Orientation to Palestinain Camp
For Volunteers and Students working with the
Women's Humanitarian Organization
Be aware that you are living as a welcomed guest in Palestinians’ space. You must do your utmost not to offend the sensibilities of you hosts in any way (for example, by wearing inappropriate clothing). This guide tries to prepare you to be good cultural ambassadors. When in doubt about anything, always ask the director of WHO, or AVI representative.
Palestinians in the camps have lived through enormous tragedy. Those who do not know you may at first regard you with some suspicion, being unsure of why you are in their camp. The best approach as you are walking through the camp is to look people straight in the eye with a big smile and say: Marhaba! (Hello!). Guaranteed that any looks of doubt will soften into a welcome as your greeting is returned However female volunteers and students will have to use some discretion where younger males are concerned and vice versa.
Although some volunteers (through CEPAL, PALKOM AVI and other organizations) have been in the camps over the past few years, foreign volunteer presence is still relatively new. Volunteers therefore have an important role to play in terms of building bridges with the community and making sure that future volunteers will be gladly received. Always remember that you are there to learn as much as you are there to work.
A weekly meeting will be arranged with a senior staff member of WHO, and any problems can be discussed there. If you feel unsure of what appropriate behavior might be at any time you can contact
Mahmoud Director 03 019775
Nada Jaber Coordinator 03 143480
Past history of the Palestinian People in Lebanon
This brief review of the life of the Palestinian people in Lebanon draws on the writing on Rosemary Sayagh, Helen McCue, Pauline Cutting, Chris Giannou, Robert Fiske, The Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, and the oral histories of many people living in Bourj-el-Barajneh Camp.
During the Arab Israeli war of 1947-1948 many thousand Palestinian Arabs fled Palestine, some to avoid the fighting, others forced to leave their home by the newly formed Israel. About 100,000 of these people came to Lebanon, mainly from the northern part of Palestine. They, with their children, grandchildren and great grand children remain there today.
In 1950 the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was formed to provide basic services for the refugees in the Middle East. In Lebanon this agency leased land, and developed 15 refugee camps, of which 12 exist today. Until 1954 people lived in tents, then mud and corrugated iron huts gradually replaced these. Only in 1967 did the Lebanese Government permit small brick houses. UNRWA provided basic health and education facilities, and public toilets. The development of camp infrastructure, including water, sewage and general home building was strictly limited by the Lebanese host government. Only in 1971 was well water piped into the Bourj-el-Barajneh, drinking water is still purchased, as the piped well water is brackish. Open sewers were finally replaced in the early 1990s. Work was restricted for many of the Palestinian people by regulations limiting work permits, or membership of professional and trade associations, however work in the building industry was permitted, and there was plenty of work in the 1960s and early 70s.
The more draconian control of life within the camps, such as corporal punishment for disposing of waste-water in daylight hours, improved following the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organisations (PLO) in 1965. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) established medical services in 1967, including hospitals, rehabilitation services, clinics and an ambulance service. A range of job creation schemes were developed in the camps, including furniture factories, sweet factories, and clothes factories.
The Palestinian population was drawn into the 17 year long Lebanese Civil War, partly because of the support that the PLO had received from some of the Muslim political parties in the past, and partly because the possibility of offering them permanent residence in Lebanon would seriously disturb the politico-religious balance of power in Lebanon. While it is neither relevant nor possible to examine the details of this period here, it is important to highlight some of the events that have targeted the Palestinian people.
In 1976 the refugee camp at Tel-al-Zatar, in East Beirut, was besieged by the Lebanese Phalange militia, many hundreds of people were massacred, and the camp permanently destroyed. Following the Israeli invasion of 1982 the right wing Lebanese militias, with the logistical support of the Israeli Defense Forces, surrounded the Chatilla camp, and the nearby suburb of Sabra, and massacred the (mainly Palestinian) inhabitants. Estimates of the dead vary from a several hundred to three thousand. Later in the 1980s the Amal militia surrounded and besieged the camps of Chatilla, Bourj-el-Barajneh, and Rashadia, several times, with the express aim of causing the death of all inside the camps. The final round of sieges was in 1986-7, with 6-8 months of total isolation. Before and after the sieges the young men of the camp were not permitted to enter or leave even when the women were allowed out to buy food, and other essentials. Free movement for the men was only reestablished in 1991, at the end of the Civil War
The past 12 years have not presented violently life-threatening events, however the Palestinian people have gradually seen their hope to return to Palestine used as a negotiating tool to be bartered, as international powers try to solve “The Middle East Problem”. This leaves them disillusioned, with neither hope for the future, nor an acceptable standard of living in the present. Lebanese regulations continue to make it almost impossible to work, gain an education, or live outside of the UNRWA system, and ever-increasing restrictions on emigration remove settlement in another country as an option. The PLO is no longer able to offer support, as it focuses on the Palestinian Territories, and the continuing Israeli pressure there. While not life threatening, the situation is almost worse, it is soul destroying.
