Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: Community economic development

Published by Medical Aid for Palestinians-UK | 2006

The British charity MAP-UK commissioned a series of articles and photographs of Palestinian refugees in camps throughout Lebanon for a resource on micro-credit development programs. I spent several months on this project — researching in the camps, finding sources and interviewing with a translator, and photographing subjects — to produce the following six personal vignettes of micro-credit recipients.


Street vendors, Ein-Helweh refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

The Diraze family is entirely surrounded by watermelons. From the small, melon-laden cart on the street in Ein-Helweh camp, you would never guess that such a treasure trove of melons lurked just around the corner.

Abu Tarik beckons with his hand, to follow him into the dark alley towards his house, and there it is: The Diraze watermelon tower.

“With my loan I bought $1,000 of watermelons,” he boasts. It was his second loan. The first – $250 – bought him his three-wheel cart last year. While such a mountain of melons may seem somewhat absurd to an outsider, he hopes it will bring enough income to sustain his family through the summer.

For someone new to the fruit vending business, Abu Tarik appears entirely comfortable chatting with his customers, and over half-an-hour there is a steady stream of clients buying melons. In the background, his four children play with marbles.

“Thank God I can feed my children,” he remarks. “I’m trying to manage the needs of the children, but it’s not enough to sell watermelons.”

In fact, Abu Tarik used to drive a taxi – until his car was destroyed in an accident. Faced with epilepsy, he was unable to find any other work. Then he remembered his grandfather, Abu Fuzi.

“My grandfather sold watermelons,” he recalls, pointed to a faded brown-and-white portrait of Abu Fuzi on the wall. “I remember watching how he bought and sold them. I used to go with him and observe.

“I thought about watermelons just to feed my children.”

Although Abu Tarik speaks of the micro-credit loan almost casually, his wife emerges from the shadows and admits the loan was more crucial than he lets on.

“The loan supported us so much,” says Bassma Diraze. “We would not have had any food. The loan enabled us to feed our children.

“I’m looking to renovate our flat with another loan. My hope is to live as normal people do, in peace, and to feel comfortable with my children.”

But selling melons in the summer and vegetables in the winter is, as Abu Tarik says, “not enough.” With his deteriorating health, he admits it is becoming difficult to make repayments.

“I stopped repaying the loan two months ago – I’ve been suffering with my health situation. I’d like to start repaying again.”

Ein-Helweh, on the outskirts of Saida, is a refugee camp known for two things – poverty and instability. As conditions become more and more crowded (up to 70,000 Palestinians are crammed into a few square kilometres), poverty and crime levels are on the rise. The future seems increasingly uncertain for its residents.

“The political situation is like a toy – it’s fragile,” Abu Tarik points out. “It’s so difficult for Palestinians. Our only hope is to return back to Palestine.”

Pausing for a minute, he looks towards Bassma and their children. “We just want to live in dignity.”


Farmers, Qasmiya refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

The afternoon sun blazes down as the elderly couple makes their way across the dry, furrowed soil to their greenhouse. Their movements are slow but precise. This journey, they explain, is best at 5 a.m., when it is cooler.

Picking through the yellowing leaves, Bassma Arooeh emerges from the foliage with an armful of fresh tomatoes. Her husband, Ibrahim Al-Mostafa, in the next greenhouse, holds in his outstretched hand several large white beans. Next year they hope to add cucumbers to their harvest.

Ibrahim has been farming since he was 16. He still remembers, as a child, leaving Palestine on a camel with his sister. He talks about his love for the land, and how difficult farm labour is. They live in Qasmiya, a ‘gathering’ where Palestinians live outside the umbrella of UNRWA, the United Nation’s humanitarian agency for Palestinians. The farmland is owned by absentee Lebanese landlords who demand half the product of their labour.

We ask Bassma if she farms as well. She jumps at the question with a gleam in her eye.

“I’m the main farmer!” she claims, bursting into laughter as her husband stands by in silence. “I collect the products and fill the boxes, and I plant also. I dig the ground as well. I’m a very active farmer.

“I love to plant. I cannot even stay for one day at home. I love to work. I feel such work is in the blood.”

Like Ibrahim, Bassma also grew up farming the land. For her, the poverty of a farmer’s life is balanced by feeling independent and free to make decisions. But they are not without help. When the landlord threatened Ibrahim with jail several years ago for $175 of debts, another Palestinian generously bailed him out.

Ibrahim has felt firsthand the sting of prejudice. As a Palestinian, he already faces legal barriers to his work and rights. To add to this, he says, their previous landlord treated him and his wife like animals.

“When the old owner of the land came to get money, he’d beat me and say, ‘You are a Palestinian, you are a dog,’” Ibrahim remembers. “How can humans live like this? We work your land and we pay you; it’s like we are slaves.” Thankfully, there are better relations with the new owner.

In 2003, Bassma and Ibrahim received a $500 loan from MAP-UK, via a Palestinian partner. They used this to buy medicine, chemicals for their crops, and the occasional extra help at harvest time.

“You know, farm work is very hard work,” Ibrahim adds. “Thanks be to God, it’s not much, but it’s very hard work.”

