DAY 9: Dreaming big in Shatila

Day 9 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. 14, 2010 —  On the surface, Mahmoud Hashem may look very much like the humble guard at the youth centre that he is by day and the coffee server he is by night.

But he's also written and published two books — one political, the other a civil war tale based on a real story of a Christian and a Muslim falling in love during the Lebanese civil war. The third is done, he says, just waiting for a publisher to take it on.

Some Shatila residents chat on a balcony. People in the camp face many obstacles but have ambitions that go beyond the hope of escaping the daily poverty in which they live. Like anywhere, Shatila has its dreamers, who hope to succeed in writing, music, sport or other pursuits. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

"I could photocopy it, but I want it done professionally," he said, as I flipped through his two other, slick books last week. "But I can't afford it."

It might be a place firmly rooted in harsh reality, yes, but there are dreamers in Shatila.

We've come across some of them in the lengthy interviews we've conducted for our web documentary. People who, despite the many obstacles they face, have imaginations and ambitions that go beyond the dream of escaping poverty and the overarching and complicated dream of returning to the lands and homes of their ancestors — dreams and ambitions that are occasionally attained, as in Hashem's case, but oftentimes dashed.

Ashraf (or Ahmad) Majzoub's dreams fall in the latter category. As a youth, he had high hopes of playing soccer professionally. He says he once caught the eye of a Lebanese coach, who was very impressed with him. But, apparently, when he found out Majzoub was Palestinian, and not Lebanese, he told the young man, "No chance."

Majzoub, 42, also dreamt of becoming a singer.

"I have a good voice," he smiled, shyly declining to demonstrate. He had to abandon that dream early, too, when the realities of camp life fell on him as a 19-year-old.

"My brother was killed in the war of the camps [in 1985-86], and I had to take care of his children," he explained.

Today, Majzoub is unemployed. He volunteers as an unpaid guard at the water tower I wrote about last week  and has a far more humble dream: that he will be hired and paid if and when the tank becomes functional.

Ashraf Majzoub stands on the water tower where he volunteers as a guard in hopes of one day getting paid for the job once it becomes functional. He once had high hopes of becoming a professional football player. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

This isn't a place where hopes and dreams come true easily. Obviously, everyone dreams of leaving, yet few actually do. But even the most humble of dreams are just that here — dreams, even if they concern everyday matters, like those that centre around improving Shatila as a place to live.

Fadila Majzoub (no relation to Ashraf), a Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian in Shatila whom I met yesterday at a grocery store, says she's always dreaming of ways to make life easier for the camp's women.

"Why can't we have a bathhouse, a spa for women, here?" she says. "We could have someone there who could offer massages. Women work very hard and don't have time to take care of themselves."

Mohammed Al Khatib, the museum owner I wrote about last week, dreams of simply numbering the streets and homes in the camp, as one way to organize it. He also dreams of publishing his memories of his life in the camp during the various conflicts that have engulfed it.

But, like anywhere else, it's the young here who are the biggest dreamers.

Isra, an 11-year-old schoolgirl we interviewed last week, dreams simply of becoming a teacher. But due to cost alone, even such a seemingly attainable dream may never be realized.

The dreams of some of the camp's residents are more humble: enough money to afford school fees; somewhere decent to play. This oddly situated playground near a damaged building is one of only a few places children in the camp have to play. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Even less lofty, by Shatila standards, are the dreams of a young man named Ali Thaer.

He's an 18-year-old with a man's hulking body and a boy's face. We met him at a café last week, and he's been hanging around us occasionally ever since — helping us find our way.

In casual conversation, he revealed that he dropped out of school years ago, that he could neither read nor write — not even his own name.

"If there was a way, I would love to go back," he told me as we walked in Shatila one afternoon. "But there's no way."

 He says there are no schools in the camp for adult learners like him.

"He was smart at school," his mother told us."I wish he could learn so he can become something big."

Many of the parents we met also want their children to become something big.

But in a place where an accomplished author must deliver coffee for a living, dreams of any kind remain subject to harsh realities.

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