Cooking for a Future – Lebanon

This Blog post is the translation of an article I wrote for Basler Zeitung (in german) in Switzerland.

Beirut, Lebanon. 1948 the first refugee camp for Palestinian refugees opened up in Beirut. At that time, temporary places with tents and the hope to go back home to Palestine again soon.

70 years later, the tents have been transformed into houses, even skyscrapers, made from stone. Temporary is not a suitable term anymore. The hope to go back home still lingers on.

In Lebanon, there are 12 refugee camps with more than 450’000 registered refugees, three of them alone in Beirut. Mariam Al Shaar, born and raised in Burj El Barajneh, the biggest of the three refugee camps, is the coordinator of all activities of the NGO Women’s Programs Association (WPA) in all 12 refugee camps.

The conditions in the camp are bad. On an area of one square kilometer live almost 50’000 refugees, mostly Palestinians, but since a few years more and more Syrians also. As a comparison, in Switzerland we have a population density of 204 persons per square kilometer. Not only due to this, the camp is busy – the very narrow roads are shared by pedestrians, motorcycles and shops at the same time. Even the pastime is taking place here, at least of the male population. In the Arabian culture, girls and women normally spend their time after work or school at home. Mariam Al Shaar wants to change that. With WPA they offer schools in those camps.
The teachers are Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese professionals. Just last week, the new school building has been finished. With the help of international donations, it was possible to buy a building, to move out of the now used, rental building that costs as much as 600 dollars a month. But this is not enough for Mariam Al Shaar. She is working hard to give the women and girls in the camps a future.

Last year, in collaboration with Cuisine sans frontiers, a swiss caritative organisation, they started the second round of the project “Soufra-Kitchen”. 25 women get a professional education in gastronomy, they learn to cook healthy food, the systematics of big kitchens and caterings and to work efficiently in the kitchen with preparations and everything.

Now the classes are finished for this year, and the women work and earn money with their work as chefs. They cater for schools and events inside and outside of the camp, they started a food truck business and a few months ago, they were invited to man a regular stand at the “Souk El Tayeb” – the weekly farmers market in downtown Beirut. Every Saturday, the women offer there all the Palestinian delicacies they produce in the camp kitchen. And besides all this, the Soufra project has also a social benefit on these women, as they have a new social community, new contacts and a generally improved social life.

The international press has already spotted Mariam Al Shaar also. Recently, she has made it with a double page and her portrait into the book «200 women who will change the way you see the world» and another entry into the 100 most inspiring women of our times is being discussed. Even a movie has been made about the kitchen project. The movie “Soufra” just was at the Cannes Festival and several others. In Switzerland, Cause Photo Travels is working to organise screenings of the movie and a presentation of the project to support the project with the funds raised through entrance fees.

But all of this is only a little bit of glamour in totally not glamourous day to day life in the camp. Most of the people there hardly ever leave the camp, and if they do, they feel estranged, unwelcome and uncomfortable outside in Beirut. Palestinians in Lebanon are not living an easy life. 72 professions are prohibited for them and the others are hard to get in to. Due to this situation, they tend to agree to jobs for payments, no Lebanese would agree on. And then they need to cope with the blame from the Lebanese for taking these low paid jobs and taking away the jobs of the Lebanese people.
Refugees are tolerated, but not widely welcome. And if they want to travel or leave, the government hardly ever allows it. A paradox situation. That is why most refugees spend their whole life in the camp, work there independently or open a shop – the only place where this is possible without restrictions.

Water and electricity in the camp are also not standard yet everywhere. Many relief organisations like the UNRWA are working to improve this, but it takes time. Especially electricity is a dangerous subject. In the last years, 60 people died from execution. A big number, but when you see the many and very low hanging electric cables, the number becomes surprisingly small. In some roads you have to duck down to not touch those cables.

The change is ever present in the camp. You see renovated buildings, newly painted houses and people working to improve the infrastructure. But in-between you also see broken down or destroyed houses and walls with many bullet holes from the various conflicts and wars in the last years.
Life in the camp surely is not an easy life. It lacks everything – except hope, kindness and generosity. And if you open your eyes and heart, you will experience the most amazing smiles you can see in the Near East.