Ambling back down the path to her house, Bassma ducks under a banana tree. Squinting back into to sun, the wrinkles sharpen around her eyes.

“I feel I am free when I work like this,” she reveals. “I feel very close to the Earth.”


Clothing repair business, Dbayyeh refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

Maria, 11, smiles proudly as she shows her artwork. She flips through the sheets of her drawing books, bringing out first a detailed underwater scene, full of vividly coloured fish. The next is one is her favourite, she tells me – a collection of women’s dresses she designed and drew herself.

Her mother, Josephine Saade, looks on proudly. This last drawing certainly fits with its surroundings in their house in Dbayyeh refugee camp. The tables and chairs are draped with dress fabrics and freshly hemmed trousers; one desk sports an old, foot-powered black sewing machine.

With her husband employed as a fisherman in the summer only, Josephine explains how her difficult economic situation forced her to start working from home. She decided repairing clothing was the best line of work.

“I started four years ago, because of the financial situation,” she says. “People used to come and say, ‘Fix this for us.’ When I didn’t have enough money, I said, ‘Why don’t I work in sewing?’

“I fixed zippers and pants. It was so difficult to get money to eat, and I couldn’t ask for money for food; it was hard for me to accept that. That’s why I decided to work.”

Josephine obviously enjoys working with clothing. She pulls out a white jacket a friend wanted enlarged at the sides; like her daughter, she smiles proudly as she explains how she cut the seams, and sewed in strips of red cloth. In this way, she managed to fix the jacket and use her creative fashion sense at the same time.

This year, Josephine applied for a loan of $750 to help her buy a used electric sewing machine and a tool to apply buttons to trousers. She is one of the first applicants to a MAP-UK sponsored micro-credit program. A local committee distributes loans in this mixed Palestinian-Lebanese camp sadly overlooked by many humanitarian agencies.

“Really, it’s so good,” she says about MAP’s micro-credit initiative. “It helps people and provides what they need. For me, with this small amount of money, I can make what I want.”

For Josephine, the difference between simple aid and loans such as micro-credit is not merely financial. It is also personal.

“The difference is obvious,” she explains. “I prefer the loans because of what I call ‘self-pride.’ It’s better to work to earn. It’s not good to take money… It’s better to work and pay it back. That’s the difference between aid and loans.

“It means I have to do something from my side.”

Josephine is thankful for one thing: That her family is healthy. Although she is Lebanese, her daughter faces barriers since she inherited her father’s Palestinian status. As such, and with little access to health care, staying healthy is as important as putting bread on the table, she says.

“Before I started sewing, I didn’t have enough money to buy bread,” she says. “I want better days for my daughter. I just wish she can stay healthy and my husband can work as well.

“But I’m strong and tough. I just want to live comfortably.”


Shopkeeper, Qasmiya refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

When Ghouson Ibrahim’s father died of cancer almost a decade ago, she dropped out of grade 6 to help care for her brothers and sisters. When her mother became ill several years ago, and a neck injury prevented Ghouson from continuing her job selling food in schools, she decided to open a shop beside her house.

She needed to be nearby to support her family, which lives in Qasmiya, an ‘unofficial gathering’ of Palestinians in South Lebanon. Qasmiya, one of several such gatherings, has no aid status as a registered refugee camp, and thus misses out on vital services. This double ‘outside’ status, on top of laws discriminating against all Palestinians, has led to economic stagnation, as well as widespread and costly health problems.

Ghouson’s dream of a neighbourhood shop was born, but how would she find the money to start it? Luckily, she heard from a friend that MAP-UK was offering small loans through a Palestinian partner, the General Union of Palestinian Women.

With $1,000 in her pocket from micro-credit, Ghouson expanded her shop from two shelves of sweets into a full room offering soda pop, canned vegetables, ice cream and snacks. She built the walls herself and added a tin roof.

Micro-credit, she explains, enabled her to become self-sufficient while still being close to her family.

“It is good because I started a very small shop, I developed it, I even bought the building materials,” she tells MAP. “I opened the shop, but it was very small. The loan was 100 per cent useful. It changed our lives and our economic situation.”

“I wanted to support myself and my family.”

While she admits that the shop does not bring enough income to cover all the family’s medical expenses, still the loan allowed her to “manage” and keep a sense of hope.

At 25 years old, and with little education, Ghouson has learned on her own how to manage a business, deal with suppliers, and repay the loan which allowed her to start. She maintains a calm composure, is quick to share a laugh with her guests, and discusses her hopes and fears with surprising candour.

In fact, she warmly welcomes a group of visitors all the while negotiating with a soda pop salesman and answering questions about her business. When the salesman offers her a deal, she questions him at length on the benefits of his offer while busily restocking the fridge and offering her guests coffee. She demonstrates a business savvy that has brought her success and a sense of optimism about the future.

“I’d love it to be more beautiful and bigger than it is now,” she envisions for the shop. “I would love to have a bakery, but I would need modern instruments.

“I want to change life for the best; we hope the economic situation will improve.”


