A New Generation of Returnees: Challenges in Memory Projects with Refugee Youth in Lebanon

A New Generation of Returnees: Challenges in Memory Projects with Refugee Youth in Lebanon al-Jana Center

What use is it to remember now?”

These were the words of some Palestinian elders, as a response to our field team's questions regarding the recalling of the expulsions of 1948, a project that Al-Jana undertook in the year 1998, the fiftieth since the “Uprooting.”
Nobody teaches us history”
This is the comment made by a group of refugee boys when approached by a researcher who asked them how they would respond to the question “who are you?” Some boys said they were Muslims, or from Shatila camp, or both, others said from Palestine, but did not know where from exactly.
Analyzing the views of the elders and children who made these comments, although they are not representative of all, still indicate that the “Nakba generation” are no longer passing on their stories as eagerly as they used to; the schools have stopped enlightening the young about their history and culture; and the major influences on the identity of the children come from the electronic media, some dogmatic interpretations of religion, and a vague and uninspiring nationalist discourse.
After sixty years of refugee existence that still has no end in sight, and living in a country that subjects them daily to violence and discrimination, Palestinians in Lebanon experience oppression on more than one level. On one level, they suffer the denial of basic civil rights, the lack of appropriate and relevant schooling, and the lack of prospects for decent employment and a secure future. On another level, their insecurities, anxiety and lack of faith about their present are all magnified by being denied the hope of returning home.
The Palestinians in Lebanon have become ghettoized communities under considerable pressures to disperse to new places of exile, and to forget.
During a presentation on “historical memory, identity and creative expression in work with Palestinian children” that I gave at a May 2000 conference for community workers in Guatemala city, one Guatemalan women who attended pointed out that some children who returned from exile in Mexico to Guatemala, considered themselves Mexican; other children said they were Guatemalan but didn’t know why. It is important to note that Guatemalans spent twenty years in exile compared to the sixty one years of the largest and longest standing of the world's refugee populations.
In facing these challenges we in Al-Jana feel that it is important to focus our energies on several urgent tasks.
The first is toengage elders and youth in as many stages of oral history or oral culture projects as possible. From the conceptualizing stage, to the recording, discussing the results, to the production of cultural and learning resources. Along these lines, Al-Jana has undertaken two projects since 1998, the fiftieth year since the 1948 Nakba.
One project which is relevant to discuss here is Ya Baladna Leish Hajartina (Our Country why have you Forsaken Us) which focused in part on answering the questions that we collected from the fourth generation of refugee children and youth, about the uprooting of 1948. Many of these enlightened questions are not answered in the official Palestinian national history. We collected the testimonies of 116 Palestinian women and men, a total of 140 hours of recorded interviews. Using this material, we worked to produce an active learning pack consisting of a story book, twenty testimonies, activity sheets, a video and a CD of recorded testimonies and 'Ataba (lamentation songs) about the Uprooting. The resource pack was tested with many children and educators before it was published in the year 2000.
In their words, the elders who volunteered to give their testimonies were taking part in a mission to pass on our history to the grandchildren, our hope. As if in answer to the question by some elders of “what use is it to remember.”
The second main focus has been to facilitate the process by which people of all ages can reflect and share enriching and empowering experiences. People in the camps of Lebanon have survived all forms of adversity through resourcefulness, community solidarity, creative problem-solving, sheer will power, courage and stamina. These are qualities that young people need in order to deal with the challenges they face every day, and those that lie ahead.
Some of these profound human experiences should be shared with people around the world. A team of women from Al-Jana is working with a group of women in Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp to document the empowering experiences of the women and girls who lived under Israeli occupation of south of Lebanon from 1982-84, while the men and youth of their community were incarcerated in Israeli concentration camps. Those women and girls reconstructed the destroyed camp and undertook ingenious initiatives in community building and civil resistance. These interviews are developing into forums for the exchange of experiences, and the whole process is being documented in a film directed by Dahna Abu Rahmeh and produced by Al-Jana.
A third important focus is the transformation of historical and cultural memory into exciting experiential learning activities for youth. These activities should involve young people in doing critical research with resource people in their community, and expressing their views in creative ways that engage both adults and children.
In a sense, this process embodies a double dialectic that involves a community to youth and a youth to community learning cycle. The second project undertaken by Al-Jana in 1998 was “We exist”: Palestinian refugee children record their lives and express their hopes.In this project a group of thirty children (between the ages of ten and twelve) embarked on a four year active learning and creative expression journey, that started with working individually on family diaries. The work of the youth developed into a kind of photo-journalism, and led to several creative expression projects.
The children moved on to the ”young book writers” project, and at the end of the second year (2000), the group published their bi-lingual I wish I were a bird book in both Arabic and English. The book included their different individual and group projects, artwork, photos and statements, ending with moments of hope in their lived experiences, that they can build on. Since 2000, the book has been printed in Spanish, Italian and German.
The young book writers later worked on the “young filmmakers” project, where they worked on three of their scenarios with three filmmakers to produce films that received awards internationally. The young photo-journalists, who worked on this project in groups, chose the issues that concern them and then researched these issues. It is noteworthy that all the groups of young journalists chose to collect testimonies from elders on the 1948 Uprooting, and they published some of them in the book. This goes to prove that the fourth generation of refugee children who were born in the camps, 50 years after the uprooting, care to know their history and make the effort, when given the chance.
The fourth vital task is transforming oral history and oral culture archives into an accessible hands-on, youth-friendly resource, where keen librarians can engage children and youth and facilitate the discovery process, through which young people find that critical research is not only useful, but also fun.
Our pedagogical framework involves choosing projects that engage youth in participatory research, critical thinking, creative expression and the production of pro-active materials that will inform and engage community members, decision-makers and young audiences around the world. This process-oriented, problem-posing approach, builds on the pedagogical ideas and methods of the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s empowerment education; the growing use of “photo-voice” (photos that voice the concerns of people about their lives and rights); digital story-telling and “photo-novellas” (picture stories) created by underprivileged communities; and the importance of learner-developed materials as empowering products that help participants discover themselves as makers of culture and agents of change.
For any serious effort to succeed in engaging young Palestinians in exile in learning from and building on the rich historical experience, and cultural contributions of their communities, it has to become an integral component of a wider concerted grassroots struggle by all concerned bodies, including Lebanese civil society, and the Palestinian communities at large, for attaining civil rights, and the right of return and restitution.
A struggle that rises from real popular participation in decision making on all issues that concern the community, and which capitalizes on the creative and positive energies of young people and their volunteering spirit. A struggle that gives all the hope that after sixty years in exile people can make a difference.