Ramadan at the refugee camp - empathy at the heart of the religious high holiday
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
For people living in the Shatila refugee camp, an official settlement for Palestinians displaced since 1949, they seek celebrations while practicing empathy during Islam's most important holidays, in spite of the harsh daily realities.
The scent of Ramadan's atmosphere at the Shatila camp located in the south of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is rich in the air. During the high holiday, from May 6 to June 4 in 2019, the refugees who live in the camp light up streets with moon-shaped decorations and use woven layers of colorful bare electrical cables to brighten the space between the eaves. Carts sell seasonal Ramadan's food and sweets, and stores decorate with religious symbols. Children play firecrackers in an alleyway, and shops sell new clothes and toys for Eid, the celebration for the end of Ramadan. The mosque at the entrance of the camp also rings the bell at daily prayer times, to remind the devout to pray.
Every ninth month Islam calendar comes, 1.8 billion Muslims, including 50 million Muslim refugees, attempt to celebrate Ramadan in different corners of the world. Muslims will fast during the day, and gather with family and friends for having iftar, meals after sunset, and suhoor, meals before sunrises. Many will go to a mosque to pray after the iftar time. Muslims also refrain from behavior that would trigger any kind of desire, such as smoking or having sex.
Nowadays, practicing during Ramadan is not simply a religious rule. It also plays a significant role in people’s social lives. Most Muslim families think this as a special time to gather together.
For Muslim refugees who are forced to flee home due to wars or persecutions, the desperate situations they confront would not easily hinder their determination to continue their traditions. While I was in Lebanon during the 2019 summer, I saw many Muslim refugees, including Syrians, Palestinians, and other refugee nationals, seek durable ways to practice Ramadan.
Some refugee families in the camp share food and clothes with the neighbors and children who are more in need. The community kitchen prepares food for children during Ramadan, who have containers with them as they wait on the street. The spirit of Ramadan is driven by cause to understand the plight of those who live in poverty and vulnerability. That is why fasting and sharing are cornerstones of the holidays.
“Even living in Shatila, I am grateful that my daughters and I can still fast. Fasting is that everyone leaves a meal for those who need it more than we do.” says Najwa, a Palestinian Syrian, aged 42, fled to Lebanon with her four daughters in 2012 after the outbreak of civil war in Syria, first in Bekaa, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, and finally settling in the Shatila camp. She now works for a grassroots nonprofit organization helping other refugees like her.
Najwa was counting how much money she and her daughters can save for others. “Each person 5000 LBP dollars, three daughters and I are four, so we can save 20,000 LBP (equal to 13 US dollars) !” I spoke to Najwa at 10:00 a.m. on the last week of Ramadan. She looked pale and sometimes sneezed and had troubles catching her breath. But her eyes sparkled and revealed a satisfied smile while talking about her family's small contribution to the society.
“Fitra” is one of the fasting traditions, meaning that people, even some of those who live in a refugee camp, donate the money saved by fasting to those in need. Some refugees also teach their children about empathy even though they are also facing many of their own struggles.
Since the war emerged in 2011 in Syria, Lebanon has become a host country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees in the world, with one-quarter of the population being made up of refugees. The majority of them are Muslims.
Lebanon, with one-third the size and a quarter of the 2.4 million population of Taiwan, has an extremely complex political and social structure based on religions and sects.
Despite the significant influence of Christian culture, Lebanon now has a population which is more than a half of Muslim, mainly Sunnis, Shia and a handful of Druze factions. Wars and conflicts have also been constant in Lebanon history since Lebanon neighbors Syria and Israel (The recognition of Israel is still a controversial debate in Lebanon) and acts as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe,
In response to the influx of Syrian refugees, the government of Lebanon has tightened its migration policy since 2015. The restrictions further limit their right to live and work, which has resulted in 73% of Syrian refugees with no legal residency. In terms of the no-camp policy in Lebanon, most refugees scatter in urban areas or outskirts, some live in informal tent settlements and some settle in former Palestinian camps like Shatila in cities,
Shatila, one of the twelve Lebanon's official Palestinian camps, hosts more than 40,000 people, including Palestinian refugees fleeing in 1950s and Palestinian refugees in Syria leaving after the Syrian civil war, squeezing in one-square kilometers,
Different from the public image of a ‘refugee camp’, Shatila is a community developed by the refugees who have been living here for years or even decades. Abundant street stands and storefronts form a lively market. Clothing stores, hair salons, clinics, gyms and many other services are mostly accessible here. Some without jobs gather in corners, smoking and chatting to kill the time. Graffiti, slogans and posters with political connotations can be found everywhere in Shatila. Even though most refugees are not allowed to work in Lebanon, many build their own economy there.
In such an environment, the bitter taste of survival is particularly strong.
