The other Lebanese 

Palestinian youth in Lebanon 

Georges Haddad 

In some ways, Lebanese citizens and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon couldn’t be closer: They speak virtually the same dialect and live side by side in a small country. But in other ways, they couldn’t be farther apart. Lebanese generally know little about their Palestinian neighbors, whom they understand mostly through clichés or bitter memories that go back half a century—to the beginning of the civil war, which Lebanese often blame Palestinian militants for igniting. Few Lebanese have directly witnessed the abject living conditions in refugee camps, where overcrowding, poor services and rampant violence are the norm. Many couldn’t care less, preferring—whether out of spite or indifference—to blot the Palestinian issue out of their minds.

In fairness, Lebanese citizens have more than enough problems to deal with. The trials with which Palestinians contend inevitably sound familiar to Lebanese, especially among the youth: Indeed, every community has a credible claim to victimhood. The paradox is that new generations of both Lebanese and Palestinians endure much the same hardships as one another, yet remain torn apart by a conflict that had nothing to do with them.

Brave new generation

Young Palestinians often have more in common with young Lebanese than they do with their own parents. The first Palestinian refugees arrived in 1948, and other waves followed up to the early 1970s. At the time, Palestinians enjoyed considerable support for their cause within the Arab world, which translated into political, financial, military and humanitarian backing. The generation that was forced to flee their homeland felt confident that exile would be temporary. “I named my daughter ‘Palestine’ to hear that name every day and never forget my country,” said a 70-year-old resident of the Beddawi camp in Northern Lebanon. “We made many mistakes, but we wanted to go back. We didn’t want to stay here in camps. This is why we took arms.”

I named my daughter Palestine to hear that word every day

After the Lebanese civil war, this strong sense of attachment to their native land lived on in other forms. Palestinians would take to the streets to protest every decision that kept them away from home. They followed the news intently, their eyes riveted to television screens during historical moments such as the Oslo Accord that kicked off the peace process in 1993, or the outbreak in 2000 of the uprising known as the second intifada. Patriotic feelings infused everyday life and shaped a clear Palestinian identity, even in the limbo of refugee camps. “I had the opportunity to leave,” continued the Beddawi resident. “I got an American visa in the 80s, but I decided to stay. I wouldn’t give up the fight.”

By contrast, third- and fourth-generation refugees seem lost. Palestine, however cherished, is largely an abstraction: their cause, but someone else’s memory. Lebanon, where they grew up, is all they know, although they realize that it rejects them, even after seven decades. “I learned to sing the Lebanese national anthem before the Palestinian one,” said a young social worker from Rashidiye camp in the South. “I accepted the Lebanese laws before those of Palestine. I learned to pronounce the word ‘banadoura’ instead of ‘bandora.’” This reference to the subtle variants of the word tomato carries heavy symbolic connotations: During the war, Palestinians were routinely executed by Lebanese militias solely on the basis of how they pronounced it. He continued: “I have more Lebanese friends than Palestinian ones. But I have no rights in the country where I was born, where my parents themselves were born.”

Indeed, despite their degree of assimilation, Palestinian youth suffer from discriminatory measures imposed by the Lebanese government precisely to prevent their gradual—and, it is feared, permanent—integration. They are formally forbidden from work in at least 39 different professions. They are locked out of such essential fields as healthcare, transport, fishing, accounting, engineering and the judiciary. A 2001 law even barred Palestinians from acquiring property on Lebanese soil. These restrictions have knock-on effects for the ability of Palestinian youth to reach a normal form of adulthood, since securing a job and buying real estate are the traditional gateways to marriage.

I have no rights in the country where I was born

Perhaps the most oppressive aspect of the environment in which Palestinians live is of a more psychological nature. Lebanon’s various religious sects tend to view their assimilation as a threat. Maronites often seem to nurture the trauma of the civil war, during which Palestinian militias turned Lebanon into a staging ground for their fight against Israel—committing ugly crimes in the process. Shia, for their part, fought bitterly against Palestinian militias, and also worry that integrating a predominantly Sunni Palestinian community would disrupt the country’s delicate sectarian equilibrium. Lebanese Sunnis, for their part, resent increased competition in what is often an intensely sectarian job market, where Sunnis vie against one another more often than they contend with, say, Maronites.

All in all, Lebanese regard Palestinians with overwhelming negativity. This bias is mostly latent but occasionally explosive, reinforcing the sense of insecurity and persecution that many young Palestinians feel. In May 2007, when fighting broke out between the army and a Jihadi faction holed up in the Nahr al-Bared camp, hundreds of Palestinians were reportedly rounded up at military checkpoints across the country and sent into custody. In 2016, the murder of a young Lebanese Christian—a crime perpetrated jointly by a Lebanese and a Palestinian—triggered a torrent of clichés among Lebanese: “Of course it’s a Palestinian,” went a common refrain, conveniently ignoring the other killer. Summing up the problem, a young resident of Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut’s suburbs lamented: “We Palestinians are always suspects.”

Palestinians are always suspects

Denied the opportunity to feel either fully Palestinian or truly Lebanese, the new generation reveals its confusion when asked a simple question: “Where are you from?” Rarely do young Palestinians reply by giving the name of a country—be it Lebanon, Palestine, or Syria. The most common answer reflects whatever city or camp they most closely identify with. “I come from Beddawi,” says one. “I am from Tripoli,” claims another. “I am from Yarmouk,” asserts a refugee from Syria, now based in Beddawi. If they belong anywhere, it is here and now.

