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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

1. Introduction

Texte intégral

“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘the child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name and the right to acquire a nationality’ (Article 7). But in light of the tremendous costs for children of contemporary nationalist claims and conflicts, we might also argue that children should have rights not to be constrained with bounded and exclusionary national identities and not to have their minds and bodies appropriated as the unprotected terrain upon which battles are fought about the nature, range and future of nations and national identities.”

- Stephens, 1997: 10

I am not ashamed of my identity, it is still under construction. But I am ashamed of some of what is written in the Ibn Khaldoun introduction: You, as of now, are someone else!1

- Mahmoud Darwish

1During the Football World Championship in 2010, the Palestinian refugee camp Burj al-Shamali in the coastal city of Tyre, Southern Lebanon took on a new face. Brazilian flags covered the camp walls and rooftops, and were blowing in the wind where usually Palestinian flags and the symbols and colours of political parties dominated. The Brazilian flag, and in rarer cases the flag of another football team, was printed on T-shirts and worn by young Palestinians. Everywhere I went, be it a store, a school or a bakery, the first question a young Palestinian would have asked me was invariably, “Who are you with?”. This was instead of the usual “Where are you from?”. Supporting a football team temporarily became the new basis of group formation; it became an important short-term determination of us and them, we and you. A sense of belonging to the Brazilian football team and its fan community miraculously brought together Palestinians, Lebanese, foreigners, volunteers, supporters of different parties as well as different gender and age groups in the camp. Instead of Turkish soap operas, football games were on TV and appointments were made according to the schedule of the championship.

2This is but one (albeit quite extreme) example of how the young Palestinian refugees in Burj al-Shamali are constantly negotiating their social identification at different times, responding to their very specific socio-economic, local, global and political environment. Even though the older generations may not be content to see the young’s creative interpretation of their Palestinian refugee identity, the young Palestinians do not see such new interpretations as conflicting with their loyalty to their national identity and refugee status. Yet, the young Palestinians give these imperative identities new meanings, which are often hard to comprehend for their parents and grandparents.

3The national identity of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has been assumed to be an imperative status of the individuals of the refugee community, not only by the Palestinians themselves but also by the Lebanese, politicians and academics until today. Palestinian national identity was either taken for granted in studies about the Palestinians’ history, living conditions or legal status in Lebanon, or its very meaning was a subject of prime concern for scholars and politicians. This ePaper attempts to take on a different, non-essentialist approach to the issue of social identification among Palestinians. I aim to do this by putting a special focus on the young Palestinians whose lived reality differs quite significantly from the reality of former refugee generations in Lebanon. Therefore, this ePaper seeks to answer the following question: Considering the influences that have actively and passively shaped the identity of Palestinian refugee children and young people in Lebanon over the past two decades until today, how can we explain changing patterns of social identification among the young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation in Burj al-Shamali?

4Taking a close look at the lived reality of the young Palestinians in Lebanon, this ePaper aims at “re-personalising” a group of people who have been “de-personalised” “pathologised”, “categorised”, indeed “classified” in the same way as animals (in academia as well as in politics and in popular discourses) as “the Palestinian refugees”. This reductionist approach to identity, which sees the Palestinians in Lebanon as a dispossessed collective rather than as individuals, is not only very common, but also dangerous. In his book Identity and Violence Amartya Sen (2007) warns of such reductionist approaches to identity especially in academia, because it is often used for policy-making and self-identification. Julie Peteet (2005) wrote that “another task [of an anthropologist] is to humanize those otherwise marginalized and demonized, giving them a voice and bringing their life experiences to others. Working with populations at risk […] heightens the anthropological imperative to forge beyond the constitution of the refugee by a traumatic history to explore refugee agency” (Peteet, 2005: x).

5I hope this ePaper will be able to contribute to this goal in the following lines.

  • 2  The German word “Umwelt” is usually translated as “environment” in English. Yet, its meaning is br (...)

6This ePaper begins with a short methodological presentation (2) and a brief introduction to the history of the Palestinians in Lebanon (3). It then presents the theoretical framework that builds the basis for my conclusions, before giving a detailed literature overview of the studies on Palestinian identity and Palestinian children and young people that are relevant to my findings. I subsequently present my findings embedded in a comprehensive description of the “Umwelt”2 in which the fourth refugee generation is growing up. The presentation of these findings firstly discusses how members of the fourth refugee generation reinterpret their Palestinianness based on a new collective consciousness. It then goes on to illustrate how the young Palestinians have taken on multiple and individual identities which coexist with their Palestinian national identity, and how various institutions and groups in the camp became important sources of social identification for young Palestinians, before outlining the ways in which they engage in a struggle over the definition of identity. Finally, I portray the perspective of the first, second and third refugee generations in light of the fourth refugee generation, and show why there is a disconnect between the two which leads to conflicts. The ePaper concludes with a summary of the arguments and a reflection on how my findings impact existing theories on identity, studies on young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and research on young people in other protracted refugee situations throughout the world.


1  Mahmoud Darwish: (Accessed on 19/11/2012)

2  The German word “Umwelt” is usually translated as “environment” in English. Yet, its meaning is broader, encompassing not only the physical environment, but also the geographic, social, economic, political, technological, ideological environment - indeed it encompasses the place, space and time in which an individual is living. The term was also used by Erikson (1968) when he suggested that social psychology, contrary to clinical psychology, also considers a person’s “Umwelt”.


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