DAY 10: Living with the trauma of camp life

Day 10 of CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed's blog from Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where she is making a web documentary for CBC and Radio-Canada about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Nov. 15, 2010 — It was just minutes into our conversation when Layla's tears began to fall.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't normally cry. I'm just upset today. It's because it's Eid."

Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice, begins tomorrow according to the Islamic calendar, and it is normally a joyous occasion.

A woman, not one of the people mentioned in story, looks out over a balcony in Shatila. Women in the camp carry a heavy burden. Many have lost husbands, children or other relatives and are left as the sole breadwinners in their families. Others suffer recurring psychological trauma. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

But it is a trying time for the many in Shatila who've lost loved ones.

Layla, whose name we've changed because she didn't want to talk publicly about her personal situation, is mourning the death of not one but four of those closest to her. Her mother died of illness 11 years ago. Layla also lost a sister and a brother in the war of the camps in 1985-86 — both killed by shrapnel of falling artillery on separate occasions.

All their pictures are hung up high on the living room wall in Layla's home, a daily reminder of grief that never goes away.

Freshest in Layla's mind though is the unexpected death of her husband of two years. Walid, also not his real name, was visiting from Europe to arrange Layla's papers so she could finally travel back with him when he was killed in the bombing during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006.

His picture remains tucked away in the far corner of Layla's cellphone memory.

"He was a good man," Layla told me, as she flicked through grainy wedding pictures on an outdated Nokia. "I was happy he came to take me away from this place."

Since we arrived, we've met many women who have been through the kind of trying times that could easily leave most people undone.

Family and friends offer some comfort to those overwhelmed by the difficulties of daily life and the memory of traumatic experiences of the past - as does religion. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Layla's experience is particularly painful but not unique. We've met many women who have lost children, siblings, husbands and, yet, have tried to go on — bearing the psychological, financial and practical consequences.

Loss is just one of the challenges women in Shatila must endure — on top of the appalling living conditions and numerous health and social problems.

Fatima, 36, is Lebanese and married to a Palestinian living in Shatila. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, working as a cleaner at a local school.

She also works a second job, commuting as far from the camp as possible to clean people's homes so that her children do not have to live with the stigma of having a maid for a mother.

Fatima has heart problems, but she also has a husband who suffers from cancer and four children with several health issues, and it's they who always take priority.

"My husband hasn't worked for four years," she said.

There's little assistance for women like Fatima, or for the women who endure rampant physical or psychological abuse, or for the women who end up aging alone.

And certainly not for women like Layla, not with so many other urgent problems here to deal with.

That means there is no therapy or concerted effort to help ease the pain of all that she and others have gone through or are still going through.

Layla's emotional reaction to our conversation also isn't unique. The pain, the trauma, in Shatila is right underneath the surface, and we've seen it revealed time and again, especially among women. It is something they just live with, the memories — and the fears they engender — never really going away.

In addition to losing her husband, mother and siblings, Layla and her family have also lost three homes in various conflicts that have affected the camp.

Children in the camp bring a welcome joy that eases some of the sorrows that haunt many Shatila residents. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

"We do not forget," Layla, 35, tells me. "[The memories] are like a video tape that you watch. … We have all suffered, and we are always afraid. It is routine."

I asked Layla and many others how they cope. It is also a question some of our readers have posed.

Layla often gets together with female friends and neighbours as one way to try to forget. It's a kind of informal therapy — an outlet that allows her to talk about her memories with others who understand.

Religion is also a comfort for Layla — especially reading the Koran — as it is for many of the camp's residents.

Many Shatila residents told me they also find joy in their children and grandchildren. But it is a joy Layla has never known.

Tomorrow morning, she will revisit her grief, along with thousands of other residents of Shatila: it is customary for Muslims to visit the graves of loved ones on the morning of Eid.

A chance to reflect on a long list of sorrows, before the celebrations begin.

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