Eid Mubarak from Bourj el Barajneh, Lebanon
“Keeping people in a refugee camp is punishing people who have committed no crime except trying to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Displaced.
The first time I entered the urban refugee camp Bourj el Barajneh in 2017, I froze inside. The camp is located in the periphery of Beirut, Lebanon, and is a cramped home to over 50 thousand Palestinian and Syrian refugees, among other nationals.
On streets and alleys, electric wires and water pipes mingle to form a dangerous roof on top of our heads. Water drips constantly from the pipes, creating ponds on the ground and turning the streets muddy and slippery. In certain areas, because of the informal construction, the sunlight doesn't go through and the air isn´t renovated in the alleyways. The living conditions are precarious and very poor.
The sensation is suffocating. I remember thinking, “this camp is unsuitable for human beings”.
In August 2018, I return to the camp. My thoughts and feelings about it remain the same, as do the living conditions.
It's Eid Al-Adha eve, an Islamic holiday also known as Festival of Sacrifice, celebrated worldwide. Traditionally, sheep and cows are sacrificed, gifts are exchanged and people wear new clothes.
While some Muslim families prepare for the feast, others struggle to survive through the holiday.
In the street known as the Syrian street, we walk in front a grocery shop and meet Moussa and Abbas. The Syrian brothers, who are 12 and 11 years old, work from 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Their earning is enough to help supporting the family with food, but not enough to live with dignity. Some days, the workload is heavy, while other they sit and chat.
Moussa and Abbas fled Raqqa and the self-proclaimed Islamic State with their family three years ago. Before escaping Syria, they studied, helped their father and enjoyed the river. Despite missing their home and friends, they found a new place to live in Beirut.
Yet, the war stole their childhood. And the dreams of becoming a football player and racer were replaced by survival mode.
Their concerns revolve around supporting their parents and sisters. In that particular day, the boys were upset because they didn't have enough money to ensure a meal for the Eid Al-Adha, let alone to buy new clothes.
Listening to their plight, I couldn´t help but I ask myself, “what can I do for these boys today?”
We leave their house and go to a men´s shop in the Syrian street. Another two boys from Raqqa, Ismail and Fahed, join us in the shopping. The group choose their new clothes and shoes. The old ones were practically rags. Instead of buying and deciding for them, we include the kids and shop with them. They decide on their own what they want wear. This practice is a simple opportunity for the boys to exercise their agency and sense of belonging.
We include two other children in our shopping list, Moussa and Abbas´ youngest brother, Faisal, and their newborn niece, Saffa.
I walk away the camp that evening with a mission - raise awareness, touch people and mobilise gifts for more children. And I had only a few hours to fulfil my intention. After sharing the story and photos with some friends, many hearts and pockets were touched.
On the following afternoon, my last one in Lebanon, we take more kids to shoes and clothes shops. Unfortunately, because of the holiday, most of the shops in and around the refugee camp were closed. Otherwise, more kids could have benefited from this speed campaign.
With the resources raised, we will be able to carry a similar action in Italy, were the living conditions of refugee children are equally squalid.
Seeing the children´s smiles and playfulness was priceless.
I´m aware buying new clothes during Eid Al-Adha falls far from a real and sustainable solution to those boys and families. Nonetheless, given the state of destitution and abandonment those kids experience in a daily basis, the gifts carry a message of care and generosity. In a world where the predicament of people fleeing war and persecution has fallen in places of forgetfulness, humanising and individualising their needs and wishes ring more true than ever.