Beirut, Lebanon – On a June morning in 1982, Leila Balqees joined her amputee father to watch the news on TV, as he did every day.
For Leila, who was 17 and engaged at the time, that day had started out just like any other in Burj Barajneh, a cramped Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.
It soon turned into a nightmare.
“The strikes started coming, left right and centre on the entire camp,” recalls Leila, now 56.
The three-month offensive, which came at a time when Lebanon was already embroiled in a civil war that would eventually last 15 years, killed thousands of Palestinian refugees and severely damaged the poorly constructed houses in Beirut’s camps – including Leila’s family home.
“I saw the walls fly off from down the road,” she says earlier this month, sitting in the same living room that was torn apart in one of the first days of the Israeli operation.
Like many Burj Barajneh residents, Leila, her mother and three sisters sought shelter in a nearby area. But her father refused to leave their home for the first month of the bombardment.
“He used to say, ‘if I can’t die in Palestine, I’ll just die here’,” Leila says.
Eventually, their neighbours, fearing for his safety, physically moved him to join his family.
After the assault ended, they returned to “half a home” – the living room, one bedroom and part of the kitchen were destroyed. It took them years to rebuild.
Standing to this day, the two-bedroom flat in one of Burj Barajneh’s unregulated, high brick structures is the same building that Leila was born in back in 1962 – and the only home she has ever known in Lebanon.
One of millions of Palestinians forced to live away from her ancestral home, Leila has been a refugee her whole life.
Her story is not unique, but her strength and resilience paint a striking picture of the collective story of Palestinian women in Lebanon – as evidenced by the hurdles she overcame, from surviving an Israeli offensive to defying hardship to raise four daughters as a single mother.
Described as a city within a city, Burj Barajneh sprawls along the side of a busy highway linking southern Beirut to the capital’s city centre.
Set up in 1948 to host Palestinians fleeing their villages and towns after being attacked by Zionist militias, the camp is today home to about 50,000 people. It is one of the 12 camps – run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) – housing most of the nearly half a million Palestinians in Lebanon.
At Burj Barajneh’s main entrance, tattered Palestinian flags hang alongside faded emblems of Palestinian political parties.
Once inside, a narrow pathway leads into the camp, lined with stalls of vendors selling coffee and freshly squeezed juice while men of all ages, some puffing away at shishas, sit idly on plastic chairs.
A few metres further in, the alley widens – and the markers of a factionalised community become clearer.
Armed men acting as the camp’s security apparatus stand at their designated wooden booths. Some are dressed in casual clothing; others in green army jumpsuits – but they all answer to the major parties in control of the camp, including Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Winding deeper into the maze of narrow lanes, rows of bullet-ridden, graffiti-covered buildings appear. The worn-out buildings are packed so tightly together that it’s hard to tell at any given time what time of the day it is.
As the paths get tighter and narrower, a thick canopy of electricity wires intertwined with water pipes hangs low over the alleyways. There are flags everywhere, interspersed with posters of camp residents who lost their lives either during the Israeli assault or due to the camp’s haphazard conditions.
Woefully lacking infrastructure, including sanitation, the camp poses severe health risks to its inhabitants, especially in times of heavy rains when muddy tides drown its passageways.
According to UNRWA, Lebanon is home to the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, often lacking the most basic human needs such as food, safe drinking water and sanitation.
It’s conditions like these that Leila has spent nearly all her life in.
“I was born and raised here, and I went to school here,” Leila says, referring to the UNRWA school system provided for registered refugee children.
“My whole life has been here,” she adds.
“I know Palestine through my parents; I love my country … but I raised my daughters to know that this camp is their home because we have nothing else.”
More than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly driven away from their lands by Zionist militias in a campaign that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Referred to by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe, the violent expulsion marked the beginning of a painful chapter of mass displacement and military occupation.
Between 1947 and 1949, the militias seized more than 78 percent of historical Palestine, ethnically cleansed and destroyed about 530 villages and cities and killed about 15,000 Palestinians. More than 100,000 Palestinians sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon – some arriving on foot, others crammed into vehicles.
The refugees were initially welcomed in Lebanon amid a widespread belief they would soon return home. But as the months turned to years and the years to decades, things changed. Seen as a burden, the refugees were largely left helpless, with UNRWA the only entity supporting them.
To this day, their presence is seen as a threat to Lebanon’s fragile sectarian system. Denied fundamental rights, Palestinians in Lebanon are effectively banned from working in 72 occupations; they cannot own land, do not have access to free education, and have to issue a hard-to-obtain permit to bring construction materials into the camps to renovate their homes.