Women’s Humanitarian Organization (WHO)
The Women’s Humanitarian Organization was founded in 1993 to serve women and children living in Palestinian refugee camps. Its main areas of activities are: early childhood education, both nursery (0-3years old) and kindergarten (3-6 years old); adult learning programs (adult literacy, health education, legal literacy) an elderly care program;; an after-school tutorial program; a summer activities program for children and youth; rehabilitation services; and a community disability project. WHO works primarily in Bourj-el-Barajneh camp in Beirut, but has a project in the camps around Sour and does some work in Chatilla
Roles for volunteers with WHO
WHO has agreements with several NGOs to accept volunteers to work in our programs. These vary from young people who working our early education program, or youth programs, supporting our own teaching staff in their work teaching English, to qualified professionals working with us to improve our current programs. We have occasionally taken self-funded volunteers, on the recommendation of NGOs, or individuals who have association with WHO. We insist that volunteers spend at least a month with us; any less and we spend more time in orienting the volunteer than the volunteer can return to us in support.
We have agreements with some educational institution to accept their students for training placements. We have also facilitated postgraduate research students who wish to use the camp as part of their research. Individuals and students need to contact the Director of WHO and negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement.
Palestinians speak Arabic as their first language, their dialect is easily understandable to someone who speaks in the dialect of Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. Almost all will understand Standard Modern Arabic. While Palestinians learn English in the schools as their second language, many older people did not attend school, and many others did not gain fluency in schools. Many but not all WHO staff speak English. While WHO does not demand Arabic of its overseas volunteers, we need to discuss the communication problems on a one-to-one basis, and consider the benefits a volunteer can offer, against the problems of providing interpreter services
Having been accepted to work with WHO you will need to arrange your travel to Lebanon, the following points should be taken into account.
Visa regulations to Lebanon change frequently, and different nationalities may find it easier than others. Check on the current situation for your nationality. In general, at present, visas are available for one month only, but can be renewed in Lebanon. Some nationals can obtain these visas at the boarder, but others may have to get them before leaving. Some Lebanese embassies can issue visas for 3 months or 6 months for some nationalities, on presentation of an "invitation", which WHO can issue for students and volunteers. In general you should avoid mentioning that you plan to work with or study with Palestinians, while many Lebanese have great sympathy with the Palestinians others do not, and if you are dealing with such a person they can make life difficult. Some suggestions to consider when applying include You want a tourist/visitor visa. Your purpose for travelling to Lebanon is “Tourism”. Further questions such as where you are planning to visit can be answered with: Beirut, Cedars, Ba’albek, etc. One question may be who is sponsoring/inviting you, etc. Leave this portion blank; unless you have an invitation from WHO, when you give our name, and add that it is a Lebanese NGO. (WHO is legally constituted as a Lebanese NGO) Any letter if invitation will be worded to show this. Another question often asked is where you are staying. The San Lorenzo Hotel, Hamra, Beirut, is a well-known tourist hotel, another is the Mayflower Hotel, in., Hamra. You can say that you found out about the hotel in a guidebook, such as Lonely Planet or Let’s Go Guide. Alternatively there are also several back- packer hostels near Achrefiya, one is Talal’s New Hotel, which a friend told you about. Choose which approach suits your appearance. You must not have any visas in your passport from Israel; the penalties for trying to enter Lebanon with documentation which proves you have traveled in Israel (including the Palestinian Occupied Territories) are severe. A second passport can often be issued, on application to your own authorities in these circumstances. You may want to take advantage of your time in Beirut to visit other countries in the Middle East
The actual distance from Beirut is not great, but given the time it takes to cross borders (Lebanon/Syria and Syria/Jordan), it is not feasible to travel to Jordan on a weekend. However you may wish to travel to Jordan before or after your time with WHO, or during your annual leave if you are with us for a long period. Single entry visas can be obtained at the Jordanian border for many nationalities Visas can also be obtained from the Jordanian Embassy in your home country.
