Omar is a young Palestinian living in the camp of Bourj al-Barajneh. He is one of the descendants of the Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon 63 years ago, following the Nakba [the Palestinian exodus] and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948.
What sort of life is Omar living? What does the camp look like from the inside? How would life be in dense warrens of shanties and narrow streets? How did Palestinians first come to Lebanon, and will they ever leave it?
These are the questions posed by director Philip Bijali in his film “Someone Like Me,” launched by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and funded by the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO). The film premiered at Masrah al-Madina [The City Theater] in Beirut, in the presence of Lebanese Minister of Information, Nabil Makhlouf; the Head of UNRWA in Lebanon, Salvatore Lombardo; the Head of ECHO’s Operations Department in Lebanon, Diego Escalona Batorel; and the Palestinian Embassy’s Public Relations Officer, Hassan Shishaniya.
The film comes within the framework of the project “Dignity for All,” which aims to “change Lebanese society’s view of the Palestinians and vice versa.” The movie portrays the life of Palestinian young people: Their aspirations, the challenges they face in Lebanese society, and their relations to their surroundings in a country like Lebanon. The movie also features the story of a young Lebanese man who enters the Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp for the first time.
The film is based on a fundamental question posed to many Lebanese men and women: “What do you think of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon?”
One female Lebanese citizen responded: “No, we do not want them. Let them return to their homeland.” A man shares her opinion, saying: “Lebanon has had enough.” The Lebanese position is further reflected by the answer of three young women who stated: “Palestinians in Lebanon? We know nothing about them and we are not interested in the subject!”
The answers of these young women came as no surprise to Omar. He recounted what happened to him when he first went to college. A female colleague asked him why his ID card was different than hers. “I am not a Lebanese, I am a Palestinian,” he answered. The girl was shocked. She asked him sympathetically: “But how do you manage to come to university every day and then go back to Palestine?” “I take the usual road, through Naqoura!” he replied, with sarcasm.
The ignorance of Omar’s colleague on this subject sparked off a debate over the lack of appropriate lessons in geography and history in Lebanese schools. Thus, Lebanese youth are poorly educated about the Palestinian cause.
Who are they? Are they refugees? Omar answered the obvious question which most of the Lebanese do not know the answer to, or simply choose to ignore. “I am Omar, I am Palestinian. I was born in Lebanon, I live here. I did not flee to Lebanon. My father was also born here. Maybe my grandfather was the one who fled to Lebanon.”
Bourj al-Barajneh camp is home to young Omar. This small lot was also difficult to define. Omar said that “the camp is not a tent city. After 63 year, it is no longer a camp. It has become a place of residence.” The definition provided by Omar reflects a claim for the simplest decent living conditions. It does not imply that Palestinian wish to live in the camps forever. All they demand is a little tolerance and a little less racism.
How does Omar define the camp to his Lebanese friends at university?
“I try to be simple in describing the camp. I tell them that it is a place where the sunlight does not stream in. It is an overcrowded place of narrow streets. You get lost in it only to go back to the place you started from. The camp is getting larger. Today, seven camps make up Bourj al-Barajneh. Twenty-five thousand Palestinians live there, in an area of only one square kilometer,” said Omar.
“Once I am out of the camp, it is like I am in a different world, a different country. I do not feel like I am a second or third-class citizen; I simply feel that I am not human to begin with.”
A Lebanese lady interrupts Omar to answer the following question: “Madame, is there a certain reputation [in Arabic, siyat] for the Palestinians in Lebanon?”
“Siyat, you mean ‘reputation’ [in French]? Yes, of course. Palestinians have a very bad reputation, because we [the Lebanese] provided them with shelter and they turned against us,” she replied.
Philip Bijali used these different points of views to demonstrate the huge gap between the Lebanese people and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“These interviews are further proof that we are still living under the shadow of the war’s legacy. The divided opinion on the Palestinians is still the same. It has become even more evident. As a Lebanese, I feel ashamed that after so many decades, we have not made the slightest effort to improve their situation in Lebanon,” said Bijali. “In some of the interviews, people demanded that the Lebanese State provide the Palestinians with basic services and conditions to a decent living. Others simply did not care. Some did not know much about them and were not interested to know more,” added Bijali.
Bijali included in his story a new character, Alaa, Omar’s friend. He is a young Lebanese who advocates the Palestinian cause and sympathizes with the Palestinian people in Lebanon. He also denounces the poor humanitarian conditions in which they live. Alaa entered the camp to take a closer look at what his friend has been telling him about. He was faced with millions of intertwined electrical wires and discovered that the environment was unfit for habitation.
Omar reminded the viewers that “all we want is for the Lebanese to separate the idea of resettlement from [the provision of] social services. Granting Palestinians their civil rights does not mean they will forget about their homeland, Palestine, and fail to return to it when they are able. We are deprived of everything. No matter what degrees and diplomas we hold, our nationality has the final say in whether we are employed or not. We want to forget the dark past and to get to know each other better. Lebanon is in the heart of every Palestinian and has a special place in it. Lebanon is my second home, after Palestine.”