Hailing from the village of al-Kabri in the Galilee, Leila’s parents also fled to Lebanon with the belief that they would only stay for a few days.
After seven decades in Burj Barajneh, Leila’s mother – 90-year-old Zahiya Dgheim – still reminisces about the home of her youth: a three-story brick house overlooking a spring in her now-destroyed village.
“Al-Kabri is the most beautiful place on Earth,” she says slowly, casting a frail figure as she lays under thick blankets on her large bed in the family home at Burj Barajneh.
Zahiya, who suffers from a chronic lung infection, had been married for four years when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
“My wedding day was the most beautiful day,” she says, bringing to mind the years before becoming a refugee. “They [covered] me in gold jewellery that layered over my embroidered gown and paraded us in the wedding ceremony,” she says of her and her now-late husband.
“They put me on a white horse,” she adds. “Around me were my friends carrying candles; everyone was dancing in our honour.”
But for Leila, such memorable anecdotes feel a world apart. For her, the only reality is that of being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon – and particularly a woman raising her family on her own.
After getting married, Leila left with her Palestinian husband who had a job in Libya, only to return as a mother of four daughters less than 10 years later, following the couple’s separation.
“I came back, and everything was changed; I didn’t recognise the camp’s streets,” Leila says.
With her youngest child just three months old, Leila realised she urgently needed to find a way to support herself and her young daughters as she moved back into her parents’ house.
As a Palestinian woman, chances of finding work outside the camp were almost non-existent, so Leila’s mother helped her set up a kiosk selling grocery items.
“I used to carry goods back and forth on a big wooden cart – I would be pushing it all alone,” she says, with tears running down her face.
“I would walk from Dahiyeh [a nearby area] with bags of bread on my head, no matter the weather.”
Three years later, Leila closed the kiosk to run a cashier stand at the local vegetable market – a job she held for 21 years – becoming a familiar face for many of the camp’s residents.
“The girls grew up, and I made sure they went to school … I thank God that I never had to ask anyone for anything.”
Leila’s four daughters, who have also spent their life in Burj Barajneh, grew up as part of the third generation of people calling the camp home.
Over the past years, Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Syria have also come to Burj Barajneh, making conditions even harder for the camp’s residents, who share a space of less than 1sq km.
“We really suffer from power cuts,” says Leila. “At times, we only get power for about an hour a day.”
The camp’s hazardous power cables have claimed the lives of at least 55 people in the past three years, Mohammed Khaled, UNRWA’s chief area officer, told Al Jazeera.
While Leila struggled to provide the best for her four daughters as a single mother, she was aware that they would be denied many rights, just as she had been.
Yet, she was determined to instil a sense of pride in them, seeing it as her duty to empower them but also manage their expectations. She reluctantly refers to Lebanon as her second home, but wonders if she would be feeling differently if her daughters – three of whom are married with children – were granted fundamental rights.
Leila says she never thought of remarrying, even for the sake of her children.
“I was abandoned but raised my girls and worked to get through the years,” she says. “When I needed someone in the darkest times I had no one, so why would I need anyone from now on?”
Listening nearby is Ramz, Leila’s youngest daughter. The petite 28-year-old suffers from a developmental disability, as well as a partial physical disability.
Growing up as her ailing grandmother’s helping hand, Ramz says she would love to be able to join an educational facility and work with children.
“I wish I could join an educational institute, to learn how to work with children,” Ramz says.
But this is not a feasible career option, Leila says, explaining that camps like Burj Barajneh do not have access to public centres that help refugees who share Ramz’s disabilities develop. Palestinians with disabilities in Lebanon are excluded from governmental services and therefore rely on assistance from specialised NGOs.
“I fear for her safety,” Leila says, explaining how people, unfamiliar with Ramz’s condition, tend to lack the skills needed to communicate with her effectively.
A family of women, Leila and her daughters have created their own traditions, including a weekly gathering in the family home to spend the night together.
Occasionally, her curious grandchildren would gather around their great-grandmother Zahiya, eager to hear more about the Palestine she endlessly speaks of.
“I tell my grandchildren, one day, I hope you go back and see our home,” says Zahiya.
“Every time I talk about my home, I see myself in it.”
Palestinians in the camp still held on to the “lingering legacy” of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had become an icon of the Palestinian diaspora’s struggle for the right to return.
But for Leila, the right of return has been slipping away year after year.
“We were closer to the right of return decades ago than we are now,” she says.
“But eventually, we want to die on our land with our dignity, knowing our enemy,” adds Leila.
“Not here, not like dogs, not like this.”