DAY 5: Shatila's space problem

Day 5 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. 8, 2010 —  I always thought Beirut a small city, so I wasn't surprised when on my first night here last week, I glimpsed two old colleagues (from when I last lived in Beirut between 2004 and 2009), right on the sidewalk.

News here also travels lightning fast.

But I didn't know the meaning of small until Shatila.

Hilary Childs-Adams, the Canadian ambassador to Lebanon, tours Shatila refugee camp with Mahmoud Abbas, director of the camp's Children and Youth Centre. ((Ahmed Kouaou/Radio-Canada))

An acquaintance there greeted us this afternoon with the latest news: "Did you know the Canadian ambassador was here today?"

We did. We had heard she would visit and came across her near a tiny Shatila mosque in the mid-morning. Hilary Childs-Adams has been in the job for about two months and, along with some staff, was touring the camp for the first time.

There are few secrets in Shatila.

News of a funeral reached the alleys today before the procession of men marched through, carrying the body on their shoulders and chanting, "God is greater." Everyone, we're told, knows about the alcoholic who lives down the very same alley.

In Shatila, your business is everyone else's; there's just no avoiding it.

The camp is tiny. Easy enough to say that it is about one square kilometre. But it's only after a few days of wandering around it that you realize just how small that is, and just what that means for its residents.

It is so small that many of Shatila's houses face off across alleys so narrow only a sliver of sky is visible through the hanging laundry — alleys where only a wheelbarrow or a scooter can get through, alleys where private family conversations are easily audible.

A schoolboy walks home in one of the narrow alleys that are typical of Shatila. The alleys afford little privacy or light and some are so narrow that residents can reach through a window and easily touch the building across from them. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC) )

It is so small many homes are cramped, dark dwellings of a room or two, where a sitting room often doubles as a bedroom at night and where cooking space is at a premium. One woman I chatted with today was frying fish out in the open. (And you don't have to ask what your neighbour is cooking: in such close quarters, the odours waft through your window uninvited — and so do those of any nearby garbage.)

It is so small that in some alleys, you could reach through a window and easily touch the building across from you, shake hands with those who live there. A recent building boom hasn't helped; one home we visited lost one of its two windows when the neighbours built a wall that completely sealed it off. They told us no one had bothered to ask if they minded.

It is so small that Shatila is bursting at the seams.

There is no more room to expand and accommodate the growing population, and the majority of residents cannot afford to leave and aren't allowed to build or own property elsewhere. So, everyone who can afford it is building vertically: partly to accommodate their own growing families but also to rent out space and take advantage of a rising demand for dwellings at rock-bottom prices.

A view of rooftops in Shatila. Because the camp cannot expand in surface area beyond the one square kilometre it takes up, buildings are reaching heights of eight floors or more to accommodate a growing population and demand for cheap housing. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

So, construction noise now joins the daily din of scooters honking, people yelling and the moathen calling the faithful to prayer. Mounds of bricks and metal block large parts of narrow roads. Bits of concrete fall from construction sites, and water drips onto the heads of passersby.

Shatila is one of the most crowded places in the region. Easy enough to say that, too. But what it means practically is an overflowing waiting room at the camp's UN-run medical clinic on Monday morning. It means rickety, eight-storey buildings where even the roof is occupied. It even means cemeteries are running out of space, leaving some families with no choice but to bury relatives in the same graves as those who died before them.

After several previous visits, it was easy enough to say that I knew Shatila, but I really didn’t.

Beirut seems vast now.

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