BEIRUT: It was raining down the muddy alleyways of Burj al-Barajneh, but for a group of gleeful toddlers in the Palestinian refugee camp, the day was all sun, swings and green grass.
Seesawing is a weekly ritual these local nursery kids look forward to, as their playground is the only one of its kind in the camp. Built on a rooftop, enclosed for safety and made to mimic an outdoor park, locals have affectionately dubbed it “Los Angeles,” a moniker presumably intended to evoke open spaces, not smog.
The slice of bliss is the brainchild of Lina Khoury, a mental health counselor who spends her free time working with the Social Support Society, a non-governmental organization active in the refugee camps. In the past, she helped take kids on field trips.
Noticing how many kids didn’t want to return from their trips to nature, Khoury decided to do something in the camps. First, volunteers painted walls in bright colors to better reflect sunlight. Then, she dreamed up a garden protected from the deadly electricity wires, “because there is no garden for kids here, no safe place where kids can play.”
All of this comes under the umbrella of the Kahkaha Project, which means “giggles” in Arabic. A group of dedicated volunteers spent six months worth of weekends constructing the Burj al-Barajneh space, which opened just under a year ago. Its walls are carved to look like stones and trees, and fake plants wind along the edges – real greenery wasn’t an option because the camps’ water is salty.
There isn’t much of a view because of a zinc top, but the height aspect is key, as there is barely any spare space in the overcrowded camps. In Burj al-Barajneh, “Los Angeles” is on top of the Social Support Society’s Active Ageing House, which means the elderly men and women chatting and occasionally dancing a lively dabke regularly enjoy children tumbling up and down stairs to play.
Kahkaha Project volunteers are now building a new spot above the Najdeh Association in Shatila. On a recent Saturday, volunteers were painting the concrete floor in whimsical curves of bright colors and hanging a hammock when 15-year-old Ibrahim popped in to offer his advice on palettes.
Ibrahim got to know Khoury when he joined previous field trips, and has since helped out with decorating the walls in the Shatila space.
He explained that to play football with his friends he had to leave Shatila, and was looking forward to the promised foosball table where he thinks he might be able to make a bit of money off his friends.
The Burj al-Barajneh playground only cost $5,000, thanks in large part to both material and financial donations. For Shatila, gifts have poured in too, including a table tennis set, paints and a foosball table.
The community’s enthusiasm for the playground points to the utter lack of space in the camps. Every available meter has multiple purposes, with water tubes twisting with electricity cables. The camp has long been building up as its population expands within the bounded perimeter.
Until now, there simply hasn’t been room for a spot designated for playing. Rasha, a nursery teacher who accompanied the nursery students in Burj al-Barajneh, emphasized how important it was for kids to have a place to play, noting she didn’t have a playground growing up.
Her co-teacher took a turn on the swings, and Seham Serhan, executive coordinator of the Social Support Society, said it was common to see “parents enjoying the swings at the end of the day.”
Around 500 kids visit the Burj al-Barajneh spot each month, either through their schools or on days when it is open to the public. For them, Serhan said, it is “like a trip to the amusement park.”
The Shatila park should open in March and Kahkaha Project is already thinking about its next move. They want to create a “micro public space” complete with books and other materials about Palestine. But this plan is in the early stages. For now, there is a floor to complete and a foosball table to carry – Ibrahim is counting on it.