NAHR AL-BARED/BEDDAWI, Lebanon: The winding streets of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp are reproduced in precise detail on the walls of the small office that John Whyte occupies there.
Despite the scale of the challenge, the plans embody potential in redesigning Nahr al-Bared, which was completely destroyed in a 2007 war between the Lebanese armed forces and the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam.
“What you had then was a blank slate,” Whyte, the project manager overseeing the camp’s reconstruction, headed by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, told The Daily Star.
Once, of course, the tons of rubble and the unexploded ordnance had been removed.
Reconstruction has been underway for over a decade, and 70 percent of the camp is due to be completed by March next year. Earlier this month, 61 families received keys to new accommodations.
Starting from scratch, Whyte explained, has enabled UNRWA to provide more up-to-date accommodations than before the war.
“While UNRWA in the last 15 to 20 years has started to work on rehabilitating the infrastructure in the other camps and in rehabilitating individual shelters, it’s done on an individual basis, whereas here we’re rebuilding from scratch. ... What’s positive about this camp is that people are getting houses which are modern, well-lit, well-ventilated,” he said.
However, Nahr al-Bared faces challenges that other camps do not.
While the other 11 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are run by Palestinian factions, to uphold security after the 2007 war the Lebanese state bought the land on which the camp sits, and the Lebanese Army controls the entrances.
The government stipulated that to minimize future security concerns, each building must be no more than four stories, or 12 meters high, and there must be 3 meters between each block to enable security access.
The camp’s blueprint is based on a survey done by a local volunteer group during the 2007 war, in order to preserve the original layout of the camp as best as possible.
But the requirement for wider streets meant that each building had to shrink by about 10 to 15 percent.
In addition, the families who fled the fighting over a decade ago have now grown, putting pressure on both the size of the accommodations in addition to the limits of the camp.
“All our information is based on 2007 information,” Whyte said.
“In the intervening time, families have changed; many have increased [in size]. Children have grown up, gotten married and had kids of their own. ... What we’re building doesn’t meet the current need.”
This is a pressing concern for Ahmad Khalil, a 62-year-old resident of Nahr al-Bared who has spent most of his life in the camp. “This is my son’s,” Khalil said, stepping into a modern and clean, but decidedly small, apartment on the top floor of one of the newest buildings.
“He had a large flat [before the war]. This is half a flat – hall, kitchen, bathroom, and here’s half a bedroom,” he said.
Khalil’s wife, Amneh, is concerned for her son. “He’s got five daughters,” she said. Her own flat, she remembered, was bigger than this one. “I’m not happy in this building,” she complained.
UNRWA endeavors to build apartments as they existed before the war. “If there’s more area to go up, we give what we can, but we can’t finish it,” Whyte explained.
UNRWA is negotiating with the Lebanese authorities to allow Palestinian families to pay the organization’s contractors to complete the partially built apartments – something Palestinians are currently not allowed to do.
The reconstruction relies on external donors, so it has not been significantly affected by the recent, devastating cuts to UNRWA’s core funding. Still, the rebuilding effort is not flush with cash.
“When this project has gone on so long, it’s hard to interest donors,” Whyte noted. Signs proclaiming that a block has been completed thanks to Saudi donations are common, but funding from the Gulf is subject to the fickle winds of regional politics.
“The likes of Germany and the EU have been strong supporters, [but] I guess they have their own strategic interest in trying to support the stabilization of refugee populations,” Whyte said.
What’s more, many Palestinians are not in a position to pay for expansion themselves. Many are laborers on the site and therefore suffer a peripatetic salary based on whether sufficient funds are available for reconstruction.
In 2015, a survey by the American University of Beirut and UNRWA of socio-economic conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon found that 65 percent lived in poverty.
Twenty minutes’ drive south of Nahr al-Bared, in Beddawi, the claustrophobic, dark streets and vertiginous buildings are much more typical of Lebanon’s Palestinian camps.
Abou Rami Khattar, an official with the camp’s popular committee, remembers the early days of the camp, saying: “Houses for families consisted of one or two rooms, and all the houses were built at the same level. Each house even had a garden in front of it, where people would plant trees or such.”
Since then, Beddawi has expanded. Families have grown, while nearby crises, like the massacre at Tal al-Zaatar and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have driven more refugees into the camp, which is barely over a kilometer long on each border. As Beddawi’s population has increased, buildings have gone higher.
The Lebanese government conducts no oversight in the camp, and Abou Rami conceded that the pressure of providing accommodation overrode any attempts at planning.
“The construction process was not organized, and it was not based on any engineering vision or design. This wasn’t present, to be honest,” he said. “Maybe some buildings have cracks in their foundations, but no buildings have collapsed to date,” he added.
Palestinian refugees, whether in Beddawi or Nahr al-Bared, are unable to relieve the pressures of overcrowding on the camp by moving elsewhere in Lebanon, since they are banned from owning property.
A 2001 law prohibits “any person who is not a national of a recognized state acquiring real estate property of any kind.”
Whyte said Palestinians sometimes acquire property via Lebanese friends, but this practice is open only to those who can afford to do so.
“We Palestinians, as a result of wars, refugee crises, displacement, deprivation of job opportunities, deprivation of the right to work, to own property, to pass along inheritance – where are we supposed to go in the end?” Abou Rami asked.
“There’s no solution except for the return of the refugees to their homeland,” he said. – Additional reporting by Assil Frayha