I spent the last month teaching at Beit Atfal al-Somud in Shatila Camp in Beirut. As a volunteer with LEAP, I taught two two-hour English classes and an hour of photography each day to Palestinian kids (aged 11 to 14).* The following is a reimagining of my daily walk to school.
Most, if not all, of my students walk to school, and so do I. The walk begins as a liberation: descending from our apartment, I leave a crowded, humid bustle of eleven women readying themselves for another long day of teaching to head down four flights of stairs into the dark and (relatively) cool stairwell. I need my flashlight to make it down the lower levels – there is usually no power in the stairwell this time of day (I usually leave the apartment before 9 am) and in any case the final two flights are nearly always dark.
I let myself out with the key (there is a buzzer, but again, the power) and step outside. I take a few turns down an alley and enter a slightly more open area with a fruit stand and a small mosque before the alley opens out onto a wider street (by which I mean an alley that a car might be able to barely squeeze through, if all the people are honked out of the way, and through which motorbikes routinely zoom, checked more by the many speedbumps installed than by the people thronging the streets).
Many mornings I pause here to buy mana’eesh, a freshly baked flatbread stuffed with zaatar and cheese. Because of the heat I often eat a small dinner, having little appetite at the end of the day, and wake up hungry. While waiting for the mana’eesh to come out of the oven, I stop to chat to a man who is always sitting in the same spot nearby and who has been interested in our work from the beginning.
He introduced himself to me, and over successive days, one chat at a time, his story was revealed to me. He grew up in another camp in Lebanon but left to work in the Gulf, since job possibilities for Palestinians in Lebanon are slim (for example, they are officially restricted from working most white-collar jobs). He lived in Abu Dhabi for many years, working for a hospital as a medical technician. He proudly told me about the award he had been given by the hospital for his twenty-five years of service.
But just a few weeks before we arrived in Shatila ourselves, he and at least a dozen other Palestinians working in Abu Dhabi, from techs to surgeons, were summarily dismissed from their jobs and from the country entirely. Given practically no time to gather their things and tie up the loose ends of a life and a job where he had worked for over two decades, he relocated his family back to Shatila, where his mother lives. Keep in mind that Shatila is already a site of displacement, and many of its residents have been doubly displaced, having ended up there only after fleeing first Palestine and then another Lebanese camp because of the attacks, massacres, and destruction that have become a routine part of the stories so many tell.
To me his story provokes a sense of tragedy and fury on far too many levels: because by the time I heard it I knew what it meant to move from a comfortable amenity-filled life to the realities of Shatila; because it was a version of a story I’d heard before from so many other Palestinian families; because of the tempered and resigned and reigned-in frustration with which the man relayed it to me. Please, he said, can your organization do something to organize medical assistance at night? There are so few services here, and so often people, especially young people, find themselves hurt, sick, or injured in the night, long after the Red Crescent clinic (he gestured to it, just behind me, on the other side of the bakery) has closed for the day. Could you help with this? There is so much need here, he said. I said I was an English teacher, just a volunteer, but I would think about what I might do.
He politely invited me to his mother’s for coffee sometime I was not teaching, and I hoped a more concrete invitation would materialize during Ramadan, but just before the holy month began, as I began to see Ramadan decorations and ribbons lacing through the many wires that crisscrossed over the alleys on my walk to school, I realized my friend had disappeared. He no longer spent his days sitting on the road across from the mana’eesh place. I never saw him again.
Mana’eesh in hand, I cross the wide alley and follow several twists and turns (nervously learned my first week and trod with increasing confidence each day) till I arrive at the door to school. Sometimes I pass by the school and head out to the proper “main street” of Shatila for a coffee. The espresso is surprisingly good in the camp, and the coffee guys very friendly: they always remember how you like your coffee and sometimes try to give it to you for free. The generosity here is relentless. The little coffee storefront was one of those necessary safe social spaces in what could be a rather uncomfortable place.
Entering school meant greeting the women who cooked our breakfast and lunch and those who staffed the center, who were always sitting, working and socializing on the ground floor, and heading past them up four flights of stairs to my classroom. Small and stuffy as it was, it was a kind of refuge for me. The walk to school, and my planning and preparation time in my classroom before breakfast and class, was often the only time I had to myself all day and all night. It was stressful; I was often tired and hungry, and I often felt powerless or like a misfit or uncomfortable in any of countless other ways, but those mornings were full of potential and the promise of new starts, precious moments I clung to fiercely each day.
*The reason LEAP focuses on English in particular is because in Lebanon, the high school entrance exam has extensive sections in English and is typically the academic area in which the discrepancy between Palestinian youth and their Lebanese counterparts is most stridently manifested. Palestinians living in Lebanon have few official rights, and more structural disadvantages like the “separate but unequal” school systems that leave Palestinian children lagging in English only exacerbate the inequalities between the communities.