When I first started working with refugees from Iraq–primarily Palestinian and Iranian Kurds–I encountered people who worked for UNHCR whose job title is Protection Officer. I wondered about the duties of a person with such a job. This euphemism of “protection,” especially, was perplexing. When visiting refugee camps in Jordan, like Al Ruweished or Al Karama (No Man’s Land) filled with people traumatized by the Iraq war–and for Kurds and Palestinians doubly or triply so given previous wars and upheavals–I did not see people who were being protected; rather I saw people who were imprisoned. Now the Palestinians from Al Ruweished are finally being resettled in Canada, Brazil, and Chile. But the Kurds in No Man’s Land remain stranded with no relief–no medical services, no food, no water, not even proper tents. While there are, of course, people working for UNHCR who want to or try to really protect those who are supposed to be taken care of it seems that such people are forced out of their work. For these people–who take such jobs because they care about refugees–I cannot imagine how difficult it is to constantly deal with countries like the U.S. and Jordan which choose not to honor their obligations under the Geneva Convention and provide refuge for those fleeing war-torn countries, especially given that these countries are responsible for the refugee crisis to begin with.
I have continued thinking about the meaning of protection as I have been attending UN “protection” meetings aimed at protecting the Palestinian refugees from Nahr el Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. These meetings are troubling because like almost all of the important meetings in Lebanon about the fate of Nahr el Bared there are no people from the camp with a seat at the table. Of course there are some Palestinians at the table who do speak out on behalf of the interests of the people from Nahr el Bared, but very few. Instead, we have bureaucratic hierarchies that perpetuate the system of power and domination.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to protect means to “keep safe from harm or injury.” Synonyms include: defend, shelter, guard, take care of, shield. But I have not seen much of this. I do not seem people with UNRWA, for instance, who are invested in sheltering much less defending the rights of Palestinians. When I asked Palestinians from Nahr el Bared what they wanted from UNRWA and the Lebanese government it was quite simple: they want to meet with Richard Cook (the head of UNRWA in Lebanon) and share their concerns about the camp. They want all those involved in high-level meetings to:
1. Allow the people to go back to the camp at their discretion, once the fighting ceases, to assess the situation before any de-mining or rebuilding begins. They describe a need to deal with their own psychological processes, of needing to see what happened to their destroyed homes and community so they don’t go from destroyed to rebuilt home overnight. They see it as their right to return to the camp just as people from South Lebanon returned to their destroyed villages at their discretion after last summer’s war despite the unexploded weapons scattered about the area.
2. They want to be included and consulted on the rebuilding process. They want a seat at the table–ordinary civilians, not PLO leaders who have colluded with the Lebanese government by tacitly supporting the destruction of this camp. People from Nahr el Bared want it rebuilt exactly like it was; they do not want a separation between what the Lebanese government calls the “old” and the “new” camp. They want the streets the same width and the houses the same size. They want Palestinian engineers, architects, construction workers to rebuild the camp, especially people from the camp. They do not want Khatib wa al Alami rebuilding their camp, which although it is a Palestinian company it is one headed by people who are quite out of touch with Palestinians from the camps. Most importantly they want the rebuilding of the camp to express the will of the people as the camp is a reflection of their identity.
3. They want compensation for all the damage that has been done–economic and human losses.
Technically UNRWA is a “legal guardian” of the land and people from Nahr el Bared respect this. But at the same time a legal guardian must also protect and shelter people in their custody. There needs to be respect and communication must travel in two directions.This war has continued for almost three months now and the people from Nahr el Bared deserve to reclaim their role in the process and reclaim their land. UNRWA should encourage and respect this as such guardians of Palestinian spaces. And if they are not going to protect and defend those spaces they should certainly fight for the right of those who wish to do so in their stead.
I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I went to a friend’s home who fled Nahr el Bared. His daughter fled the camp when she was 9 months pregnant. She now has a beautiful baby daughter who is 2 months old. Her name is Amal. It means hope in Arabic. Hope that they go back to Nahr el Bared, hope that they return to Palestine. Hope that she has a long, beautiful life. Hope that her family is always able to protect her and keep her safe. Amal is a beautiful baby girl. She is peaceful, happy, smiling. It was so wonderful holding her in my arms. But what was even more beautiful was watching her father, grandfather, and mother play with her and hold her. I saw a kind of joy that I have not seen in the eyes of people from Nahr el Bared since this conflict began. It was really a beautiful sight: sitting in a sparse flat in Shatila, with a grandfather reciting his poems to us, without any electricity, enjoying the smiles of a baby girl who was forced from her home. Yet again. My hope for Amal is that she can return to her home in Nahr el Bared and in the very near future to her village in Palestine.