It is feasible to make a weekend trip to Damascus, the capital of Syria. Visiting Syria is highly recommended by all previous volunteers and many Palestinians and is a cultural experience in itself. If you are interested in visiting Syria, you can obtain a multi entry Syrian visa before leaving. Visas can usually be obtained at the Lebanon-Syria. Border for most nationalities, but it is simpler and quicker to get them before leaving if possible. Fees vary from nationality to nationality
The overland trip to Turkey involves traveling through Syria. Eastern Turkey can be reached in 10-12 hours by bus. Again this is not a weekend trip, but can be incorporated into annual leave for long-term volunteers, or into a before or after trip, for people working with WHO for a short term.
Although no vaccinations are required for Lebanon, it is HIGHLY recommended that volunteers visit a vaccines/tropical diseases clinic in due time before leaving for Lebanon. Please inform the doctor that you will be working in a refugee camp environment. Some vaccines recommended for the area include: Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Polio and Typhoid.
What to bring
While summers are hot and sticky, the winters can be very cold and very wet. Houses in the camp are much less protected from the outside weather than those in Europe, North America, or Australasia. Clothes should reflect the time of year that you are coming to Beirut. People planning to spend a long period of time in Beirut should consider buying extra clothing to cover all seasons. Friends will show you were to buy cheap clothes.
In Bourj women's Legs must be completely covered to below the knee, no shorts or mini skirts. Women do not need to wear a headscarf unless visiting a mosque. However if you are Muslim, and wear a scarf it will be assumed you wear hijab, and so you will need conform to the stricter dress and moral code that this entails.
If you have body piercing other than earrings, and perhaps a nose stud, you should make sure they are covered by your dress, or the jewelry (studs, bars and rings) removed. Earrings on men are also likely to draw attention.
In summer you will most likely have some outings to riverside or beaches. The children love river outings, and everyone will be soaked at the end of the day! Women should wear one-piece, modest swimsuits, and/or a T-shirt. Please also ensure that your swimming clothing is not transparent when wet. Sunglasses, hats and sunscreen are essential.
We recommend comfortable and stable sandals for the summer months and trainers for cooler weather. The roads in the camp are uneven, the stairways are steep, and there are many obstacles (construction, sewage, garbage) in the way; heels – although worn by many women in the camp – are not recommended for daily wear. Please be warned that the shoes/sandals that you wear on a daily basis will probably be ready for the garbage when you leave.
A dressy outfit is important, as foreigners living in the camp are often invited to parties, such as weddings, engagements, and birthdays, and you will need some finery, and for women some makeup.
Depending on accommodation arrangements you may also need to bring, or purchase soon after arrival, towels, sheets, and other household linen. Discuss this with WHO with plenty of time to make suitable plans.
Most toiletries are available, if not in the local shops and supermarkets, then in the large shops frequented by wealthy Lebanese and foreigners.
Most items are available at local stores and at the nearby supermarket. Prices for things like shampoo, soap and detergent are either cheaper or the same as in western countries. Sunscreen and insect repellent are expensive. Women should note that while sanitary napkins are available and relatively inexpensive, tampons (especially the non-applicator variety) are difficult to find and expensive.
All sorts of film are available in Beirut, but are slightly more expensive than in western countries. It is possible to have your films developed in Bourj el-Barajneh camp (Nasser owns the photo shop), or in Beirut. Do bring pictures of your friends and family – your friends in the camps will love to see them.
If you normally take vitamins then bring a supply with you. Remember that life in the camp is quite stressful, and your eating pattern will be somewhat different here, therefore you may want to consider a vitamin supplement to boost your immune system and avoid coughs and colds.
On arriving in Beirut you will probably have been traveling for many hours, or even days, and will be tired. If you have had to be economic with the truth, remember what you have said when getting a visa.
When you arrive a member of the staff will normally meet you in the arrivals area. Please make sure you have given accurate flight information, including flight number, date and time (make sure it is obvious wither you arrive AM or PM). Other arrangements can be made if you wish.
Within a week or so of arriving you should register with your embassy.
