Culture·Point of View

Seeing in the dark: My World Refugee Day story

Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize when you come along your bridge to a better future.

Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize when you come along your bridge to a better future.

The author, Chaker Khazaal. (Photographer: Adrian Fiebig)

As a young student, much of my studying took place while curled up under one of the streetlights outside Bourj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Long after the sun had set, I'd strain my eyes for hours to read underneath the lamp's faint orange glow because the power had been cut off from our camp. It was through this that I discovered a passion for learning and literature that would set me on the path for where I am today.

My camp was just one of the 58 locations established in 1948 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in an attempt to provide temporary shelter to millions of Palestinians who were displaced. Despite UNRWA efforts, many of these refugee camps suffer from overpopulation, inhumane living conditions, and a lack of critical resources.

In Bourj El Barajneh, constant electrical problems within the camp meant the power in our home was out more often than not. Anybody that wished to read after sundown resorted to straining their eyes under the faint makeshift street lamps scattered throughout the area.

This kind of thing was commonplace; we always made the most of what we had. A trait that developed from those alleyway corners was to become a motto in my life.

I grew up as a third-generation Palestinian refugee, and I was raised into a community that never ceased to surprise me with its ingenuity and determination.

With the streets already overcrowded, the narrow alleyways became our children's playground. We couldn't always get a hold of a ball, but we seemed to have just as much fun kicking around empty cans instead. There were no gyms for the adults to exercise, but my grandfather taught me how large cans filled with cement could be converted into improvised dumbbells.

These are just a few examples of the countless lessons we learned from our elders to make the best of the hand we'd been dealt. As our parents discovered before us, the only way to thrive as a refugee is to become incredibly persistent and resourceful. It is ingrained in refugee culture to pass along this life skill, to prepare future generations for the hardships of displacement.

When you aren't born with much, you can only dream big. I would imagine myself as a famous actor, or one of the heroes from a book I had read during a streetlight session. I thought when I grew older I would travel outside of my camp and learn what other stories are out there. I wanted to tell the world my own story, and the stories of other refugees around the world.

As a refugee, it's imperative to stay focused on your dreams even though you know that the opportunities are few and far between. I knew that if I wanted to achieve my aspirations, I would have to work every day to be ready to capitalize on my chance when it came along. And while I may have strained my eyes a bit, eventually my dreams started coming true.

I received notice that my scholarship application to continue my education in Canada was approved. Some time later I reached another dream landmark when I self-published my first book, Confessions of a War Child.

Now I've written four novels, and I couldn't be more grateful for the dingy, run-down street lamps that let me keep reading when there was no other light to be found. Sometimes it's difficult to recognize when you come along your bridge to a better future.

I longed for a home, for a sense of belonging, and for a chance to create positive impact outside of the tiny camp I grew up in.

I believed in myself, but what I needed was for somewhere to believe in me. I'm so thankful for Canada, and all countries that give refugees like myself a chance for a new life. There's something special about refugee dreamers; with our determination to accomplish so much with so little, just imagine what we could achieve with a level playing field.

I believe this unique ability to adapt, coupled with resilience, is what best defines not only Palestinian refugees, but all of the more than 60 million refugees worldwide. I write this piece on World Refugee Day for all displaced peoples — you can still find a way to make it work, even if the sun has gone down.


Chaker Khazaal is the author of 'Tale of Tala' (2017) and 'Confessions of a War Child' trilogy (2013-2015). Canadian-Palestinian writer, reporter, public speaker, Chaker grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. In 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Global Leader of Tomorrow Award, by York University in Toronto, for his excellent academic and leadership skills. In 2015, Chaker was named Esquire Man of the Year. In 2016, he was ranked by Arabian Business Magazine #1 in the list of 100 Most Influential Arabs in the World. A savvy spokesperson featured in print and digital media, Chaker is a strong advocate for both refugees and aspiring writers, engaging the youth of today through his articles, books and social media engagement. His stories have powerful messages focusing on Middle East politics, and current world events. He has traveled overseas to war zones, conducting interviews for his books and articles. Twitter/Instagram: @ChakerKhazaal Facebook: fb.com/ChakerKhazaalPage

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