Olfat Mahmoud says she would be at extreme risk if Islamic State militants penetrated the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where she and her family live. Olfat Mahmoud says she would be at extreme risk if Islamic State militants penetrated the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where she and her family live.
Olfat Mahmoud says she would be at extreme risk if Islamic State militants penetrated the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where she and her family live.
Olfat Mahmoud once stopped extremists linked to Islamic State from infiltrating and recruiting youth in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where she and her family have lived a stateless existence for 66 years. The terrorists threatened to kill her and close her organisation.
Whether Ms Mahmoud, who doesn’t wear a veil, can repeat her brave feat eight years later is less certain, as Lebanon becomes the next target for Islamic State.
By reminding the community of its liberal roots, her community has already managed to expel al-Qaeda extremists – who went on to rebrand themselves as Islamic State.
But now the women’s leader said worsening conditions in the overcrowded camp where 37,000 people live on the equivalent of two Aussie football fields, had made young people more vulnerable to radical views. Young people and children make up 60 per cent of the camp’s population.
“Young people are desperate, they have no power, they have no money, they are easy target for brainwashing. This is what worries us. We don’t want money. We need to prevent it, and the only way to prevent it is by supporting Palestinians [to return to their homeland],” she says.
On Saturday, Ms Mahmoud, the director of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation, finished a two-week visit to Australia sponsored by Union Aid Abroad-Apheda, the humanitarian arm of the Australian union movement, to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Like all Palestinian refugees she has no passport, so her visit and official papers were organised by Apheda.
It was her eighth Australian visit in 30 years to win support for the Palestinian cause, yet she said conditions had deteriorated in the camp created as a temporary solution back in 1948.
Her son, like most young people, was sitting around “doing nothing”, unable to find a job despite obtaining a degree in business and finance. Many young people had lost any motivation to study because there were no jobs. The camp was too small and crowded for children and young people to play outside, buildings built as temporary accommodation were collapsing every week, the water was bad, and there were repeated deaths from electrocution caused by falling makeshift, illegal power lines.
Overcrowding has also increased – more than 10,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria had flooded into the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp near Beirut airport where she lives, placing more pressure on already struggling families living in slumlike conditions.
According to the Carnegie Middle East Centre, only 10 per cent of Syrian Palestinians are employed in Lebanon.
With the recent fighting in Syria, Ms Mahmoud said the Palestinian people had been forgotten. “We are left behind. Because we are not the trend or the fashion anymore, because the international community only looks at war areas,” she said, adding that suffering without blood didn’t seem to attract funding or attention.
“Always with international community and donors, blood attracts their attention,” she said. Funding to her organisation and others had decreased.
Rather than life getting better, the situation has got worse, she said. “We have been refugees since 1948. We are born stateless, homeless, we have a very difficult life,” she said.
If Islamic State penetrated her camp, she would be at extreme risk.
“We are really at risk with them, because they see me as a bad Muslim. As a woman, even if you are in hijab [head covering] and you are outspoken, they see you as dangerous.”
Her group worked with women and families to recognise the signs that their children are being brainwashed. Last time the extremists threatened the community, her group reminded the community of its history and culture. “We used to celebrate Christmas and Ramadan together. Women and men used to dance together. We were really surprised by why people became more conservative.
“My people in general and in camps are aware that [Islamic State] and extremists don’t represent us. They are not real Muslims. But what worries us is younger generation being hopeless, and they don’t work, and they don’t have anything to lose. This is why we want young people to somehow feel that there is somehow some hope.”