.”

She tries to lead by example. “Based on [my] experience and what [I’ve] faced — because [I’ve] lived this — I can show students how to fight to achieve their dreams. Even if [they] didn’t get an opportunity here, [they] could get one somewhere else.”

Ultimately, though, like most Palestinians, their inspiration comes from the dream of one day going back to their home. In the centre of Shatila Camp, a large silver key affixed to a tall building symbolizes this fight for the ‘right to return.’

“The hope for refugees all over the world is to go back to living in your country, to live in a peaceful way, to have human rights, and to have a decent life,” Maarouf concluded.

Anvee Bhutani is a journalist with The Telegraph, formerly at the BBC, Times, Channel 4 and more. She is passionate about global politics, progressivism and telling stories

Follow her on X: @AnveeBhutani