Remember that this is a conservative Muslim community, and while single people can live with close relatives of the opposite sex (this includes husbands/wives, parents/children, and brothers/sisters) in the same house, friends of the opposite sex cannot share accommodation. Friends of the opposite sex working together in the camp will have to find separate accommodation.
WHO can help volunteers with accommodation in the camp, at a range of levels. This can include staying in our nursery, renting a room or renting an apartment.
Renting a room in a home
Several staff members and associates of WHO are happy to rent out a single room. This can be an interesting way to get to know people in the camp. Usually tenants have access to bathroom and kitchen, however you may often be offered food if you are at home when the family eat. If you find you are often doing this it is appropriate to buy some food for the family, coffee, dried beans, meat, etc. The family will have bedding, and usually a bed, but you may be sleeping on a mattress on the floor, as in the nursery. (Many families do not have beds, but use foam mattresses on the floor. These are folded away during the daytime, and gotten out at night). Rents will vary but will be in the range of $75-100 per month. One of the advantages, and oddly enough also disadvantages, of this form of accommodation is that you become very close to one family. This may limit your ability to socialize with many families, especially if your hosts think of you as one of their unmarried daughters.
Renting an Apartment
This is the most appropriate for a person staying for a long period, or for a large group of people. WHO knows of 3 apartments in the camp that are often available for rent and others may become available in the future. Rents are in the order of $US100-150 per month, plus electricity gas and water, (usually in the order of a further $US15 per apartment). Apartments come with a range of household equipment, and WHO will make sure that you have the basics. If you are staying for a long period you will accumulate a range of extra luxuries, as the local supermarkets are quite cheap.
Inconveniences of camp living
Lebanon has difficulty generating enough power, and so most areas have regular blackouts of about 4 hours per day. There is no schedule, but local people can often make educated guesses as to when the power will go off, based on the current pattern. Power is generally less available in winter and summer, when people use air conditioners and central heating. Some homes have access to private generators, or battery systems; most in the camp use candles. Electricity is sold by the maximum quantity you can draw on at any time (usually 5 or 10 amps), in the camp, rather than by the exact quantity of kilowatt/hours that you use. The reality is that if you have too many appliances on the electricity cuts out!!! You should ask your neighbours what to do if this happens.
The water piped to the houses is well water. It is slightly salty; and is pumped to your house every second day (in most cases). It is stored in tanks, usually on the roof. This water is perfectly safe to wash in, and to wash dishes in; it is not safe to drink!!!! Because the water is stored for up to two days it is important to make sure taps are turned off, that toilet cisterns do not continue to run after you have flushed it, and that you do not take long showers. Often water is shared between several households, and if you waste water your neighbours suffer as well as you.
Beirut city water can be bought from people in the camp; it is very cheap, in the order of 20cUS for 10 liters. Your neighbours will show you were to buy this water. This is what most people in the camp drink, and if boiled properly is quite safe to drink. However the bacteria count may not be as good as your home country and you may want to buy bottled water to drink, without boiling. This costs about 50cUS per 6-liter bottle, and can be bought at most small shops in the camp.
In summer ibbt is hot and humid, and you will be quite active, walking round the camp, and round Beirut. You will need to drink lots of water, in the order of 3-4 liters per day, the consequences of not drinking enough include dehydration, heat exhaustion, and urinary tract infections (which can lead to permanent kidney damage!!). Tea, coffee, and cola drinks tend to increase dehydration as they are diuretics (making you pee more), DRINK WATER.
Your bathroom will have shower of some sort, and some even have hot water (although in the hot weather you might prefer cold showers). Some toilets are western, but most are in the ground, or ‘Turkish’ toilets.
Despite the best efforts of the housewives, be prepared to deal with the “sarsour” – cockroaches. These are large and plentiful in all houses and seem to enjoy cockroach poison. However you can try the range of poisons available at the local supermarket.
Rats are ever present in the street, and you will see them at night, however they rarely venture into homes, and if you do have this problem, go to your landlord, and ask his help.
The local cats are usually wild, and seem to have signed a peace treaty with the rodent population. While some people do have pet cats, many people are scared of them.
Maintaining your home
Palestinian women are meticulous housewives and usually clean their homes daily. While you may not find time to follow this custom, while working and socializing with new friends, it is important to leave your home as clean and tidy as you would have liked to find it.
