DAY 12: Stuck in Shatila

Day 12 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. 18, 2010 —  "Will you take my son to Canada?"

You could tell Khalil Omar was only half joking. In our interview with him, and in subsequent conversations at his "express" coffee stand in Shatila, he had said repeatedly he wants his children out of the camp.

Omar’s tiny four-year-old, Hussein, is already a tough little kid. I’ve seen him standing up to boys twice his size. But what he’s embarking on is no life, his father says, and he wants to get him out — it doesn't matter to where.

Khalil Omar with his four-year-old son, Hussein. Omar is desperate to get his children out of Shatila, but few of the camp's stateless residents are able to get passports. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Then, the half-joke continues.

"So, will you take him?"

Omar would then look over and tease his child.

"Will you go to Canada with her?"

The answer was always the same: the boy would smile coyly and vigorously shake his head. It became a running joke every time I saw them, and the boy wouldn’t budge.

Given the chance, just about everyone in the camp would say yes. Several times over our relatively short time in Shatila we were asked the question, sometimes in a roundabout way.

"Take my picture? Sure! Maybe this will help get me to Canada?" joked a falafel maker I met on his shop's opening day. "Maybe they will take us away from this place?"

"I heard they’re fast-tracking immigration to Australia and Canada. Did you hear that?" one young man asked me at a grocery store last week. "Do you think it’s worth trying?"

I’ve been asked that question (and many others like it) during the years I spent reporting in the Middle East more times than I care to remember: Was there a way to get to Canada? Do you know anyone at the embassy? Do you think you could help? How long does it take?

The honest truth is that I don’t know.  

So, how did you get your passport?

I was born and raised there.

They, in turn, were born and raised in Lebanon. In fact, the vast majority of Palestinians who now live in Lebanon were born and raised there. And therein lies the crux of the problem.

Lebanon has long publicly argued that naturalizing Palestinians would be contrary to their interests and would "weaken" their "right to return" to the lands their ancestors left during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1947-48 and 1967.

But what’s always really been at stake is Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance.

Abu Al Abd fries falafel at his shop in Shatila on the first day of operations. 'Take my picture? Sure! Maybe this will help get me to Canada?' he joked. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Lebanon is the only country in the Arab world that is home to 18 religious sects — and over its history, that has led to numerous conflicts, most significantly between Muslims and Christians. The country’s very constitution is based on its sectarian breakdown: the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is always Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of parliament Shia Muslim, and so on.

(Never mind that that constitution is based on a badly outdated breakdown. In fact, the last census held in Lebanon was 1932 — partly out of fear of acknowledging that the sectarian makeup has changed — far fewer Christians, far more Shia Muslims. But that’s a whole other story.)

In any case, adding some 400,000 new citizens, most of them Sunni Muslims, would inalterably change tiny Lebanon’s sectarian mix and risk upsetting the delicate "peace" by which the country is ruled.

So, the Palestinians remain guests, mostly unwanted and without citizenship. Their only hope to gain citizenship over the past 60 years has been to immigrate to another country.

Some Shatila residents have managed to attain that dream, immigrating to Canada, Europe, Australia or the U.S. They are the envy of those who remain behind, watching as new generations are born in Lebanon — some even to Lebanese mothers — and yet remain without a passport.

(Lebanon still does not allow women to pass their citizenship on to their children; only men.)

All this has made for an uneasy relationship between the Palestinians in Lebanon and their hosts.

There have many other irritants: not least the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, which many Lebanese blame on Palestinians. Palestinians, in turn, blame the Lebanese for the killing of thousands of their civilians during the same war.

Fatimeh Abd Al Slaybeh smiles during an interview with CBC in Shatila in November 2010. CBC reporters were asked repeatedly about the possibility of immigrating to Canada while visiting the camp. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Today's Palestinians say none of it justifies their remaining in limbo.

"Lebanese have travelled the world; some of them have two or three passports. Why not give Palestinians the same treatment?" the often-repeated argument in the camp goes.

But nothing, it seems, will change the status quo.

So, Omar and others are always on the lookout for another way.

Omar, for example, had found out the Canadian ambassador was visiting the camp earlier this month, and he was determined to meet her. He says he managed to get a few minutes,  but little else.

And so, he waits.

As I walked out of the camp on my last day in Shatila, I wondered how many of the children we met — like little Hussein — will manage to escape this place; and how many will end up staying, condemned to live the same, wanting life as their parents.

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=131 size=large]