Preparations for Syrian refugees and internally displaced people in Lebanon have long been a frequent concern, though unavoidable weather conditions still threaten to disrupt their transition to life in a new country. In conventional language, that information would precede a dire (and necessary) warning that Syrian families will simply need more help if they are to begin rebuilding their lives. In more idiosyncratic terms, the information implies that nature’s cruel sting could easily crush hopes for a better life into dust.
One example of this came about a year ago when a heavy storm, dubbed Norma by meteorologists, caused damage to at least 151 refugee camps in Lebanon. The oncoming weather had been noted by the UNCHR’s press release a couple of days previously. Inevitably, nature took its toll and damaged the lives of more than 80,000 people.
To steer away from nature and focus on regimentation, however, we could focus on the city of Beirut. Specifically, a ghettoised community called Shatila. Armed militias guard the place and impose a sense of order on an otherwise organic settlement. This imposition of order is not wholly negative - the militias regularly give out food stamps to Syrian families, for example. Shatila is largely avoided by the Lebanese government, so it’s become a state-within-a-state controlled by the Palestinian militias.
A state-within-a-state... It’s an interesting concept, and Shatila offers a unique opportunity to observe whether hardcore self-governance can work effectively or not. For some, it can be viewed as part of an enticing experiment. For most, it’s a humanitarian issue. The best thing to do would be to combine both approaches and go from there.
To make it clear, life is difficult in the Shatila settlement. Overcrowding was inevitable from the start, when the original Palestinian refugees arrived there following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49. Their descendants still inhabit the settlement, while Syrians started arriving in great numbers after 2011. The result is a community which is a hive of resilience supplemented by meagre healthcare and limited schooling.
On the political side of things, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has set up its headquarters in Shatila. A microeconomy of sorts operates at a constant pace, with food prices remaining quite low and most businesses being operated by Syrians, some of whom hope to join their relatives in various Western countries at some point.
To look at things from an experimental point of view, Shatila opens up a debate not just about autonomy and state governance, but also about culture itself. Buried inside the ever-trending topic of immigration and the refugee crisis is the even deeper topic of culture and its transformation, or at least the addition of new attachments to its form. The discussion stretches from there into obscure and difficult little areas; how a given society thinks, how its people behave and how they view one another.
An undeniable truth that can be gleaned from the governance of the Shatila settlement is that one state inside another remains just that- a hegemonised group of people subject to forces beyond their control, maintaining the cycle which the larger state is also part of. This is an important fact that shakes off the myth of new governance being synonymous with absolute freedom.
With regards to the essentials being provided to the refugees living in the Shatila settlement, it can only be said that all families need to receive sufficient resources. In addition to the militia’s work, the UN Relief and Works Agency operates a healthcare centre in Shatila, offering vaccinations, lab testing and psychosocial support for children among other things. As such, the obvious necessity is for students and the general global population to genuinely care about the lives in the settlement while considering the cultural questions of state governance and authority. Though it may sound like a strange necessity, compassion and observance could prove to be a fruitful union nonetheless.