A wedding's irresistible momentum

Displaced by Islamic militants and short on food, refugees in Lebanon find a way to wed.

Nothing like a band of Islamic militants to throw a wrench in one's wedding plans. Just ask Taha Hussein and Fatima Shtiwi. They'd been engaged for six years and had already prepared their new home in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp on Lebanon's northern coast. But then May clashes between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam militants in their camp forced them to flee – along with 31,000 Palestinians.

Yet nothing could put a stop to the momentum of their marriage. Last Thursday, their families – now resettled in makeshift circumstances – held the wedding anyway. Two, actually: Taha's brother, Wasim, was also married in a joint ceremony.

The brides' rented gowns flounced and swished as they moved, Cinderella-like poofs of white satin, tulle, embroidery, and beading, with decorated veils to match. Their grooms looked plain in comparison, with short-sleeved collared shirts and ties. For some guests, it was their first change of clothes since fleeing Nahr al-Bared. It was also a welcome shift in atmosphere.

"It's nice to have a wedding," muses Ziad Shtiwi, a relative of the bride and groom. "It's a change in the mood."

Several Nahr el-Bared couples have wed since losing their homes and possessions, says Caoimhe Butterly, a relief worker at the Beddawi refugee camp where Mr. Hussein's family now lives in a school. Some even have a few days' honeymoon in their own "room" – a corner of a classroom sectioned off by blue plastic tarp – before family members, often numbering in the double-digits, move back in.

The Shtiwi-Hussein clan is fortunate in that the bride's family can afford to rent two apartments outside the camp, in the nearby village of Deir Ammar – one for the newlyweds.

Of the 26,651 Nahr el-Bared refugees who have stayed in north Lebanon, two-thirds took shelter in Beddawi, says Bassem Chit, project coordinator for a relief data-collection group, Lebanon Support. About 4,095 of them are living in schools or other collective centers; another 12,791 found host families in the camp. Together they have more than doubled the population of Beddawi, causing severe overcrowding.

Aid groups and international donors brought an initial stream of relief items this spring, including 33,000 food parcels, 26,000 mattresses, and $1,300 in cash per family.

But in the past two weeks those provisions have virtually stopped coming, says Ms. Butterly. Unemployment is rising, too, since refugees fear Lebanese soldiers on the lookout for Fatah el-Islam militants will harass or detain them – or worse – if they leave the camp to look for work.

Food still arrives daily, but there's little variety. "Rice, rice, rice, every day!" complains one teenage boy – a diet with a low nutritional value, Butterly points out. Dairy products have gone bad in the heat and caused stomach problems among hundreds of people, many of whom share one bathroom. But the refugees' main concern is when the fighting will stop in Nahr al-Bared so that reconstruction can begin.

"They're uncomfortable, there's absolutely no privacy, they're lacking some items ... but all that is nothing compared to what's going to happen in the future," says Ismael Sheikh Hassan, part of a volunteer team assessing refugees' desires for the future Nahr el-Bared.

People want the camp rebuilt the way it used to be, several refugees and relief workers say. So the Lebanese government's talk of a bigger and better camp with wider roads is sparking fear. Refugees worry that a new layout will disrupt the social fabric or allow tanks to enter more easily, Mr. Hassan explains.

For now, Nahr el-Bared remains a battle zone, with the death toll already over 200 and rising almost daily. On the morning of Hussein and Shtiwi's wedding, a Lebanese soldier who was a neighbor of the bride's family was killed at Nahr el-Bared. The family decided not to cancel the wedding yet again, but they did nix the music and dancing out of respect for the fallen soldier.

There was also a scare in Beddawi the night before. The grooms had been celebrating loudly with hundreds of guests in their Beddawi school's courtyard, dancing, clapping, and yelling.

But the party was cut short by the sound of gunshots. The music stopped. Half the crowd ran outside to see what had happened; the other half grabbed kids and ran inside. Within minutes, the schoolyard was cleared.

It turned out that a security officer had fired bullets into the air to break up a fight between two boys – nothing serious, but a skirmish symptomatic of overcrowding.

The night of the wedding was quieter, particularly after the newlyweds said goodbye. The guests moved from the patio into the living room – and turned on the evening news. Two more soldiers killed, a power plant hit. After the news update, the joking, and the baby talk, laughter and chitchat returned to family-reunion volume.

"Inshallah, your wedding will be more beautiful than this," one bride's mother tells her nephew. She apologizes for not throwing more of a party, because of "the situation."

"But of course we are happy with the wedding," she says. "It's a wedding!"

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