The camp houses some 4,000 residents — mostly Palestinian refugees but also a significant number of displaced Lebanese, some of whom avail themselves of the camp’s meager social services — but the streets are often empty. Well-maintained shelters, some of which still sport their original corrugated metal roofs and doors, make Dbayeh a fossil, revealing how all the camps once looked.
Dbayeh Camp was established in the early 1950’s to absorb Palestinian refugees expelled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “Most of the residents originally came from villages in Galilee,” said Hasan Ayoub, who heads the UNRWA office in the camp. Seeking the familiar and perhaps finding strength in numbers, the refugees grouped themselves by extended family and villages.
“When the first wave of refugees began arriving in 1948, they found the Lebanese were at first very welcoming,” said Suhayl al-Natour of the Palestinian Human Development Center at the Mar Elias refugee camp.
At the time, the Palestinian exodus was considered temporary. Secular and religious leaders met the refugees at the Beirut port and offered sanctuary. Bishops, priests and religious extended hospitality to Palestinian Christians, offering shelter in their churches and monasteries.
“From first contact, the Lebanese reception of refugees was sectarian,” Mr. Natour said.
The monks in Dbayeh set up a tent camp on a parcel of land near the monastery. UNRWA — in partnership with the Pontifical Mission of Palestine, which Pope Pius XII founded in 1949 to coordinate aid from the Catholic world for Palestinian refugees, entrusting its leadership to the secretary general of CNEWA — replaced the tents with one-room shelters. These, too, were supposed to be temporary until the refugees could return to Palestine. Lebanon’s authorities insisted that the roofs were to be made of zinc as a means “to ensure there was no vertical construction,” Mr. Natour said.
Some refugees fared better than others and left Lebanon eventually for the West. Many also found work in the Persian Gulf for American and British oil companies. The companies “needed mediators who could communicate in both Arabic and English,” Mr. Natour said. “That role was filled by the Palestinians, who were homeless but educated in English, where in Syria and Lebanon most were educated in French.”
Lebanese President Camille Chamoun (1952-1958), convinced that educated and successful Palestinians would strengthen the economy, encouraged them to become naturalized citizens.
Though the president, a Maronite, was most interested in Palestinian Christians, he understood that Lebanon’s confessional politics demanded the inclusion of Palestinian Muslims in any naturalization plan. Many wealthy Christian and Muslim Palestinians, therefore, became Lebanese citizens at this time. But the vast majority, including those with means, declined to renounce their Palestinian identity. (UNRWA reports that an estimated 215,000 of Lebanon’s 408,000 registered Palestinian refugees now live in 12 official camps.)
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