The unstructured building has been re-roofed several times, bare electricity cables are tangled, some alleyways are too small to allow motorcycles to pass, the distances between buildings are too close to allow privacy, most of the rooms are three-to-six-square-meters with no windows. In summer, most of people in the Shatila community keep their doors open, some choose to sleep in the open on the rooftop, where at least they can feel the wind and see the sky. In winter, although floods often worsen the living condition, children will play in the water like it is a pool. A strong chemical smell of laundry detergent lingers in the air, clothes and bed sheets drying on the line.
Amid hot and humid weather compounded by water and electricity outages, it is harder to fast than during their time back home, perhaps even a luxury.
Ghifar, a Lebanese female NGO worker at the Shatila learning center of the same nonprofit organization, everyday deals with the issues of tens of women and children living in Shatila.
“Some are too weak to fast but most of them still insist. Despite the clear permission in the Quran that Muslims in some conditions aren't required to fast, they face the pressure from the community and in some cases face shame from their parents. Refugees who cannot commit to the rules are afraid to let any others know. "
Ghifar was fasting while working in the camp so she can understand the difficulties of it in such a traditional community, where some extremely vulnerable people, especially women, suffer dizziness, hypoglycemia, and hydropenia during the fasting.
The overall security problem in the camp remains in spite of the holiday.
“I didn’t feel I was fasting during the Ramadan in Syria, but here, every day I strongly feel I’m fasting.” says Najwa. In Syria, Najwa used to go to mosques after iftar in Ramadan, and then drank coffee and chat with friends at a street corner. Now Najwa worships at home and stays inside after it gets dark to ensure her children's safety.
The division among different non-state forces within the Shatila camp strikes fear in the refugees who live here all the time. The Lebanese army and the general security do not enter the area, guns and weapons are not controlled. If a crime is committed that requires police intervention, the criminal is brought to the entrance of Shatila for arrest.
Even taxi drivers do not want to drive into Shatila. The precarious environment has made local forces more rampant, with five major political forces in this area. Conflict, violence, gunfire and drug abuse, then, are daily events for those who live in Shatila.
“I don’t think it’s safer during the Ramadan. It’s less gunfire, but more firecrackers. It’s different degrees of danger," Najwa concerns.
The most difficult issue remains financial. Ｗhether preparing food for iftar or purchasing gifts for children, severe financial pressure is put on refugees, particularly those with debt. Most have to pay around $200 to $250 dollars a month for a tiny room in Shatila.
In 2017, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) withdrew a large number of funds in Lebanon, including the absence of subsidies for rent, which has exacerbated the financial burden that Shatila’s refugees face. If they cannot afford the rent, they would be evicted by the landlord.
Regarding the latest data from the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, 88% of Syrian refugee families have debt problems, with an average of 1,000 US dollars debt per Syrian refugee household. World Vision Taiwan also interviewed a Syrian family living in an Informal Tent Settlement during Ramadan this year. One of the interviewees with debt said that all the food was flushed by the floods in the winter, he has no money to prepare food for the Eid al-Fitr, a massive celebration after the end of Ramadan.
Ramadan can also take an emotional toll for refugees who are displaced and separated from their loved ones. Some might be able to temporarily forget their pain when struggling for survival, but Ramadan serves as a reminder of their loss.
I was talking with several refugee teachers at a refugee learning center about how they planned to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. Most are not in a celebratory mood. One of the refugee teachers said: “I’ll just have a meal at home with my wife and kids. Nothing special, it wouldn’t be the same again as that back home anyway.”His parents are not in Lebanon, and most of his relatives are scattered in other countries.
Najwa recalled the time she spent in Syria, where she could chat and drink coffee outside of her home with her family and friends during Ramadan. She still misses the times when she enjoyed freedom and dignity. She vividly recalled the day when she was with her children in front of the mosque across from her home. She remembers they were playing, recognizing how far she was from such levity.
“Now the home is not there anymore, some family members and friends also left or died. What makes me miss the most is the reunion only belonged to me, which means it could never happen again.”
Ramadan spirit carries with them after fleeing home.
NGOs hold community dinners for children and families in the camp after the sun goes down.
Sadaqa, meaning "to donate", is another tradition during Ramadan and it can be practiced as an alternative way to fasting. People in Lebanon donate money, clothing and meals to the NGOs running programmes in the Shatila camp, including refugees who live in a relatively better condition.
Kids playing and families chatting when having iftar meals, the vibe in the camp seems not bitter anymore.
“This is Ramadan spirit. Whether living in Shatila or in Syria, this spirit would be the same. for me,”Najwa says with a warm smile.
Everyone I met insisted on fasting despite facing difficulties. I realize, perhaps, Ramadan is a common language for Muslims, to have a reason to share resources with the vulnerable and have a customary month of kindness, where equality exists among different classes and groups. And for the Muslim refugees in Shatila, fasting is a practice to find empathy anyways even if they are the ones who are suffering.
The published Chinese version:
The interviews were facilitated by non-profit organization Basmeh & Zeitooneh.