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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

7. Conclusion: Tired of being Refugees

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We are tired of being refugees!

- Abdallah, age 14

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

- Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard, quoted in Lacey, 2010: 223

1The last question in the questionnaire answered by 245 children and young people was: “This is a study on the children of Burj al-Shamali, would you like to add anything?” Fourteen-year-old Abdallah wrote in huge letters “Yes, we are tired of being refugees.” Reading this, I felt that his words offer the perfect summary of the young Palestinians’ sentiments about their Palestinian refugee identity, and I can only imagine that Abdallah speaks for many other refugee children living in protracted refugee situations around the world.

2This ePaper has given insight into processes of social identification on a local and on a theoretical level. On the local level, it has shown that after six decades of protracted refugeehood, patterns of social identification are changing among the young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation, even though their identity as Palestinian refugees remains the same. The children and young people of Burj al-Shamali have reinterpreted what it means to be a Palestinian refugee, and how they have given new meanings to this imperative status identity; this process has been called identification.

3Among young Palestinians in Burj al-Shamali, collective identification has changed because of the fourth generation’s shared experience of a life in Lebanon over the past two decades. Compared to older refugee generations, there is an important shift in the fourth generation’s relationship to the homeland. For young Palestinians, the return to Palestine still plays an important role in the construction of their identity, but their perception of the meaning of “return” has changed. For them, return has taken on an abstract meaning that implies a life with rights and a change in their status from being merely refugees to being human beings with rights and a nationality. Moreover, young Palestinians show a tendency to construct their Palestinian identity with rather than against the Lebanese in ethnic terms, but that they decidedly construct their religious Sunni identity as opposed to the Shi’a identity that is predominant in Southern Lebanon. Technology, globalisation and outside influences have impacted the young Palestinians’ interpretation of their identity, and they have creatively integrated such trends in their understanding of Palestinianness. In the absence of external threats, young Palestinians present themselves as less of a homogenous group than the former refugee generations, and individual identities have emerged that are no longer solely constructed around conflict. New collective identities have appeared among the young Palestinians because of the various organisations and institutions that operate in the camp. Finally, young Palestinians’ creolised interpretation of their Palestinian collective and individual identity has made the older generations uneasy. The latter try to preserve a “proper” Palestinian identity by linking Islamic values to Palestinian culture and traditions, and through strict observation and institutionalised indoctrination.

4On a theoretical level, taking the example of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, it can be said that identity remains an indispensable concept in Social Anthropology and that we should not substitute it but supplement it with other concepts. Defining identity as unstable, multiple, contextual and situational in order to grasp its complex totality leads to confusion. Therefore, identity should be seen as a temporal condition that may be quite stable as a category but that can be interpreted in various individual ways. I have borrowed Brubaker and Cooper’s (2000) notion of identification to describe this process of giving meaning to identity. Identification should be considered as situational, contextual, relational and temporal, and in a constant state of negotiation and change - even though identity might remain the same. The case of the young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation has illustrated this point. The young Palestinians’ identity as Palestinian refugees has remained, yet their interpretation of this identity and their identification with it have changed considerably, influenced by the specific “Umwelt” they grew up in.

5Contrary to the fears of many Palestinians, the young Palestinians’ new interpretation of Palestinianess would not lead to a delusion of the Palestinian identity, but would in fact strengthen it. The same is true for the Lebanese who fear that granting the Palestinians civil rights in Lebanon would lead to cultural assimilation and consequently tawtiin. In fact, granting Palestinians civil rights in Lebanon would lead more to a solidification of the young Palestinians’ appreciation of their national identity than to its vanishing and assimilation into the Lebanese national identity. At this point in history, young Palestinians are just tired of being refugees, and they are tired of being rejected by their host country and their own society based on their identity or their interpretation of it. Living in a society where the Palestinian identity is imposed on children and young people by means of indoctrination and restriction, as well as living in a Lebanese host society that discriminates against them based on their identity, puts the young Palestinians in a situation where they are constantly fighting for recognition of their own understanding of their identity. Hence, to young people the Palestinian identity feels like a prison; it is seen as a source of constraints imposed upon them by Palestinians and Lebanese alike, and therefore it gradually takes on a negative connotation. Young Palestinians want to break out from this prison in order to live. This brings about a vicious cycle in which the young people’s rejection of the older generations’ interpretation of Palestinianness leads the latter to interpret what a “proper” Palestinian identityis ever more rigidly, and to force it upon the young people with even more determination. This is also true with regard to granting the Palestinians rights in Lebanon. If the Palestinian identity were the source of a certain set of rights and duties rather than discrimination, young Palestinians would gladly preserve their Palestinian identity from being assimilated to the Lebanese. In the current state, however, the young Palestinians’ only chance of becoming “human”, using Butler’s (2004) terminology, is to become Lebanese.

6Palestinian culture, and indeed any culture in the diaspora, can only survive when children and young people have a positive attitude towards it, and they see it as a virtue rather than as a hindrance. Remembering this is not only important for the Palestinians who are keen to maintain their identity in the diaspora, but also for the Lebanese who want to prevent resettlement and naturalisation. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” (Quoted in Lacey, 2010: 223).


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