DBAYEH, Lebanon (CNS) — The narrow lanes between the concrete block houses in the Dbayeh Refugee Camp are called “Street No. 1,” “Street No. 2,” “Street No. 3” and “Street No. 4.”
The “Study Station” where the Palestinian refugee camp’s 350 children get after-school help with English, French, Arabic and math is located on Street No. 1. The tiny library where the children congregate in the evening and attend “Sunday school” (on Tuesdays) is on Street No. 2, not far from a tiny grocery store.
Dbayeh is the only all-Christian Palestinian refugee camp remaining in Lebanon.
Although the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees officially lists the camp’s population at 4,000 people, camp leaders said there probably are only about 2,000 there today. Most of the others are living abroad.
The school at the 21-acre camp was heavily damaged during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war and never reopened. Although most of the children and more than half of the people registered as living in the camp were born in Lebanon, they are not Lebanese citizens.
Elias Habib, 41, grew up in the camp, which opened in 1956. He is the Dbayeh director of the Joint Christian Committee, an ecumenical organization that works to improve life in the camps, primarily through educational projects. The committee runs the after-school program and the library at Dbayeh.
He said the 400,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon were not granted work permits until recently and even now they face serious restrictions in the types of work they can get. They are not allowed to own property in Lebanon.
“Working for the JCC and living here wasn’t a choice. I have no right to buy a house somewhere else and I can’t get a job somewhere else, so I’m here trying to improve conditions,” he told reporters Nov. 9 during a visit sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which funds projects at Dbayeh.
“Usually, no one is born a refugee,” he said, because refugees are people forced to flee their homeland. But generations of Palestinians born to those who originally fled their homes immediately before and after Israeli statehood in 1948 are still considered refugees.
“If you are born in a country, you should be a citizen of that country,” Habib said. “But in Lebanon, if you are born a refugee, your children are born refugees and even if your son marries a Lebanese, he’s still a refugee.”
Paul Damouni, who also works for the JCC, is proud to be a Palestinian but said, “I’d take Lebanese citizenship for one reason: because I’d have rights.”
No one is starving at Dbayeh, he said, but the lack of work means parents cannot afford to send their children to good schools. That means that even if they could get scholarships, they wouldn’t get into good universities. The lack of a university degree seriously impairs their ability to get a good job — if and when Lebanese law is amended to give Palestinians full access to the job market.