Receding prospects of return 

If we were to trust appearances, however, a walk in a Palestinian camp would suggest that Palestinian national identity is thriving. Palestinian flags, portraits of historical leaders and martyrs, and graffiti of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem are ubiquitous. But these symbols obscure the fact that the Palestinian cause in general and the prospect of return in particular have taken a beating over the years. Meaningful support has waned, notably in the Arab world. Tested over decades, various resistance tactics have yielded disappointing results, and the Israeli–Palestinian peace process has withered. Meanwhile, a status quo centred on displacement has become ever more entrenched, and the share of exiled Palestinians who know their country firsthand dwindles by the day.

There is no better illustration of the growing apathy among younger Palestinians than their reaction to the American decision, in late 2017, to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel—a symbolic move widely condemned internationally, given the city’s contested status. Youth groups briefly took to the streets in front of the US embassy, and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah organized a mass protest on its turf in the southern suburbs of Beirut, but Palestinian camps themselves remained eerily quiet. The Palestinian embassy arranged a few, far smaller gatherings, but their diminutive size reflected feeble leadership and lackluster motivation. They were also hindered by stringent constraints imposed by Lebanon’s security services. A handful of spontaneous protests sparked by young Palestinians failed to pick up momentum, seemingly due to the fatigue born out of decades of fruitless demonstrations. All in all, these events demonstrated the extent to which the Palestinian cause appears to be anywhere but in the hands of Palestinians, whose fate—now more than ever—is hostage to the calculations of others.

This doesn’t mean that refugees are willing to surrender the sacrosanct “right of return,” nor the dream of establishing, someday, a sovereign Palestinian state. Young Palestinians, rather, are forced to reconcile their sense of patriotism with current realities, which in turn pushes them toward a more pragmatic rapport with their national identity. Cut off from Palestine and squeezed in Lebanon, many look at emigration as the sole remaining option. “You will hear the same words in every family in the camp,” said a housewife in Beddawi. “All the young people want to leave.”

All the young people want to leave

The journey to a new, more hopeful exile is an increasingly complex and expensive one. Western countries—which offer the only plausible, appealing prospect of resettlement—have erected ever more barriers since the Syrian crisis. For lack of alternatives, Palestinian society has mobilized around a sophisticated economy of migration, drawing on the financial and logistical resources of extended families. Palestinians based in Europe help relatives identify the best legal or black market routes, prepare documents, and collect the necessary funds.

In Lebanon itself, Palestinians circulate anecdotal information that points candidates to well-established smuggling rings. A current popular route runs to Spain via Turkey and Ecuador—a path made feasible by the fact that Quito allows Palestinians to enter without a visa. The route has its go-to people and its going rate: from 8,000 to 12,000 dollars, depending on personal circumstances. Some families sell property (bought before 2001) or their car to fund the voyage. Despite their grief, parents put up little resistance, aware that the new generation has no other hope to cling to. “My own son plans on traveling,” continued the housewife from Beddawi. “He doesn’t know how yet. I just hope he won’t go illegally. That’s expensive and risky. But I can’t force him to obey the law at the risk of staying here forever. How could I want that for him?”

The holy grail of a job

The single greatest obstacle to Palestinians finding fulfilment in Lebanon is restricted access to employment. Jobs are already hard to come by for young Lebanese: The International Labor Organization estimates that up to 35 percent of them are seeking work. But their Palestinian peers have it harder still. In addition to the official discrimination enshrined in the law, young Palestinians face what they perceive as relentless informal prejudice. Tellingly, they often refer to as many as 70 professions that are inaccessible to them. “A friend of mine knows someone who runs a cocktail business in a Christian area, and they needed a waiter,” said Mohammed, who works at a coffee stall in Beddawi.  “Well, I gave it a try. I went and talked to them, and they refused—even though it’s legal to be a Palestinian waiter.” Conversations about work often bring up the same themes: “Nobody calls me back,” or, “They never even ask for my resume if I let them see that I come from a camp.” A sense of oppression and injustice almost inevitably defines the Palestinian youth’s experience of early adulthood.

The fact that Palestinian society traditionally puts much stock in education only compounds such frustration. According to the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee—or LPDC, a government entity created in 2005 to oversee the Palestinian issue, and which in 2017 carried out the first-ever census of Palestinians in Lebanon—only 7 percent of Palestinians are illiterate, while over 10 percent sport a university degree. “Our only weapon is education,” a low-level official in Beddawi remarked with a certain pride. Until now, however, education has proved little more effective than armed resistance in moving toward individual or national fulfillment. Unlike Lebanese youth, who find somewhat easier avenues for social mobility through a combination of diplomas and emigration or local patronage, Palestinians struggle to secure a meaningful job whatever they do.

Emigration is far trickier for Palestinians than for Lebanese, and political connections will get them little more than a strongman position in the service of a local leader. Desirable alternatives are rare. Either you inherit a family business—which could be a small garage, a grocery store or a vegetable shop—or you pick up a manual skill that will help you work around the camp as a mechanic, mason or handyman. Otherwise, you may end up living in limbo: Unemployed youth often spend years receiving pocket money from parents who fear that they may otherwise sink into delinquency and addiction.

A way out: humanitarianism

A rare but valuable alternative to the above prospects lies in the niche market of humanitarian and development aid. Palestinian communities across Lebanon benefit from an injection of resources—and, critically, employment opportunities—linked to various donor-funded local and international NGOs implementing projects. These actors range from the Norwegian Refugee Council to local associations such as Beit Atfal Assoumoud, Drops, and Naba’a. Interventions run the gamut from childcare to food distributions, legal assistance, vocational training and rehabilitating homes. The absence of the Lebanese state, which does not provide basic services inside the camps, creates seemingly endless space for NGOs, who also venture into waste management, sanitation infrastructure, healthcare and electricity generation. