• Ying-Yu, Chen (Alicia)

A week during Ramadan in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

Every time the ninth month of the Islam calendar comes, there are 1.8 billion Muslims celebrating Ramadan in different corners of the world. Moon-shaped decorations lighting up streets, Muslims don’t eat or drink during the daytime, and gather with family and friends to enjoy iftar after sunsets and suhoor before sunrises. Some go to a mosque to pray, some spend time with family or friends.

In Taiwan, over 300, 000 Muslims dismissed by mainstream society also practice Ramadan. Similarly, there are more than 50 million Muslim refugees in the world, but they are also disregarded by the world during the Ramadan. How do those Muslims who fled wars and persecution practice Ramadan? How do they persist in practicing Ramadan while dealing with difficult challenges and oppression in their daily life? What does Ramadan’s spirit mean to Muslim refugees?

Ramadan began on 6th May and ended on 4th June this year. Walking into the Shatila camp located in the south of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on the last week of Ramadan, I can feel the scent of Ramadan’s atmosphere. The refugees who live here hang colored lines between the eaves, which are woven with layers of bare electrical cables. The food stands in Shatila sell Ramadan’s food and sweets, some stores decorating with Ramadan’s symbols, children playing with firecrackers in an alleyway, some shops also selling new clothes and toys for the Eid. The mosque at the entrance of the Shatila camp also rings the bell at daily prayer times, to remind their believers to pray.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The spirit of Ramadan is to understand the struggles of those who live in poverty and vulnerability through fasting. Muslims also refrain from all kinds of moral-wrong behaviors and treat others with kindness. Nowadays, practicing during Ramadan is not simply a religious regulation, but is also significantly involved in people’s social lives. It is also an important time for Muslim’s families to gather together.

Lebanon, with 6 million population, is one third the size and has one fourth of the population of Taiwan. Lebanon has an extremely complex social structure, including different religious, sects, political groups, races, nationalities, classes, ethnic groups and so on. Furthermore, Due to Lebanon’s geographic location, neighboring Syria and Israel (The recognition of Israel is still a controversial debate in Lebanon) and bridging between Middle East and Europe, wars and conflicts have been constant in its history. Despite the significant influence of Christian culture, Lebanon nowadays has a population which is more than 50% Muslim, mainly Sunnis, Shia and a handful of Druze factions. Since the civil 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, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria and in Lebanon, and other nationals, which presents the majority of refugee population in Lebanon as Muslims.

In response to the influx of Syrian refugees, the government of Lebanon has tightened its migration policy since 2015, which further limits their rights to live and work, resulting in 73% of Syrian refugees being without legal residency. Moreover, in terms of the no-camp policy in Lebanon, most of them scatter in urban areas or outskirts, some live in informal tent settlements and some settle in former Palestinian camps in cities. Shatila is one of those Palestinian camps located in southern Beirut.

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. Graffiti, slogans and posters with political connotations can be found everywhere in Shatila. The unstructured building has been reroofed several times, the bare electricity cables are entangled arbitrarily, some alleyways are too small to allow motorcycles to pass, the distances between buildings are too close to have privacy, most of the rooms are three to six-square-metre large, without windows.

In such an environment, the taste of survival is particularly strong. In summer, most of them keep their doors open, some directly choose to sleep on the rooftop, at least they can feel the wind and see the sky. In winter, although floods often worsen the living environment, some children still play in the water like playing in a pool; a strong chemical smell of laundry detergents is everywhere, the refugees living in Shatila dry their clothes and bed sheets in every possible corner. Even though most refugees are not allowed to work in Lebanon, many of them have their own micro businesses. Abundant street stands and storefronts form a lively market, and 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.

However, for more than 40,000 people living in one square kilometers in Shatila, in the face of hot and humid weather coupled with water and electricity outages, it is far more difficult to fast than during their time back home.

