Palestinian refugees vow to continue protests against UN healthcare cuts as dire conditions in Ain al-Hilweh get worse.
Nahr al-Bared camp, Lebanon – Souafa Abbas has lived in a temporary shelter in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, since 2009, after the camp was levelled in clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist fighters two years earlier.
“It’s a boring life here. Before the  crisis, all the people in our neighbourhood knew each other well. There were no strangers in the area,” Abbas, 40, told Al Jazeera.
The place where she lived before the fighting broke out was a replica of her family’s native village of Saffouri, where generations of Palestinians had lived side by side until 1948.
But since the fighting, more than 600 Palestinian families from Nahr al-Bared have been living in shelters designed to be inhabited for three years, for more than double that time. Abbas lives with her baby daughter in a building roofed with a single sheet of galvanised metal, which bakes in summer and does not retain heat in winter. The cooking and toilet facilities are squalid.
“My baby is always ill with something: the flu, a cold. She needs an operation, but we have to wait until she’s one year old [as it cannot be performed on younger infants],” Abbas said. “Because the roof is so low, there’s no movement of air. It’s not healthy here … We have suffered more than others, because others have returned to their homes and we’re still here.”
But her family’s living conditions may soon improve. UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, is spending $345m to rebuild the Nahr al-Bared camp – the biggest project ever undertaken by the agency.
The clashes in 2007 destroyed 95 percent of the camp and left more than 28,000 people homeless. With backing from the Lebanese government, UNRWA has started clearing 12,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance and redesigning Nahr al-Bared as a modern city.
When the camp was created in the late 1940s, it consisted of groupings of tents, later replaced by poorly built, breeze-block concrete homes. Little thought was given to creating an organised urban infrastructure. Because residents did not own the buildings they lived in, official records of home and shop sizes and their exact locations did not exist. In fact, no authority had ever mapped the camp before.
To rebuild Nahr al-Bared in a way that preserves the structure of the generations-old Palestinian communities, UNRWA consulted with camp residents for assistance with the mapping process, which has lasted years. Today, just 45 percent of the camp’s population – or around 2,200 families, including some who had moved to a neighbouring camp after the 2007 conflict – have returned.
“There’s more security here now than before. I feel safer,” said Amin Ghoneim, who works at his brother’s grocery shop on Nahr al-Bared’s main thoroughfare.
The rebuilt camp’s wider streets allow for more natural light indoors, and higher-quality building materials have been used to construct the new homes. The project has also provided about 5,000 construction jobs for residents, who are in effect building their homes with their own hands.
Abdulnasser Daoud, a mechanic who has already moved into his new home along with his five children, said that the biggest improvements were in air circulation and lighting.
“Its structure, the specifications, the design is all much better than our old home, of course,” he said. “The better lighting and ventilation is important for health and [reducing] humidity.”
Lebanese authorities hope that, when the rebuilding is complete, Nahr al-Bared will be the first weapons-free camp in the country. To keep it that way, reinforced concrete has been placed in the ground to prevent the digging of underground tunnels.
Although the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared has already been shortlisted for several international architecture awards for its preservation of Palestinian social structures – including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the City to City Barcelona FAD Award – the design ideas behind the rebuilding have also caused a number of problems.
Before 2007, just 11 percent of the camp consisted of public space, leaving little room for community interaction. The architects working on the reconstruction aim to increase that to 35 percent. However, some camp residents are uninterested in gardens and open spaces, and instead want that space to be used for bigger homes.
“If the choice is between having a larger home or a garden, then most of us would choose having a bigger house,” Daoud said.
On top of that, the decision to maintain the social structure of the neighbourhoods as they existed before the 2007 war has made for a lengthy consultation process, which has dragged on for nearly a decade.
To avoid a repeat of the street-to-street fighting of 2007, the Lebanese army insisted that the camp’s new streets are wide enough for tanks to pass. This means that houses must be smaller than they had been: Daoud said that his new home is one-third smaller. Although he wants to build another floor on top of his existing home, a demand echoed by other residents, security concerns have prevented him from doing so.
The stricter security around Nahr al-Bared is also hurting businesses by driving away potential customers, both Lebanese and Palestinian, from buying products and services in the camp. “Before there was more activity, more people,” Ghoneim said.
Yet the biggest concern of all is that UNRWA, which relies on donations from the international community, still lacks one-third of the funds needed to complete the rebuilding. “We still have a shortfall of $105m. We have to try and return all the displaced to their homes, and we can’t do that unless we have the funds,” said John Whyte, the UNRWA’s reconstruction project manager. “That’s the number-one priority.”
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Syria – which is so close that its border can be seen from Nahr al-Bared – has diverted donors’ attention away from the long-standing plight of Palestinian refugees. Some camp residents say that they are losing any reason for optimism.
“Our biggest problem is that there’s no hope,” Daoud said. “Without a Palestinian state, a country, there’s no hope for us.”