This refers to the difficulties people experience in adapting to the norms of a culture they are not used to. It manifests itself in many ways, including altered sleep patterns, irritability, difficulty concentrating, desire for solitude, explainable fits of crying, fatigue, increased smoking etc. Culture shock usually sets in following the euphoria of arriving and settling in, the longer your planned stay the later the emotional down will be noticed, and the longer it can last.
There are a range of things you can try to help yourself through this phase.
Practice relaxation, in whatever way you know how, meditation, tai chi, exercise, etc.
Spend some time in the more western parts of Beirut, Hamra has some good coffee shops, Monot St has some bars (but don’t return to the camp drunk), and Raouché has some nice cafes.
Go and explore some of the tourist sites that you told the embassy you were coming to visit, when applying for a visa, go with a group of friends, for example other volunteers.
Get plenty of sleep.
Eat a well balanced diet, with plenty of protein.
Consider a course of vitamin supplements.
Becoming critical of the host culture.
Increasing your use of nicotine or alcohol beyond your normal intake.
Feeling guilty about your feelings, which are normal and common.
Also be aware that you will probably experience culture shock on returning home.
To help conserve money many Palestinians eat a late breakfast, and an early evening meal, followed by a light snack in the mid evening. The diet is very high in carbohydrates, rice is eaten with bread, and beans, and many families will eat meat only 2-3 times a week. While vegetables, eggs and dairy products appear to be cheap to our western eyes; they are often beyond the means of some of the poorer families. However Palestinian cooking is excellent, and you should try as many dishes as possible.
For your own well being, especially if you are living in the camp for a long time you should avoid the trap of starting the day with a cigarette and a coffee (which gives you a n adrenaline rush, but has no nutrient value), followed by Manakish (a middle eastern version of the pizza, fills you up, but has little nutrient value) mid morning, with the girls in the office, or school. Then skipping lunch because you are full, missing the evening meal because you are to busy, and grabbing a snack of falafel or shawarma, between visits. Keep a stock of salad vegetables, and fruit at home, some eggs, and canned meat or fish, so that you can always make a meal. These are all available from the small shops inside the camp. A more comprehensive range of goods is available in the supermarkets outside the camp, or at the large western style supermarkets such as Monoprix. Remember that nuts are high in protein snack, and there are excellent nut shops by the main entrance to the camp, off the airport road. It is great to support the stores in the camps, and you should be able to find most items in the camp.
Keeping in contact
Volunteers staying in Lebanon for a long period should consider getting a “pay-as-you-go” mobile phone. The line is expensive, in the order of $100- $150, and you will have to buy new units every month, for a minimum of $40, however there are no fixed phone lines in the camp, and it will be the only way that people can contact you in an emergency. Some overseas phones will work through the local network, so you could ask your local phone company before leaving, as an alternative.
There are several Internet centres in the camp, charging about 1000LL per hour, the connection is through a satellite link, and is frustratingly slow. The same centres offer phone services, via satellite, and are remarkably cheap.
LibanPost has improved its services, since the Canadian postal services reorganised it, however they are slow, and not 100% reliable. You can use the WHO address, to receive mail.
Women’s Humanitarian Organisation
PO Box 113-5435
Hamra 1103 2040
Any important post to be sent should be registered, about 5000LL for a letter.
Lebanese Lira (LL) is the currency of Lebanon, but American dollars are also accepted and circulate freely. Any currency you bring should be in US dollars, and it is worth buying some of this currency, in small denomination notes. US$1 = 1500LL
The easiest way to receive money in Lebanon is to have it deposited in your overseas account, and withdraw it from the numerous automatic teller machines. Make sure, before leaving that your card is valid for overseas transactions (usually VISA, Cirrus, or Plus). ATMs are mostly located in downtown Beirut, but there are at least two near Bourj el-Barajneh camp. However be aware that many banks have high fees for overseas transactions, and minimise the number of withdrawals you make.
Credit cards are being used more frequently in Lebanon, especially in larger stores in Beirut. You can also withdraw cash from your credit card at most ATMs. You will not be able to use your credit card in smaller shops and in most places outside Beirut or other main cities. Traveler’s cheques cost $3 to cash whatever the denomination, and very few places will exchange them, if you do choose to carry them, make sure they are US dollars.
The amount of spending money you will need while in Lebanon depends greatly on your personal spending habits, the amount of travelling you would like to do on weekends. Volunteers and students spending time in Beirut should be aware that cafes, bars and nightclubs are very expensive; a night out, or a coffee, can sometimes cost you twice as much as it would at home.
