A Stream of Disconnect

 Chatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon. May 23, 2018. 

 Chatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon. May 23, 2018. 

I sat with my head in a cloud of Arabic — I started to drift, as if I was drifting out of my body to avoid what was happening right in front of me. Disconnect. It was too much. Too much Arabic for my fourth day back in Beirut. And definitely too much reality.

About an hour earlier, I had a good cry with the Centre’s director. I have worked with her for the past 8 years off and on, and I trust her completely. We had a conversation about the deteriorating situation of Palestinian refugee camps. This isn’t a theory or a debate; this is her reality. This is THE reality. The impact of the United States pulling two-thirds of UNRWA’s funding is undeniable. I still don’t have the words to describe the impact of that callous decision on a vulnerable population. And I didn’t have words for this woman; all I could offer was tears.

For fourteen years, I have worked in Palestinian refugee camps. Fourteen years of watching the living situation of Palestinian refugees worsen, not improve. This is happening right in front of my eyes, in real time. At the same time, I watch others seemingly not care or maybe not understand what is actually happening. Many choose ignorance of Palestinian refugees or use them as fodder for debate -- especially if it is directed at anger with Israel. Either way, you can remain aloof, separated. Either way, you don’t have to fully engage their pain, confusion, and overwhelming need. 

I watched as a stream of people came into JCC’s Sabra centre that morning. JCC runs educational programs -- preschool, literacy classes, and vocational training. I watched as refugees, both Palestinian and Syrian, asked, demanded, pleaded for help. They all needed money for everything under the sun -- for operations, travel papers, food. Only two of the families that morning wanted to register their children for school — which is the actual purpose of the centre. They were added to a waiting list of 50+ names for next fall because the school year is almost finished. 

Now it is Ramadan. Muslims are supposed to give alms during this time. For those in my country, think of the generosity of Christmas time. Ramadan is very similar in that regard. So, that explains the sheer number of people asking for money. Many remained seated even after their conversation ended and the next family in line pled their case. Perhaps, their presence would change the answer they received. Maybe perseverance would. Maybe, it was just a very Arab way of trying to get what you want. Regardless, the room filled with people, none receiving the answer they wanted. But, no one was asked to leave. The staff sat with them. They didn’t isolate themselves from them. Maybe that’s the difference between our cultures. 

Because, it be fully honest, I drifted. Granted, my excuse is that I was really tired of trying to follow the conversations in Arabic. Is that the excuse? Or was it my uncomfortableness with the pain and desperation? Did it tap into my pain and my inadequacy to meet their needs? I caught myself and challenged myself to be present in the situation and to be in pain. And to listen to the Arabic, no matter how much it made my head hurt. And to make sure I acknowledged everyone in that room. 

Separation makes it easier, doesn’t it? Walls, fences, society levels…some people can be in, others need to be out — especially those who make us uncomfortable. 

The same week, I helped guide an American team of pastors through one of the camps. They really didn’t react to all we told them about the situation or even the camp itself. It was painful for the staff to see what appeared to be indifference to their situation. I couldn’t tell if it was that, or confusion, or not being able to process it all, or if they were having their own out-of-body experience, or if it was shock. 

I made it very clear that there is a need here and how they could help. They gave the director a few gifts from their church, not anything that would help the organization or the camp. I still have a hard time that they brought those items to Lebanon and not tangible ways to help. My hope is that they go back and put a plan together on how their church can help. But, that rarely happens.

I had the unusual position to see how they impacted the community after their visit. I’m pretty torn about it. Sometimes (or maybe all the time) coming to witness or learn about those suffering isn’t good enough. One must be ready and willing to help in tangible ways, not just walk through and take pictures. 

Jesus didn’t just pray for people. He fed them.