Co-owners, convenience shop, Dbayyeh refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

“You can’t really call it a shop,” Yolla Youssef grins, opening a red metal door off Dbayyeh camp’s main street. Peering into the dark inside, it is clear that the entire space is barely the size of a large closet.

“It’s more of a semi-shop,” explains her business partner, Nazha Ghattas, reaching into the fridge to produce some cooked beans for sale.

Evidently, the size of the shop has now become a joke among these two best friends and co-owners of Dbayyeh’s smallest shop, ‘A Stick from Every Valley,’ which has applied for a $750 loan from MAP-UK to restock its shelves and begin saving towards the owners’ real dream.

“Even less than a semi-shop,” quips Yolla. This time she hauls out a rack of sweets and children’s snacks onto the street. She explains the name: Like collecting firewood from many valleys, she and Nazha have built a reputation for having a little of everything in their ‘semi-shop.’ Chocolate bars for children after school. Small bottles of juice. Lollipop sweets in plastic tubs. Tasty cooked beans, offered with a big smile and a toothpick.

But while their stock may be small, Yolla’s and Nazha’s dreams are not.

“My dream is to make the shop bigger, so we can live comfortably off it,” Nazha says.

“We have one dream,” Yolla adds – “A Fresco machine. It’s syrup with ice, (the children) choose the colours.”

Yolla becomes visibly excited when I ask her about this juice machine. Unfortunately, such an machine costs up to $1,500, and their income is already too low to even bring in much stock or make a profit. But she is confident the Fresco machine would attract more children with its bring colours and moving parts.

“This will make us semi-millionaires and we can repay the loan!” she jokes.

There is little time to be skeptical; already Yolla and Nazha are busy discussing their juice research in another Palestinian camp, where children literally ran from all directions to get a Fresco.

“Did you live our dream when we told you about it?” Yolla asks. “It was only for a moment, but for us it’s been two years! Imagine how big this dream is.”

Two years ago, Yolla vacated her bedroom and turned it into the first shop selling beans in the refugee camp.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we do this, nobody is doing this,’” she explains. “We were the first with the beans. Now I’m doing my best to be the first one to buy (a Fresco) in Dbayyeh.”

Like other Palestinians, Yolla and Nazha face many economic barriers to making a living. And like so many shut out of the health system in Lebanon, Yolla is impacted by illness of a relative, whose steep medical costs are a heavy burden; Yolla hopes that once her business takes off, she can help pay for her brother’s costly treatments. For her, it is clear that micro-credit benefits more than just individuals in a community.

As they say, “little by little” they are building their shop, starting with a MAP-UK micro-credit loan. But do they really believe they can become millionaires off a single juice machine?

Yolla is quick to correct, again with a smile: “I said ‘semi-millionaires.’”


Watch salesman, Dbayyeh refugee camp

Photo by David P. Ball

“I want a push!” Walid Semaan states enthusiastically, offering a glass of homemade lemonade. “I want to make this work.”

With a $750 micro-credit loan from MAP-UK, the 32-year old resident of Dbayyeh refugee camp is ready to get back into his watch-selling business. Walid lost all his stock in a horrific car accident in 2005, only 15 days after getting married.

Walid’s hands were completely destroyed, and he was sure he would be paralyzed for life. He lost more than $4,000 in goods.

He leans forward to show the long scar running down his arm. He seems completely cheerful as he recounts his injuries, the medical bills, and his feelings at the time.

“Nobody thought any one of us would be alive,” he recalls. “To be alive is a gift from God.

“I thought there would never be a way to move my hands. I thought they would bring me a chair and put me in it. I couldn’t do daily work, nothing. I couldn’t move my hands at all.”

It was a miracle – albeit an expensive one – that doctors were able to restore full function to his hands, which had both been completely broken in the crash. Walid joined the many Palestinians in Lebanon for whom medical treatment has become an economic black hole.

But he refused to give up.

“This thing happened,” he says. |It’s not the end of the world. I want to go to my work and daily life. I love life.”

With only a fifth of his stock remaining, he explains that he needs money to offer customers a decent selection of merchandise. Pulling out shoeboxes of plastic-wrapped watches and sunglasses from his storage room, he recounts how he made a business plan and applied for MAP’s micro-credit loan. $750 is very little, he admits, but for him it is a first step. He hopes more loans will be available if he repays on time.

“[Micro-credit] looks to people and says, ‘I’ll give you something now. Okay, after, you work, and let me see. I will push you a little.’ If you are poor, it’s not the end of this life. You must work and think. It’s up to you.”

Now fully recovered from the accident, Walid has set his sights again on his dreams – to have a shop of his own, and to one day travel abroad to find cheaper merchandise.

Dbayyeh camp receives little outside assistance – health care and clean water are urgent issues facing the community, residents say. MAP-UK has established a locally led committee to administer micro-credit loans in Dbayyeh. In fact, Walid joined the CDS after learning about the loan program.

“When they explained what they were doing for people, I loved the idea,” he explains.

“I’d like to help all the poor people. If you are poor and you have your dream, we can help you. I want to buy watches. This is the first step.”

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