Women should remember that, while certain young men may make remarks about you while you pass them, there is no danger – remember that the crowding of the camp works in your favour here – you are a flimsy wall apart from twenty people at all times
You should have no difficulty – of feel insecure – about wandering around most of Beirut, or traveling to most parts of Lebanon. Since Israel’s partial withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, it is possible to travel right to the border. However, due to the increased and ever increasing tensions since the beginning of the al-aqsa intifada, that is subject to change on a daily basis.
Syrian soldiers and migrant workers inhabit many of the old bombed-out buildings in and around Beirut. They should not bother you, but please remember that in all instances you should never try to take any photos of tanks, soldiers, or other military installations
It is also important to stress that the Palestinian presence in Lebanon is both complex and sensitive. Many harbour strong resentment towards the Palestinians in light of their involvement in the Lebanese Civil War, as well as their continued presence in Lebanon. Volunteers and students must be diplomatic.
You will want to take photographs around the camp while you are living there. However there people who do not want their homes or offices photographed, for a range of reasons. When you want to do some photography ask the staff to find someone to go with you, so they can tell you what not to photograph, and so that they can negotiate with people who are unsure about why you want photos of their home.
Inside the camp
You will frequently be invited to homes of people in the camp, including colleagues, people you teach or treat, as well as total strangers. You should accept as many invitations as you feel comfortable with. But be aware that single women do not go to the homes of single men, unless chaperoned by their family, and likewise single men do not go to the homes of single women unless a chaperon is present. Once you have visited a home, and made friends with the family, it is usually quite acceptable to just drop in for a chat. When men visit women who were hijab, knock and call out your name, eg “its Tom, is it ok to visit?”. Then wait until your hostess answers the door. The women often do not wear a scarf when at home, and will need to put one on before you can see them. Some women will not invite you in, if they are alone in the house, especially if they have only met you a few times, so don’t be insulted if you are not asked in.
You will often be asked to meals, and if you have special dietary requirements, for example you are a vegetarian, have food allergies or are diabetic, try to explain these limitations when you accept the invitation. If the invitation is less formal, for example, if you drop in when a meal is about to be served, eat what is acceptable to your diet and leave the rest.
If you eat with a family frequently it is appropriate to offer a contribution to the household, such as coffee or sweets. Do not give extra money outright, as this may offend certain people. Please remember that the people in the camps are very proud and do not like seeming poor or in need of charity
Coffee and tea are usually offered, but unlike most European cultures, you will sit and chat for a while, before the offer is made. It is considered to be a bit rude to offer a drink as soon as the visitor arrives, “have a coffee, and go way, I don’t really want to be nice to you today” is the implication of a to hurried offer of refreshments. If you don’t like coffee or tea, say so, also say before your hostess goes to make the drinks that you don’t take sugar, as she may make the drinks with the sugar already added.
Men in the camps do not interact with young women their age, unless they are formally invited to their family home. This means that male volunteers should not stop to talk with young women on the way to work, etc. Within the context of the WHO activities, outings, etc. interactions are, of course allowed and you will notice that at work and in the home men and women interact normally. However, outside of this setting, it is important to keep interactions to a minimum
In terms of interactions with young men, commonly referred to as the shebab, female volunteers should be equally attentive. You should not talk to the young men that you will constantly meet in the alleys of the camp, even if they try to talk to you. Within the context of your work interactions with men are allowed
Cigarettes are amazingly cheap to our western eyes (less than US$1 per pack). If you take them from your friends when visiting, always offer some from your own pack, even if there is a pack on the table in front of you. Remember women DO NOT smoke in the street, though men do. It is very easy to increase your smoking when in the camp, they are cheap, and available, however remember how much your 40 cigarette a day habit will cost when you return home, as well as the health considerations. Nargelie or water pipe is smoked by many people, and you will see young men sitting in the street at all times of the day, smoking. However women only smoke nargilie in private, in the home or on the roof. If you want to try this ask a friend to share one with you, they will be happy to do so.
Summer is wedding time in the camps, though there are weddings and engagements at other times. Volunteers are often invited to many! It is definitely an occasion where people dress up (within the regulations of the conservative dress code, i.e., an elegant but long skirt, etc.), so bring something a bit more formal to wear.
