In it, the 67-year-old refugee was going back to her house just behind a young almond tree on a small, breezy hill in the village of Jish.
“Just the way I remember it when I was little,” she recalled.
And for a moment, Um Muneer’s eyes were not so sad.
Then she woke up.
“It was so real. After 57 years in exile, I was finally returning home.”
Um Muneer, who is known in Arabic as the mother of Muneer, one of two sons who were killed in the region’s wars, left Jish with her family in 1948, terrorised by massacres by Israeli forces in Palestinians villages, including her own.
The family sought refuge with thousands of fellow Palestinians in southern Lebanon. From there, they moved to a camp in Allepo, Syria, then to Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, and finally to Baalbeck’s Wavel camp, popularly known as al-Jaleel, where she lives today.
Like Um Muneer, about 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and 4 million throughout the Arab world dream of returning to their homes in Palestine.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world’s refugee population has declined by 4% to 9.2 million this year, the lowest total in almost a quarter of a century.
But the number of Palestinian refugees like Um Muneer, who are not included in UNHCR statistics, continues to rise in the absence of a real solution to their plight.
Ali Hweidi said many keep keys
Fifty-seven years ago, about 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by Jewish forces, seeking refuge in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and in what would later become the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Most of their villages were destroyed as part of official Israeli policy.
Today, the number of Palestinian refugees is equivalent to one-third of the world’s refugee population.
While they no longer reside in tents, the situation of Palestinian refugees is abysmal, and the conditions in conflict-strewn Lebanon are the worst of the lot.
Their camps are effectively ghettos, “large group prisons” as one Lebanese politician put it, with winding, narrow alleyways, wall-to-wall cement block shelters, seeping sewers and leaky zinc-sheet rooftops.
Camps are crowded, and a lack of public electricity and polluted drinking water are constant health hazards.
Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees who are living in abject poverty and who are registered under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) “special hardship” programme.
But Lebanese authorities have vetoed the reconstruction of camp housing, and until recently the UNRWA had largely frozen funding improvement of the camps, leading many of the refugees to say they are neglected and to stage protests on 20 June, the UN’s World Refugee Day, which is marked this month.
Hoda Samra, public information officer for Lebanon’s UNRWA field office, said that since 2003, the UNRWA has stepped up its role in the camps.
Ali Hweidi urges Lebanon to ease
“UNRWA has not frozen its funding for infrastructure in the camps, rather the contrary. The agency is implementing since 2003 a major environmental health project in five out of the 12 camps in Lebanon funded by the European Union in the amount of 8.75 million euros. It includes construction of sewerage and storm water drainage systems and provision of safe and adequate quantities of water,” she told Aljazeera.net.
But for Lebanon’s refugees, the issue is not merely one of basic survival needs.
They lack physical security, freedom of movement, and access to government services such as health care and education. They are denied the right to work in dozens of professions by Lebanese authorities, to receive social security, or to own or inherit property.
Abdullah Kayed, 23, is one such refugee. His family was forced to flee in 1948 from their village of Lubya in Northern Palestine.
Unlike Um Muneer, Kayed is a third-generation refugee and has never set foot in Palestine. Nevertheless, he demands his right to return.
“If I were given the option, I would definitely return to Palestine. Why? Because it is my country – Lebanon will never be my country. We never knew Palestine, but it has always been in our hearts.”
Though a recent graduate of pharmacology, Kayed has been unemployed for almost a year.
“Even if we were naturalised, and the [Lebanese] government gave us our complete civil rights, I would not want to live here. It’s about the principles. It’s about our right to return home,” said Kayed.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon complain that they have no official to represent them in negotiations, though there are a number of non-governmental organisations that work to further their cause.
Ali Hweidi is the London-based Palestine Return Centre’s representative in Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee himself. Like others, he calls on the Lebanese government to ease civil and political restrictions on Palestinians.
Title deeds are kept to show
“The very least that we demand from the Lebanese government is to provide us with our basic civil rights, which are non-existent for Palestinians in Lebanon, so we can fight for our right to return to Palestine, not for our ability to survive,” he says from his office in the Bus refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
One of the problems facing refugees is that they can’t expand their living space horizontally, Hweidi says.
“Keep in mind that the number of refugees in Lebanon has increased by more than 300% since 1948, and this has clear social ramifications. As the number of refugees grows, the space to house them in diminishes,” he said.
The walls of his office, like most refugee households here, are plastered with maps of historic Palestine, labelled with the lost villages of 1948.
“In every house you will find something that reminds you of Palestine: A map, a key, a title deed,” he says, waving a copy of a key from one of his camp’s elders and pointing out framed copies of original title deeds to lands in Palestine belonging to refugees in the Ain al-Hilweh camp a few kilometres away.
Right of return
Hweidi said that establishing peace in the region is inextricably linked to the refugees’ right of return.
“The refugee problem has an immense humanitarian and political horizon,” he said.
“But we refuse to accept other options, such as naturalisation or being sent to a third country.”
Hweidi is uncertain about what’s to come, but he is certain that a solution must be found.
“I can’t say I have an accurate scenario for what will happen, but what I do know is that while it is our future at stake, we will not be given a choice in it. They deal with us as if we are things, not human beings. There has been no consultation with us so far, and no formal representative assigned us.
“But so long as there is justice, we are hopeful a solution will be found.”