Design amid destitution in south Beirut

In the Shatila refugee camp in south Beirut, local charity Basmeh and Zeitooneh is transforming the fortunes of residents through the production of hand-embroidered goods, which are eying boutiques around the world.

22 Jul 2016

Located a 15-minute drive from upmarket bars selling £10 cocktails in the north of the city lies the Shatila refugee camp. It’s a ramshackle shanty town of breeze-block high rises, packed so tight that in many places it remains dark throughout the day. Rats openly scurry through the passages and tangled webs of live electricity cables hang low overhead, passing perilously close to the camp’s salt and chemical-laced water supply.

The camp was originally created in 1949 for Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes following the creation of Israel. Crammed into just one square kilometre, Shatila’s population has swelled from 10,000to more than 30,000 in the past four years as new waves of refugees arrive, this time from Syria.

A view from the camp

Yet during a two-night stay in the camp, Courier discovered a place full of surprises: a micro economy including Beirut’s most vibrant market running through the centre, family bakeries whose welcoming owners refuse money, pharmacies, corner shops, a pool hall and even an off-licence.

But perhaps the most head-turning place is a workshop (and showroom) making bags, scarves and cushions sporting intricately hand-woven patterns that are being exported and sold in stores in Germany, Canada and Dubai.

This is down to the work of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a charity established three years ago to help the new arrivals to Shatila, set up by two Syrian expats. Using the city’s reputation for design,the Women’s Workshop was one of the first projects the team set up outside of the general relief services that were previously so desperately lacking in the camp. (Under an agreement at the close of the civil war, the Lebanese government, police and military never enter the camp, meaning it’s often forgotten and neglected by outsiders and new refugees receive little aid.)

Starting with just a handful of women, there are now 200 members inside Shatila and a further 200 in four other camps across Lebanon producing work. The women are paid for each piece they produce, with the embroidering then added to products by a team of charity employees working in the tiny factory within the camp (main image).

With all profits going to the women, it provides a rare source of income for the refugees; under Lebanese law, even those born in the country to refugees have few rights, while there’s a long list of jobs that refugees are banned from taking.

In a bid to further increase the amount the women are paid for each piece, the team are now concentratingon boosting sales by finding new distributors and retailers across Europe and the Gulf.

The Women’s Workshop isn’t the only way that Basmeh and Zeitooneh is looking at raising prosperity. The charity provides occupational and IT training, offers modest startup grants and employs residents to renovate the worst homes in the camp.

Read more:
Beirut: ‘This city fuels my creativity’