NAHR AL-BARED CAMP, Lebanon — A few streets away from Mohammad al-Hajj Hussein’s home, a piece of graffiti scrawls across a wall. It reads, “Typical neighborhood.”
Compared to residential neighborhoods in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, the statement rings true. There are broad concrete streets punctuated by corner shops and modern, pastel-colored apartment blocks of multi-bedroom homes and breezy courtyards. Nahr al-Bared, however, is not a typical neighborhood but a Palestinian refugee camp, places usually known in Lebanon for their overcrowded, ramshackle squalor. It is also untypical because it preserves social structures that can be traced back to villages uprooted in Palestine in 1948.
The place that Hajj Hussein’s family now calls home and is resettling into was destroyed by the Lebanese army 10 years ago. In 2007, the Lebanese army fought a ferocious battle in Nahr al-Bared against the jihadist group Fatah al-Islam, expunging the militants from the camp and displacing 27,000 Palestinians in the process. The conflict turned 95% of the camp into a wasteland.
Instead of throwing up new homes as quickly as possible, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) decided to rebuild Nahr al-Bared while adhering as closely as possible to the original layout.
“Everybody returning back to his house is happy,” Hajj Hussein, a civil engineer, told Al-Monitor, proudly sitting in the newly built apartment he received the keys to in July. Elsewhere on the block, his neighbors from 10 years ago were also getting used to their new yet old surroundings.
“We are not just trying to reconstruct a Palestinian refugee camp, but we are also trying to preserve the network of social neighborhoods and social networks that were there before the war,” said John Whyte, who manages Nahr al-Bared’s reconstruction.
When refugees fled Palestine in 1948, families and former neighbors naturally gravitated together, re-creating the social and geographic networks of the villages from which they had been expelled. Communities from 18 villages in the Galilee alone can be found in Nahr al-Bared.
“It’s entirely natural that they would cluster together, because that’s what’s familiar to them,” Whyte told Al-Monitor. “You look at the Rohingya on the TV now, and it must have been like that for the Palestinians all those years ago.”
To preserve these networks, each of the 5,000 or so families that lost their homes in the 2007 conflict was interviewed about where their homes and businesses had been, and the proximity of friends and family who had lived side by side for generations. As important as the re-creation of these networks was, Nahr al-Bared’s reconstruction also provided an opportunity to create a Palestinian camp in Lebanon with modern, dignified housing and services.
“Of course now it is much better,” said Hajj Hussein. “You can see it in the roads, the buildings. The problem is just that it took a long time.”
Although having to wait a decade for their home to be constructed, Hajj Hussein’s family is one of the luckier ones. According to UNRWA, just 54% of the Palestinians displaced from Nahr al-Bared have had their homes rebuilt.
A host of legal, financial, political and administrative issues have repeatedly delayed the project, including the unearthing of Roman and Byzantine ruins, the bane of property developers across Lebanon. In addition, the mere process of clearing all the rubble and 12,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance took about a year and a half.
Reconstruction finally began in November 2009, with the most densely populated districts being given priority. Eight years on, slightly more than half the homes needed have been built. This has left approximately 2,500 people living in temporary shelters on the camp’s outskirts waiting to be rehoused. Their current accommodations are frigid during the winter rains and swelter under the summer sun.
Some of those without permanent homes, like Fouad Askoul and his family, have been forced to rent apartments elsewhere. Palestinian families often pay between $200 and $300 a month for accommodations, which is a lot of money for a community with severe, state-imposed restrictions on employment.
While UNRWA once provided housing subsidies for displaced Palestinians, budget cuts put an end to those in 2014, causing “many, many problems,” as Askoul, an out-of-work construction laborer, put it. In fact, Askoul and his family of six rent an apartment within a newly built section of Nahr al-Bared. It is one among many of the homes that have been shunned by their owners.
These rejected homes are symptomatic of another challenge the camp faces: Palestinians may be returning, but normal life has not. Although the camp’s old social networks have been painstakingly mapped out on paper, reviving them hasn’t been so successful.
“Before the  war, the camp was probably one of the most prosperous in Lebanon,” Whyte said. Retail was at the heart of Nahr al-Bared’s comparative success, and its two commercial streets were full of people from across the north looking for cheap goods and services. Aware of this, UNRWA made the commercial centers some of the first areas to be developed. Yet, said Whyte, military restrictions and checkpoints at the camp’s entrances have been off-putting to Lebanese, thus limiting commercial activity to the local community.
“I think it’s possibly a reason why many families haven’t returned to the camp,” Whyte said. A senior military source who was involved in the 2007 battle and requested anonymity posited another theory, however, claiming that the wealth pouring into Nahr al-Bared had more nefarious origins.
“At the time, it was a center for trafficking and contraband,” he told Al-Monitor, asserting that it was these illicit goods that drew Lebanese there in the first place. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think the military will hold as tight a grip forever. “I think when the construction phase ends, [the restrictions] will return to normal,” he said.
Before that happens, a funding deficit of $106 million needs to be addressed, to cover the last stages of reconstruction. In the meantime, with no guarantees on where the money will come from or when it will materialize, thousands of displaced Palestinians like Askoul will remain in limbo.
For many, however, the promise of a new home and once again living alongside friends and family will be worth the wait. “We are accustomed to living together,” said Askoul. “It is very difficult to be apart, but we have hope.”
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