Burj al-Barajneh camp builds up, but how high can it go?

Originally published on Nov 10th 2011 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BURJ AL-BARAJNEH: When the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp was established in 1948, it defied its name. With its one-story zinc-topped shelters, the then inappropriately named “Tower of towers” was quickly set up south of Beirut with nary a tower in sight.

Now, more than 60 years later, the camp is beginning to live up to – and even outgrow – its name. That’s because with a growing population and limited space, the camps’ residents have had no choice but to build in one direction: up.

On the easternmost edge of the camp, Wissam has one of the camp’s tallest buildings. It is six stories high, and he added the top two floors two years ago. He’s breathing heavily by the time he reaches the roof, and as the altitude increases the concrete stairs, tidy near the ground, are increasingly littered with the remnants of construction.

At the entrance to each floor is a smattering of shoes of various sizes, including on one floor, two pairs of mini sparkly cowboy boots that break up the gray. From his roof, Wissam, who did not want his last name published, surveys the camp. There are almost no one story buildings in sight. The shells of additions in process are sprouting up all around him, and zinc roofs can still be seen but they are much higher than they once were.

Cultural practice and space allotment here dictates that most families live in one building. Sons, when and if they marry, remain in the building of their parents, hopefully on another floor. Married daughters usually move in with their husbands.

Some 15 people live in the six floors at Wissam’s house, and his is a spacious building. He’s lucky, he and his brothers and their families live on two floors and they have sold the other four. Others aren’t so fortunate: Either, Wissam says, “they can’t build because it is too expensive,” or because the land on the outside of the camp is “strong, but the old [central] land is not so strong, you can’t build more than four floors there.”

The youngest of four brothers, 32-year-old Mahmoud Daoud lives further inside the Burj al-Barajneh, and he is one of the unlucky ones, land wise. Five years ago, around the time Daoud got married, his brother began work on his own floor at his parents’ house.

“When my older brother built the last floor, I knew I couldn’t build too,” Daoud says. Four floors were all the family dwelling’s foundation could take. So Daoud, with his wife and two children, now rents.

Daoud found a place to live close by, but his predicament is indicative of a larger problem: There is a limit to how high, and eventually how many people, the already overcrowded camp can take. In a statement to The Daily Star, UNRWA said that although it has “no influence on what the refugees construct in the camps,” it is “very much concerned that eventually the limited space will become a pressing issue as the population continues to grow. The housing conditions affect health ([through] (damp, non-ventilated shelters), education [when it takes place in these] (crammed, dark shelters), social relations ([through a lack of] privacy), and recreational activities, [which are] (basic needs for youth and children).”

Informal building arrangements may also affect safety, as most residents don’t bother applying for permission or using traditional contractors, because of both cost and a belief that permission won’t be forthcoming.

Wissam says the builders at his house “smuggled the material into the camp at night in secret,” and a local builder, Khaled Miliji, uses a different method – “we pay the guards who stand outside the camp money to smuggle in the building materials. For every time workers come in with materials, we give them LL10,000.”

In August, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel withdrew a Cabinet proposal that would ban the construction of any building in the camps without a legal license, and according to a letter Charbel sent to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, “ensure a legal basis for it by reducing the main and side entry points in the camps to a specific number and closing unnecessary entrances with cement barricades to allow only pedestrians [to walk into the camps], while forbidding cars and vehicles.”

In to a letter included in the Cabinet dossier on illegal buildings, Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn wrote that “the ISF would establish observation points at [Burj al-Barajneh’s] main and side entrances to control incoming and outgoing cars, trucks and goods. These forces would be backed by army units ready to intervene.”

When Charbel withdrew the item from the Cabinet’s agenda, he gave no explanation for the move. Sources have since told The Daily Star that Palestinian groups opposed the item and said it should be referred to the Palestinian-Lebanese Dialogue Committee.

In the meantime, Burj al-Barajneh’s population, now pushing 20,000, is already stretched to the edge of the camp’s one square kilometer. Soon, it looks set to reach its vertical limit, too.