This unique market, established as part of forumZFD's Community Mobilizing project, empowers local activists with skills to build trust, address conflicts and lead positive change. Partnering with the local organization Women's Program Association (WPA) in Beddaoui, forumZFD supports community activists in satisfying their residents’ needs by providing a space for women and youth with scarce opportunities to showcase their products, foster connections, and break down barriers.
Souk (market) Moukhayamna (our camp) is like no other. Located in Beddawi Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon, it is much more than a local market to empower small entrepreneurs; it is rather a self-generated eid (feast), an act of communal solidarity, and embodiment of big dreams shared by young people living in an environment usually labeled by outsiders with security stereotypes.
Here’s a glimpse of what the souk looks like. On the opening of its fifth edition on May 28th 2023, a local band played traditional music. Kids gathered, smiling and dancing. One girl roamed happily around in her beautifully matched blouse and skirt; she prepared her outfit two days ahead of the event out of excitement. Another took pictures with many visitors, including myself. Colored balloons filled the space, under a newly established ceiling and strong lights that make the alley where it takes place safe at night. Few months back, it was a gloomy spot frequented by some unemployed youth to take drugs.
“Palestinian camps are not a haven for addicts and plotters of security threats”, organizers told me when I visited the souk with the team of forumZFD. Although not very big, it was as bright as any festive open-air market in Beirut. Handcrafts, aromatic candles, books and accessories were on display. Freshly squeezed juices and baked goodies were sold as well as organic homemade food and sweets.
What started as a simple open-air market has evolved into a powerful platform for dialogue, change and empowerment. Organized by a group of 5 dedicated community activists, (Hassan, Ahmad, Mohammad, Mona and Mahmoud) the souk defies stereotypes, offering a safe space for discussions and economic empowerment. Here, residents from various backgrounds thrive, selling their crafts and goods side by side, breaking barriers and reducing tensions. The souk's success has inspired others, with a similar project now thriving in Naher El-Bared camp. As the souk continues to grow, the activists envision expanding its reach and impact, addressing communal challenges, such as drug addiction, through dialogue and non-violent communication.
“Palestinian camps are safe to be visited. This is the message we want to convey, countering the stereotypes about ourselves and our lives”, said Ahmad Karzoun, a Palestinian activist with expertise in community service. He was 22 years old when he had to leave the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Syria in 2012. Beddawi seemed a good choice because his maternal uncles lived there. He found himself in social work even though his income was modest, and sometimes he continued his mission after the funding was over. Among his beneficiaries there were Lebanese young men from Bab Al-Tabbaneh. He fueled their anger into a productive energy in a football team. He also worked in Beddawi with homeless children having violent tendencies. Taking part in an UNRWA socio-economic statistics in the camp, and being the only Palestinian from Syria in the team, he became more aware of the issues and daily struggles facing the residents who in turn got to know him better. Karzoun was in a group of six who came up with the idea of the souk. They had other suggestions such as establishing a safe place for children and launching a dialogue platform within the community. Well, the souk ended up being all of that.
Among the group is also Mohammad Mayalla whose family is originally from Nablus. He described himself as “a struggling person since birth”. Because his initial city was occupied by Israel in 1967, he and alike people are considered a second-class community within the Palestinian refugees. They are not given the same identity card: “All we have is a paper that only allows us to pass Lebanese security checks. I cannot even buy a sim card with that document”, he told me. Despite feeling “nonexistent or invisible”, Mayalla grew up with a sense of belonging to Beddawi and belief in social work and altruism.
A “Cloud” for Change and Dialogue
The souk is the result of the Ghaymeh (cloud), a Community Mobilizing Project launched by forumZFD to support local organizations seeking social change. Zeina Majzoub, the Community Mobilizing Project Manager at forumZFD, explained that Ghaymeh – which I thought was a poetic name chosen by the activists referring to the shadow (and protection) that a cloud offers – was an acronym for the objectives in Arabic. It stands for غيِّر/ي (change), يسِّر/ي (facilitate), مكِّن/ي (empower), تعاوَن/ي (collaborate).
During the different phases of the project the activists were trained on facilitation skills; conflict analysis tools; negotiation and advocacy; effective and non-violent communication; planning, design thinking, gender awareness, active listening and empathy; and finally went to the field to produce a community profile and analysis. They met key figures in the camp including the security community, a body present in all Palestinian camps in Lebanon serving as the equivalent of local municipality and police. The activists built trust within the community and formed a larger group of volunteers interested in collaborating with them on fostering dialogue and social cohesion.
forumZFD's projects are developed jointly and co-implemented with local partners. In the case of 'Souk Moukhaimna', forumZFD worked hand-in-hand with Women's Program Associaation (WPA) to empower communities, especially women and youth, who often face barriers to opportunities. By listening and engaging with the local communities, Beddawi's Community Activists ensured that the resulting initiative truly resonated with the community's needs and aspirations. Through these collaborative efforts, Souk Moukhaimna became a space where marginalized voices are heard, creativity thrives, and positive change takes root.