“ I didn’t feel I was fasting during the Ramadan in Syria, but here every day I strongly feel I’m fasting.” 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 Shatila camp. She works for a grassroot nonprofit organization in Shatila camp. When I soke to her, at 10 am. on the last week of Ramadan, she was a bit pale: “Sorry, I’m fasting so I might look a bit weak.” During the interview, she sometimes sneezed, coughed, or had to take a deep breath.

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. “I don’t think it’s safer during the Ramadan, it’s less gunfire, but more firecrackers! It’s different degrees of danger.” Najwa said. The division among different non-state forces within the Shatila camp fears the refugees who live here at all times. The Lebanese army and the general security do not enter this area, guns and weapons are not controlled. If there is a crime which requires police intervention, the criminal would be brought to the entrance of Shatila to get arrested; 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, thus, are daily events for those who live in Shatila. Despite the fact that these issues might slightly improve during the Ramadan, the overall security problem remains as one of the major difficulties to Muslim refugees in practicing and enjoying Ramadan.

Ghifar, a Lebanese female NGO worker at the Shatila learning center of the same nonprofit organization, everyday has to deal 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 Quran that Muslims in some conditions don’t have to fast, they still face the pressure from the community and might even shame their parents. Refugees who cannot keep their commandments are afraid to let any others know. Ghifar was also fasting, so that she can understand the difficulties of fasting in such a traditional community, resulting in the problem that some extremely vulnerable people, especially women, suffer dizziness, hypoglycemia and anhyetism.

The most difficult part is still the financial issue. Whether preparing food for iftar or purchasing gifts for children, severe financial pressure is put on refugees, particularly those who have debts. Most of them have to pay around $200 to $250 dollars a month for a tiny room in Shatila. More than a year ago, 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 will 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 1000 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 said that due to the floods which flushed away all their food in the winter, and the debt which he hasn’t been able to pay, he has no money to prepare food for the Eid al-Fitr.

“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.”Najwa was counting how much money they can save for others. “Each person 5000 LBP, three daughters and I are four, so we can save 20,000 LBP (equal to 13 dollars) !” Her eyes sparkled, revealing a satisfied smile. “Fitra” is one of the fasting traditions, which means that people, even some of those who live in a refugee camp, donate the money saved by fasting to those who are in need. Some refugees also teach their children about sympathy even though they’re also facing many of their own struggles. In addition, the community kitchen sometimes prepares food for children during Ramadan, kids holding a container in the street and receiving wishes from other refugee families.

Another tradition during Ramadan is Sadaqa, which means to donate the wealth you have to charities. Some also practice Sadaqa as an alternative way to fasting. Therefore, many non-profit organizations which run programmes in the Shatila camp, have received a great amount of donations and in-kind items, such as children’s clothing donated by a well-known chain clothing store, and Ramadan meals offered by some private restaurants. Furthermore, some NGOs use the donation to hold a few community iftar dinners in Shatila during the month of Ramadan, in order to provide Ramadan meals for children and families.

“This is Ramadan spirit. Whether living in Shatila or in Syria, this spirit wouldn’t have a difference for me.”Najwa kept emphasizing.

However, it’s still tough, especially the psychological difficulties. Although some can temporarily forget their pain when struggling for survival, Ramadan is like a reminder of their loss. They are displaced, separated from their loved ones, thus the meaning of practicing Ramadan could never ever be the same as that in their hometown.

I was talking with several refugee teachers at a refugee learning center about how they are going to celebrate Eid al-Fitr - which means "the festival of breaking the fast" in Arabic. Most of them are not in a mood of celebration. 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 used to enjoy freedom and dignity. She vividly took me back to the day when she was with her children in front of the mosque across from her home. They were playing around, which made her have a headache. “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.”

They insisted on fasting regardless of all the difficulties they faced. 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 to trigger kindness and fairness flowing among different classes and groups. And for the Muslim refugees in Shatila, from my point of view, fasting is a practice for them to sympathize with others despite the sufferings that they are facing. It is also a chance for them to miss their beloved once again, despite the fact that they are trying so hard to get over their loss and pain.

The published Chinese version:


The interviews were facilitated by non-profit organization Basmeh & Zeitooneh‎.