Lebanon in the dark

Burj al-Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, was affected by power outages throughout the summer (Ahmad Abou Salem)

Amena ElAshkar

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 4, 2021

Umayma al-Ali kept her front door open during the summer months.

Allowing the sea breeze into her home meant that at least the living room was cool. It was the only area where she had sunlight.

Like so many others in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, al-Ali and her family found the summer months extremely tough.

Food prices were high and she could only afford to buy meat – a staple in her diet – occasionally.

She would try to freeze the meat. Yet because of electricity shortages, her freezer did not have a constant power supply.

“The meat would defrost several times but we would eat it anyway,” she said. “I know that’s not healthy. But with the price I paid for it, I would find throwing it away very difficult.”

Turning vegetarian would not make much difference, she added – laughing as if to prove her sense of humor remains intact despite all the hardship. “During these hot days, vegetables would rot in no time,” she said.

With public authorities providing very little electricity, many residents of Burj al-Barajneh have had to rely on privately owned generators.

The generators are mainly used to provide electricity for the camp at night time.

With increasingly tall buildings, it is dark even during the day in the narrow alleys of Burj al-Barajneh.

In an area inside the camp known as al-Kabri, a few men play cards in a completely dark coffee shop. Nearby some women sit by a doorstep in an alleyway. The women run a small grocery store.

“Nobody cares about us”

Alia Baraqji, 60, tries to cool herself down by using a piece of cardboard as a fan.

“Lebanon has had problems with electricity for as long as we remember,” she said. “But this is by the far the worst. They are not going to solve it anytime soon. The chaos in the country is getting worse and worse. And the worst thing is that nobody cares about us or asks us what we think.”

Located on the outskirts of Beirut, Burj al-Barajneh hosted 3,500 refugees from Palestine when it was founded in 1949. Although the camp’s grounds – approximately 1 square kilometer – have not been expanded, its population has grown dramatically.

In recent years, it has been estimated that Burj al-Barajneh had around 50,000 inhabitants. A considerable number of them used to live in Syria but were displaced during that country’s civil war.

For decades, Palestinian refugees were banned from working in Lebanon. Although some restrictions have been lifted, Palestinian refugees still face major discrimination in access to employment.

Some refugees have managed to survive financially by setting up grocery stores within camps.

The electricity shortages have caused great problems for the managers and staff of these stores.

For many stores, dairy products accounted for a sizable proportion of revenues. Yet with fridges lacking a constant power supply, stocks of milk, yoghurt and cheese cannot be kept fresh for long.

The same applies to meat.

Qasem al-Muhammad runs a small butcher shop in a part of Burj al-Burajneh known as Haifa.

Al-Muhammad, his wife and their children depend on the modest income from the shop. Now it is closed and al-Muhammad is unsure when it may reopen.

“How are we supposed to preserve the meat if there is no refrigeration?” he said. “We cannot sell meat that is not stored in healthy conditions. I used to keep the fridges going with a generator. But now fuel is very scarce and very expensive.”

Saleh Wardeh operates a small falafel restaurant in the camp.

Before the power outages began, he would usually make between 15 and 20 kilograms of falafel dough mixture per day. Now he makes around 5 kgs.

As we spoke, two girls approached, asking for hummus and garlic sauce.

Wardeh was unable to give them what they requested. He has stopped making both of those items.

Wardeh only has dim sunlight in his restaurant. He cannot see how he can resume producing the same amount of food as previously until the power crisis ends.

“We do not have any alternative solutions,” he said. “Some people are talking about solar power. But tell me who can afford that here. It is too pricey.”

“Catastrophic”

Lebanon’s economic crisis is among the worst in global history since the middle of the 19th century, according to a World Bank assessment published in June.

Prices of food have increased by 557 percent over the past two years and some essential medicines are no longer available.

While Iran has recently delivered fuel to Lebanon – via Syria – and promised further deliveries, the crisis remains acute.

Electricity shortages pose major problems for Lebanese health care facilities, which have been under strain because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overseen by the Palestinian Red Crescent, the Haifa hospital offers a vital service to refugees in the Beirut region.

While the hospital has its own generator, keeping it going has been hard amid fuel shortages. The hospital’s staff have had no real option other than to reduce the number of operations they carry out.

Emergency surgery has been prioritized, but other procedures have not gone ahead.

A community activist known as Abu Omar argues that aid donors should be doing more to help the hospital.

“The only hospital for us in the Beirut area is facing serious difficulties,” he said. “Why isn’t any organization providing it with the necessary fuel needs?”

Unless a solution to the power crisis can be found, the provision of water could soon be in jeopardy, warned Abu Omar, adding: “This will have catastrophic effects on our people.”

Amena ElAshkar is a journalist and photographer based in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut