“You couldn’t get into the room even if you wanted to,” Abu said. “There are so many people to a room with no ventilation. Whatever happens to one happens to everybody. Whatever virus one person has spreads to another – almost without anyone even knowing they have spread it.”
I was sitting with Abu Moujahed in his office deep in the heart of the Shatila Palestinian Refugee camp in southern Beirut. Shatila was built in 1949 to house 3,000 Palestinians who had been evicted from their homes soon after Israel became a nation. Currently, Shatila shelters seven times that number as estimates put the camp population at more than 22,000. As Abu was describing the crowded living conditions I was thinking through the ridiculous number of people we almost hit with the motorcycle as we maneuvered through the clogged streets en route to this meeting.
I knew I wanted to get to this Palestinian camp, but I also didn’t know how I could make that happen. It’s huge. Even if I could get there I didn’t know where I would go when I arrived, my hotel staff (small but mighty) came to the rescue. Mohammad Abbas, a driver they trusted, could take me there if I was willing to ride on the back of his motorcycle.
I’m a fraidy cat. Scared straight from my driver’s Ed classes of 100 years ago showing us picture of scattered guts on the highway. But…Mohammad cheerfully handed me his helmet, shrugged like What’s the big deal? and off we went. Mohammad insisted on taking a selfie while we were going. My carefree smile is deceiving I thought.
Getting to the camp was the easy part. Navigating the openings carved out from the piled garbage, loose children, and darting vehicles was the challenge. The physical size of the camp is unchanged since 1949 so people have just clumsily added more floors to existing structures and packed people more densely. Hence Abu’s statement that what affects one person affects all people.
They are all connected by misery. None of these residents chose to come. They were forced by circumstances and decisions and powers outside their control. First Palestinians, but soon followed by poor Lebanese, Iraqis, Kurds and now Syrians. A mass of humans living in squalor united by suffering. “We say that when God sees miserable people and doesn’t know where to send them, he sends them here — to the misery belt of Shatila.”
Here’s the thing that hits you immediately: This misery is not just for today. This is ongoing misery. The kind of misery that has to either morph into something else or explode. Abu runs a modest center for youth and children. Volunteers help children read and write, teach communication skills and in general try to help them think about a future for themselves. Abu is a realist. Less than 17% of children under the age of 10 are in school – and even then, many are there in name only. Hmm. A large population of uneducated, impoverished people with no control over their lives…it doesn’t take much to imagine how this misery becomes the ingredients for violence.
Abu is not a man fond of religion. The heirs of Abraham have shown him all our dark sides — Jews, Muslims and Christians have often revealed themselves as tribal– quick to exclude and denounce those who are different. For that reason he has declined financial support from all religious organizations.Funds from UNICEF and Save the Children along with a small line of donors from Sweden to Australia are his money pipeline. On behalf of LaSalle Street Church I gave him a modest donation and left feeling that this misery is endless.
But I kept thinking about the image of this spreading virus. What would it look like if followers of Jesus thought of themselves as virus carriers? Carrying not the virus of misery but the virus of Love? What if we were contagious? Effecting all those around us?
Abu said that people spread disease ‘almost without knowing it’. What a image for what life in Jesus can look like. His life flowing through his body (us!) in such a way that we spread his presence, his manner, his love as we simply go about the business of our day.
As we left the camp I tried to talk about this Love virus image with Mohammad the motorcycle driver. His response was to take me to a Hezbollah shine…More on that in the next post.