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Lebanon: Displacement and Hope in Nahr el Bared

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Displaced Palestinians see new hope with NRC's reconstruction project in the Mohajareen settlement, which was destroyed by fighting in northern Lebanon in 2007.

With his wife and ten children, Ayache Ibrahim Ayache lives in containers assembled by UNRWA to house Palestinian refugees displaced by the Nahr el-Bared conflict of 2007. The family shares 54 square meters split in three rooms. The cramped living conditions put a strain on the family.

"Girls deserve privacy, but here, girls in my family get none," Ayache explained, looking tired. "How can they? We all live together in these small boxes."

Since Palestinians cannot own land in Lebanon, Ayache and his family used to live illegally with another 110 families in the crowded Mohajareen neighbourhood, a land similar in shape and size to a football field. Due to its proximity to the UNRWA Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, which was the centre of the conflict during spring 2007, Mohajareen was totally destroyed.

Mohajareen - the Displaced

The Arabic word Mohajareen means "the displaced", which illustrates the fortune of the families living there until the conflict 2 ½ years ago. Most of them had moved around Lebanon since 1948, unable to settle down and secure property. Ayache's family was no exception. Originally from Janine in Palestine (today's Israel), Ayache has moved from place to place consistently since his arrival in Lebanon in 1948, when the state of Israel was formed.

Initially he settled with his family in the village of Rumeish in southern Lebanon. Later on they moved to Tal El Za'atar Palestinian camp in Beirut, until it was destroyed in the fighting in 1976. Then followed a few years of settlement in another camp in Beirut, Borj El Barajneh, until 1982. At last they moved to Mohajareen, close to Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon. Here they lived in a 65 square meter house built by the PLO in the 80s, with one kitchen and two rooms.

When fighting between an Islamist militia group and the Lebanese army broke out in the spring of 2007, Ayache didn't leave his home in Mohajareen immediately, afraid it would be looted. But as the conflict intensified in the 4th day, he moved his family to the neighbouring Baddawi camp. They remained there with relatives for around 10 months before moving into UNRWA's temporary shelter back in Nahr el-Bared.

Thanks to the Mohajareen project currently undertaken by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with funds from the European Commission (EC), Ayache has renewed hope for his family. NRC will reconstruct housing for all the 111 families who were displaced by the 2007 conflict.

For NRC Secretary General Elisabeth Rasmusson, who recently visited Lebanon and the Mohajareen neighbourhood, this housing project sets a precedent in the Palestinian refugee history in Lebanon.

"Despite the challenges of implementing a reconstruction project in this area, it is important for NRC to assist Palestinians in obtaining dignified housing and living conditions in Lebanon", she said.

First Housing Construction outside UNRWA Camps

The land of Mohajareen has been donated by its four Lebanese owners to the Islamic Foundation in Akkar (Awkaf), in a process facilitated by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Lebanese and Palestinian Dialogue Committee and the EC. A conditional donation contract was signed by the owners, Awkaf and the PLO as a "moral authority", ensuring rights and responsibilities of 111 Palestinian families over Mohajareen. NRC obtained a Power of Attorney from Awkaf to develop the land.

The whole process required understanding of what the Lebanese law determines in regards to house, land and property for Palestinians, and to challenge it on humanitarian grounds. For the first time in the history of Lebanon, it has become possible to build legal housing for Palestinian refugees on land outside an official UNRWA camp.

Currently the Mohajareen neighbourhood is being de-mined, in preparation for the reconstruction which is planned to be finished by mid 2011.

Families Participate

Today, after being displaced six times, the Ayache family is waiting for their new home. They look forward to participating in the design and layout of the house with NRC's technical and social teams. The master plan and houses that NRC develops for the approval of the Lebanese government, are carefully designed with the families giving special attention to increasing the living areas, circulation, light, and ventilation, as compared to the dire living conditions of Mohajareen previous to the conflict. The Ayaches will be assigned 114 square meters of space over two floors, enough to accommodate the whole family of 12 people and with room for vertical expansion.

"Everyone always wants more," said Ayache. "However, at the moment, we just want something to call our own, a space where my family can have privacy and be happy."