Exhibit shows plight of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps

Today one of the regions most often brought up as a topic of discussion is the Middle East. Palestine, above all regional conflicts, comes in first.

The latest incident in this dispute was an Israeli raid about two months ago on an aid flotilla that attempted to break a blockade of Gaza.

Many artists, musicians and even filmmakers from around the world have in recent weeks protested what happened during Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara. With this latest incident the Palestinian issue and the tragedy that has been continuing for decades has once more come to the attention of the art world.

“Umutsuz Yarınlar: Filistin Mülteci Kamplarında Hayat” (Desperate Future: Life in Palestinian Refugee Camps) is a photography exhibit featuring the work of 22 artists at the İstanbul Photography and Cinema Amateurs Club (İFSAK) in Beyoğlu. The exhibit reveals the bitter reality of refugee camps in Lebanon. Photographs of smiling children with torn clothes and broken toys, the unfulfilled hopes of men and women and destroyed buildings bearing posters of Yasser Arafat summarize the panorama of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut and the al-Jalil refugee camp in Baalbek.

Twenty-two photographers from Turkey visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and are now sharing their impressions and observations in the exhibit. The artwork, on display until Aug. 20, includes photographs by the following artists: Abdurrahman Koçak, Armağan Karagöz, Arzu Yavuz, Aslı İzveren, Çağıl Günalp, Elif Yılmaz, Fatih Mazi, Gökhan Erol, Güliz Akkaya, Hakkı Ceylan, İdris Esen, İsmi Durmuş, Nadir Özsoy, Nergis Güler, Ömer Zafer Göktürk, Selen Bozoklu, Selma Arslan, Sinan Yeşilyurt, Tijen Erol (Özerdağ), Tijen Sadi, Vedat Şentürk and Zehra Arslan.

After the flotilla attack

The group’s original intention was to capture snapshots of various aspects of Lebanese life. However, just one day after they returned from Lebanon to İstanbul, Israel attacked a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, and the group decided to change the focus of the exhibit to the Palestinian struggle.

“We made up our minds six months ago,” says Arslan in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “But when the flotilla attack took place, we decided to turn this into an exhibit of the refugees’ photographs. It was decided very quickly, and we compiled and prepared all the photographs in 10 days.”

“We wanted to see and show through photography how these people lived in the refugee camps,” says Ceylan. “After all, even if you don’t take any photographs, it’s obvious that these people are living in misery. Of course, there are many people living in difficult conditions throughout the world, but what’s even more difficult is that they’re not even citizens [of Lebanon]. They don’t have any rights, they can’t leave the camps, they can’t work and they live eight to 15 people to a room. There are some people in the camps who are wealthier than the others, but they have not acquired their wealth legally.”

‘Unfulfilled hopes’

According to the photographers, the mental state in which Palestinian refugees are forced to live is rather bleak. “They can’t make any plans for the future,” says Sadi. “They have no plans, no hopes, but they’re still always smiling, and they are so dedicated to life. We visited some of the families’ homes and they were incredibly hospitable. Even under those circumstances they gave us the best that they could offer.”

Bozoklu’s observations confirm Sadi’s words. “We know that they haven’t accepted some of the offers made to them,” says Bozoklu. “For example, they’ve been offered citizenship, but they didn’t accept it. This actually shows that they still have hope; they only have two options: choosing to live more comfortably or returning to their country. This proves that they are still waiting to return to their homeland.”

Nevertheless, the photographs in the exhibit reflect more than just the people’s misery and desperation; they reflect the dynamics and political aspects of everyday life in the camps. “We don’t really want to project any specific political message or identity,” asserts Ceylan. “Our goal is totally humanitarian and beyond any political agenda. We just wanted to show how people live there; however, for Palestinians, being a member of a political organization is an integral part of daily life.”

“Different camps and quarters are under the administration of different organizations,” explains Özsoy. “We faced many difficulties in taking photographs. For example, we couldn’t enter camps governed by Hamas. We even agreed to travel without our cameras, but they still didn’t let us in.”

“Some of our friends faced real danger,” says Ceylan. “They took one of the members of our group and questioned him. When we entered the Sabra and Shatila camps we realized that most of the refugees had left after the massacre. Many people are now involved in illegal activities like the drug trade, and most of them are very young. So, it’s really a very dangerous place.”

“Some of the camps are surrounded by barbed wire,” says Arslan. “They are born, they grow up, they live and they die there.” Özsoy echoes his friend’s sentiments: “They don’t have anything else other than their sofas and televisions. Yet, we believe what we saw was relatively much better than the camps in Syria and Jordan.”

Polat Alemdar in the refugee camps

“Despite the difficulty of their lives, they opened their homes to us,” says Arslan, talking about how they were received by the Palestinians. “Being Turks and Muslims we were very well received there. Yes, the Lebanese government did allow them to enter the country, but it no longer cares about them.”

The photographers explained that because of the indifference of certain governments, the recent flotilla incident and the reaction of the Turkish government aroused much respect and admiration among Palestinians. “The flotilla was on its way when we arrived in Lebanon,” says Bozoklu. “The news about the flotilla was on everywhere; they were waiting for it.”

“Everybody watches Turkish TV series,” says Sadi. “The children are big fans of Polat Alemdar. We didn’t know any Arabic and they didn’t know English, so the only way they could communicate their affection for us was by calling us ‘Polat’ and showing us his pictures.”

The group was deeply affected by what they saw in Lebanon and is now intending to go to Syria in order to photograph the Palestinian refugee camps there for a new exhibit they are planning for the fall.