Rania Baheej, the focal point of the project with Women's Programs Association (WPA) told me that the group of activists examined the numerous communal challenges: the use of arms and danger of stray bullets; spread of drugs’ dealing and addiction; school dropouts; unemployment and fierce competition over scarce resources in an overcrowded space; as well as various psychological pressures. These socio-economic problems are equally important and require imminent solutions because they all lead to tension and conflict. What could make matters worse is the lack of a common space to serve as a platform for dialogue among generations, nationalities, and overall residents of Beddawi which also hosts displaced from the nearby Palestinian Naher El-Bared camp, as well as with the nearby Lebanese cities.
The dialogue occurs at a stand at the entrance of the souk. Run by a moderator, the participants take turns to discuss a topic affecting their daily lives. Karzoun thinks it makes the project much more than an economic venue as it offers the community a space to brainstorm about common challenges.
Majzoub highlighted the importance of the dialogue. As proposed by the activists, “the initial cause of the souk was to create a safe space for discussions. The market was the strategy to attract the visitors, as well as the tool to sustain the new safe space, taking into consideration the economic needs of the community to innovate ways to generate income”
Open to All
According to the community activist Karzoun, 80 per cent of the participants of the camp are women. Each one pays 100,000 Lebanese Liras to have a stand, practically 1 USD, used to cover some of the basic expenses and clean the alley after the event. With time, these women immerse in the labor market by getting exposure, selling goods online and making money as many are the sole breadwinners in their families.
Nano was displaying bakeries and donuts. She seemed shy, looking at her fiancé before answering my questions. On the contrary, Aya’s (17 years old) eyes sparkled as she spoke with confidence. She is now famous for her henna tattoos designs. “But that’s just a way to increase my pocket money. I want to be an architect. (She paused before adding) I know I cannot work in Lebanon therefore I might become a nurse as it is a profession that hires Palestinians sometimes”. She was referring to the restrictions that Palestinian refugees face in the formal Lebanese labor market. Unlike it, the souk is inclusive, open to non-Palestinian displayers, to Lebanese and Syrians. Karzoun said that they received visitors from camps from all over Lebanon. From Burj Barajneh to El Buss passing by Ein El Hilweh Palestinian camps, as well as Lebanese and Syrians who performed traditional music and dances.
Khitam, a Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian, was selling homemade dairy products and food. She felt welcome at the souk which offered her good exposure at a little cost. She valued this opportunity to be an income generating woman whose dream is to give her two sons and daughter the best education. Sandy is a Lebanese chocolate artist who takes extra care of the packaging and label as well as the quality of her products. Being a niqab wearing female, it might be difficult for her to display at other markets that judge people according to their looks and nationalities.
Ibrahim was 13 years old when he left the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Syria in 2013. The move was not smooth at first as he faced peer pressure and rejection at school. Ten years later, he is a key volunteer at the souk and sells books on a stand. He wants to establish an association at Beddawi to promote culture and economic development.
Ahmad is a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. He was ten years old when he fled his country in 2011. After quitting a Lebanese school due to different curricula, he worked at a carpenter’s shop in Tripoli where he discovered his talent in crafting wooden art which he sells at the souk.
The participants have become a community, told me Mona Assaad, the only female in the initial group of six. She knows them by name, as well as some of their family members. She designs the souk, taking care of the details by distancing the stands displaying similar products. She said that the project introduced entrepreneurs and talented people, but was most importantly a message of peace towards the Lebanese entourage, that Beddawi is a safe and friendly environment, not a “heaven for arms and drugs”.
During 2023, the organizers of the Souk have been working on a voluntary basis to provide the Camp's residents with a public space where to find common grounds and continuing working together. forumZFD and WPA continue exploring prospects to build on the project, supporting the activists’ working group and enhancing its capacities to lead and sustain this space for dialogue.
Believing that non-violent communication is a primary tool to live and survive, Mayalla hopes that the dialogue’s platform is organized more often regardless of the souk, eventually leading to peaceful conflict resolution and accountability. Mayalla added the souk made him closer to the camp’s population; he felt appreciated and proud of himself. He described the training they received as “a valuable opportunity”. Karzoun thinks that the next step should be to enlarge the alley’s ceiling. He is proud that the souk’s experience is copied in Naher El-Bared camp. He wants to expand the dialogue’s platform, in space and content, because he thinks social problems, including drug addiction, are solved at a communal grassroots level. He believes dialogue is a “vital medium of change and enhancing democracy” as well as the trade at the souk.
Mohammad Mayalla’s evaluation of the project is related to his rebellious political views, being critical of his legal status and the security committee that is unable, in his opinion, to address the community’s needs, especially the youth, since it does not practice dialogue. Convinced that growing poverty leads to drug consumption, he considers economic empowerment as an antidote to counter addiction. The souk is there for that. It is just the beginning to claim the community’s control over its problems such as waste and electricity management, along with fighting violence and drugs. Doing business breaks barriers between nationalities and reduces tension in the camp, he said. Therefore, he envisions the souk as a growing and independent body occurring twice a month at least.
forumZFD’s Project Manager, Majzoub also revealed that among the souk’s objectives was to mobilize community groups to get engaged and run their local affairs collectively and independently. This aspect of self-management was initially part of the project’s sustainability and its exit strategy. It was achieved, as the “activists are still involved without being remunerated. After December 2022, they all have been on a voluntary basis”. She praised the group’s ability to overcome some internal problems about distributing tasks and handling responsibilities, as well as giving each other space, to find common grounds for working together.