Outside the camp
The local area around the camp is a conservative Shi’ia area; Hizbu’ulla runs the local government. It is an interesting area for window-shopping, and if you need clothes, your friends will be happy to show you the bargains available.
To travel further afield you will probably prefer to take a service (pronounced serveees), or shared taxi. There are thousands of these throughout Lebanon, both intercity and within each city. They are crowded, smoky, and you end up meeting some interesting people. Most taxis/services are old Mercedes cars. You hail a service by standing at the side of the road, and when the driver slows, shouting out your destination. He will either motion you to get in (if he and his other passengers are going in that direction), or he will raise his eyebrows, thrust his chin at you, and make “tsk, tsk” noise. To foreigners, this may seem rude at first. Do not be offended; he is merely saying no, that he is going in a different direction.
When in the service, you can pay immediately, or at any time during the ride. If you think that the driver might try to overcharge you (all foreigners have too much money of course!), it is best to pay immediately. One service ride is 1500LL, however if the ride is a long one, for example the camp to Hamra, the fare will be “2 service”, “servicaine”, “alfaine”, or 3000LL. Drivers will also ask for “taxi”, which usually means 10000LL, but you should reply firmly “service”. Remember you are a volunteer, not a rich expat. If you decide to go “taxi” the driver must take you on the most direct route, and you can refuse to let him pick up other passengers.
When returning to the camp, ask for “Amlieh el-bourj”. The Mehania-el-Amlieh is the name of a large and well-known technical college just opposite the side entrance of the camp, and has given its name to the surrounding area.
Buses are the cheapest way of getting around. Mini-buses travel the main Beirut roads, at 750LL a ride. You can also take mini-buses to most other cities to and from Beirut. There are main bus terminals “Cola” and “Dora” where you can catch mini-buses to Lebanese cities of Tyre, Ba’albeck, Tripoli, etc. Costs vary between 1500LL to Saida, to 7500LL to Baalbeck. Drivers will try to overcharge on the most common tourist destinations, so ask a friend before you leave. Both of these interchanges are sited under overpasses, and are large and busy streets, full of people.
When taking a service, women should not sit in the front if there is space in the back, unless there are two men in the back and the front seat is empty. When in public buses, always try to sit beside other women or alone, try to avoid than beside male passengers.
An important note while traveling outside of the camps: you will most likely be engaged in conversation with others in your service and also the driver. Lebanese are extremely friendly, and will want to know all about you, where you are from, how many children you have, etc. Inevitably, you will be asked what you are doing in Lebanon. Please remember that you must not reveal that you are working with Palestinians. A trickier question would be where you are staying. A reply that you are visiting friends is best. If you are asked for specifics, best to say that you are staying in Beirut with friends, who are also foreigners. You can also have a standard reply that you are staying in the Hamra area of Beirut.
Army checkpoints (both Lebanese and Syrian) are still in place along some of the roads, and at some camp entrances, although the soldiers’ occupation seems to be more oriented towards drinking ahawe (Arabic coffee), playing cards and directing traffic. In the Beirut camps, you will not be asked for your passport, but in the southern camps passport checks are occur from time to time. It is unlikely that you will be stopped when traveling in a taxi or bus. If you are, be prepared to show your papers, assuming again the tourist pose. There may sometimes be tanks around the checkpoints – they are mainly for show. Sitting in them all day must be one of the most boring jobs in the military service
Remember that people will notice what you do and do not make a habit of returning to the camp late at night. While the occasional late night out is understood, these should be infrequent, no more than once a month, otherwise try to be back in the camp by 11pm. Do not return to the camp drunk, under any circumstances.
Traveling is a great part of volunteering but please remember that you are also in the camps to meet the people within them and sometimes the best way to do this is by spending a few week-ends just strolling through the narrow alleyways and enjoying the coffee, food that will inevitably come your way. That said, will want to take advantage of the opportunity to see some of Lebanon, and long term volunteers get 3 weeks annual leave per year (same as the staff of WHO)
Lebanon is a beautiful country and there are many great places to visit. Traveling between cities in Lebanon is inexpensive, and given the size of the country, it does not take more than 3 hours to reach the north or the south from Beirut. During the summer months, there are music festivals and other cultural events to attend. For more detailed information check your favorite brand of Guide book.
