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The Sydney Morning Herald

An Eternal Limbo for Refugees

Jason Koutsoukis

Located within a square kilometre of southern Beirut, the Shatila refugee camp was set up in 1949 as a temporary home for just a few hundred Palestinian families made homeless by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It is now home to about 12,000 refugees.

Its narrow walkways weave an irregular pattern through sagging blocks of apartments packed so tightly that littlelight can penetrate indoors. My guide for the afternoon is Dima Abed al-Razik, 17, a third-generation refugee who, like her parents, has never set foot in the land she still calls Palestine, but is now Israel.

"I was born in the Hamra area [central Beirut] and lived there for 11 years. But the house we were staying in was not for us but for my aunt, who later wanted it back," she said. "So we moved to Shatila, and of course I wasn't very happy because life here is different. But later I found many friends and loved them very much ... so I grew to love Shatila."

Dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, with a knitted Palestinian flag tied around her wrist, Dima dreams of the day she and her family can return to the Acre district of northern Israel. "I don't know what to think about Palestine, as I have never been there," she said. "But I think about it as my home, as a place where we can live comfortably with our own communities and be able to do whatever we please. I feel that Lebanon is also my home, since we were born here and lived here all our lives, but Palestine comes first."

Palestinians are denied Lebanese citizenship and barred from most professions and trades, so decent employment prospects for most are bleak. For Dima the outlook is slightly more optimistic. In 2005 she spent several weeks in Sweden as part of a program funded by the Children and Youth Centre of Shatila.

"I hope to go there when I graduate from school because here my family is unable to provide me with an education and also because over there I will have rights that I don't have here -- mainly for employment and things like this."

All through Shatila, posters of Yasser Arafat remain stuck to the walls. "Arafat has done a lot for us, and yes, he used to meet with the Americans, but he used to do this because he wanted to pursue our rights. I love him very much," said Dima.

But more posters are starting to appear of Khaled Meshaal, the militant leader of the resistance movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is primarily responsible for the targeting of more than 8000 homemade rockets at Israel since October 2001.

I asked Dima again about her belief in the right-of-return to Israel, recognised by a non-binding resolution of the UN in 1949. "Of course, I want the world to recognise my right to return, because just like people around the world are able to live in their nations and enjoy rights of citizenship in their nations, we, too, have the right to live in our nation, Palestine."

But with nearly 2.5 million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, the return of all of them to Israel would spell the end of the Jewish state. How realistic a dream is this for yet another generation of Palestinian refugees? "I think we can all live together,' says Dima. "Jews, Christians, Muslims. It is how we have lived before. But I don't know how we can go on living here, in this place the way it is. We have to find another way or else most of my friends will never get a proper job, and not be able to live a normal life.

"Right now I don't have much confidence in Mahmoud Abbas. Maybe he can find a solution. I don't know."

--Jason Koutsoukis

Copyright © 2008 The Sydney Morning Herald

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