Finding God in a Palestinian Refugee Camp
I was looking at juxtaposition. In front of me, sitting in the middle of a dirt field, was a 7-year-old boy. His clothes were covered in dust, and as the sun baked the sweat on his brow, his mouth grimaced, and his eyes conveyed a pained thirst. He looked up to me, but didn’t hold my gaze, as I know I looked just behind him at a five-star hotel and a water park. It was a mere hundred yards away from where he sat, but a 15-foot concrete wall, a coil of barbed wire, and 60 years of political tension segregated him from it.
This was the summer of 2012, and I was standing in the Dbayeh Christian Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut, Lebanon. For most Americans, and most 17-year-old high school students, such an excursion would be atypical. It was, in fact, my second time being there in four years. My great-grandfather had come from Lebanon when he was just one year older than me, and inspired by our heritage, my father and I returned for the first time in the summer of 2008. On that trip I visited the Dbayeh Refugee Camp for only one day, but the conditions I saw were too striking to ignore.
The camp was built in 1956 to accommodate Christian Palestinian refugees, but when my father and I visited we were meeting the descendants of these evacuees. The residents were living in houses built of concrete, and because of their status as temporary, they were not allowed to build roofs, so they had laid tin sheets atop their walls. The floors of the houses were dirt. In one home with a mother and four children, rooms had only a single light bulb, hung from the ceiling by a wire. Work was hard to come by, and although the camp contained an elementary school, very few — considered the most intelligent — were able to move on to a school outside of the camp at high school age.
These living conditions were much better than those of the residents of many Third World countries, but Lebanon is not a Third World country. In fact, Beirut, just seven miles away from the camp, is one of the most vibrant cities in the Middle East, featuring an animated nightlife and growing tourism industry. As an eighth-grader, I did not understand the great controversy surrounding what I was seeing, but I found myself inspired, and believed that I could do something.
Making a difference
Upon returning to the United States, with the passionate support of my father and sister, I started raising money for recreational facilities for the camp’s children. Through a local church tag sale, some family donations and a polar bear swim, my father and I were able to purchase a basketball hoop and a ping-pong table. We contacted the camp and asked if there was anything else we could help with, to which they replied that, more than anything else, the kids would like an instructional basketball clinic. We excitedly agreed to help.
It was now the summer of 2012, and when we arrived at the camp for the first day of the basketball clinic we found something spectacular. There was a full basketball court built, complete with two steel baskets, European style court markings, chain link fences, and even lights for playing at night. My dad and I would later find out that the Italian Embassy in connection with the Catholic Church had been building a water tower for the camp’s 4,000 residents and learned some of the children were playing on the single hoop my father and I had donated. They were inspired by the idea, and decided to fund an entire court to encourage kids to be active and vivacious, in spite of their circumstances.
I think that’s where God comes into this experience the most. There are coincidences, and good people in the world, but I can’t believe that this was anything other than God’s hand. We contributed a small thing that was within our means, and the fact that God took it and used it to inspire others to build something absolutely life-changing for these kids is beautifully divine to me. Living like these children do, it can often be hard to see God. But on the last day of the basketball clinic — as they skipped around the court and laughed and smiled while they played — I knew God was there.
On May 19, David Maloof will receive a Young Adult Peacemaker Award from Pax Christi Metro New York for his work with Christian Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The awards event will be held in Casserly Hall below St. Joseph’s Greenwich Village Church from 3 – 6 p.m. All are welcome.