You’ll discover Beirut on your own, but there are some interesting parts that you have to visit: the Corniche, or the seafront, that has many restaurants and cafes, and is a great place to simply take a walk (or run in the morning); Hamra, or the downtown area is great for shopping and just chilling; the Central District (destroyed during the war) is beautiful to stroll through
This city in the north of Lebanon is a great one-day trip and is well worth the US$1 it will cost to get there from Beirut. The bus station, Charles Helou, has hourly buses to Tripoli
If you’re looking for great beaches, food and nargilie, this is the place to go. Sour is 2 hours away from Beirut and it will cost you about US$2 to get there. It is a great one-day destination, especially since there are few cheap hotels to spend the night at
Ba’albeck’s main attractions are the astounding Roman ruins, which include one of the most complete Roman temples in the world. They are the largest and most impressive Roman ruins in the Middle East. You simply can’t miss them!!! Ba'albeck is easy to reach – just grab a van at the Cola intersection. It is definitely a one-day destination
This is a small town that is great to just stroll through. You can visit it on the way back to Beirut from Ba’albeck
The Jeita Grotto
These caves of extraordinary stalactites and stalagmites is one of the most stunning in the world. If you’ve seen caves in Europe, still go the Jeita – the caves here are incomparable to anything in Europe or elsewhere. One half of the cave is above water and you walk through it; the other half has to be visited by boat. It is quite cool in the caves and a sweater is advisable. To get to the Grotto, go to Dora and get on a bus going in the direction of Jounieh and mention that you want to get off at the turn-off for the Grotto. At this turn-off you’ll find taxis ready to drive you up to the grotto (you can technically walk – it’s uphill, long and takes about 90 minutes – TAKE THE TAXI!!!) The taxi costs about US$6.50, so it is worthwhile to visit the Grotto as a group, so that it costs a few bucks a person
This is a great weekend destination! There are regular buses to Damascus from the bus station and the ride is about 3-4 hours, depending on how long the border crossings last. There are two border stops – one to exit Lebanon and one to enter Syria. At the Syrian border the customs officials will give you a yellow card to fill out. The small print is extremely important – YOU MUST KEEP THIS CARD TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY – you will be asked for it upon leaving Syria. If you do not have it, you’ll have to go to the Immigrations office in Damascus to get another one, and you won’t be able to leave until you receive another one. Avoid the headache and keep it with your passport
In Damascus, you can stay at the Al-Haramein Hotel – it is cheap, clean and has great service and interesting travellers to share stories with. It is also at walking distance from the amazing Souq al-Hamidiyya, or the covered market, which is the place to do all your shopping!! You’ll never be able to beat the prices in Syria, so shop!!! There are plenty of mosques, Martyr’s Square in the centre of the city, and the Old City is a treat
Note that it is difficult to get guide books to Syria, either in Syria or in Lebanon, so bring one with you
Jordan is an amazing destination in the Middle East. There are buses from Damascus to Amman (the capital) at $5 US and the ride is about 4 hours. From Amman, there are buses to all other destinations in the country. To visit most of the main attractions in Jordan takes 5-6 days – if you have the time take it and you won’t regret it
Reading before you arrive
Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War By Robert Fiske
Mr. Fisk is a journalist for The Independent (UK) and has been reporting on the Middle East since the civil war.
Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon By Rosemary Sayigh
Rosemary Sayigh is an anthropologist living in Beirut, who has done extensive research on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, particularly in Chatilla camp. Mrs. Sayigh’s book is recommended, as it documents firsthand accounts of the refugees.
Beseiged: A Doctor’s Story of Life and Death in Beirut By Dr. Chris Giannou.
This book tells of Shatila’s struggles to survive during the wars. Dr. Giannou a “war surgeon” with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It is a quick but difficult read
Children of the Siege By Dr. Pauline Cutting
Dr. Cutting’s book is about the sieges in Bourj el-Barajneh camp
Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky
The Question of Palestine
Peace and its Discontents
The Politics of Dispossession
Blaming the Victim
All by Edward Said
The Rise and Fall of Palestine by Norman Finkelstein
Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return edited by Naseer Aruri
Soul in Exile: Lives of a Palestinian Revolutionary
Both by Fawaz Turki
WHO has a range of articles which we can send via email if you want to supplement your reading.
WHO would like to acknowledge the help of CEPAL in developing this guide, some parts have been copied from CEPAL’s volunteer manual, other parts have been modified, but are based on CEPAL’s work. Their past coordinators were generous with their time in making suggestions in the development stages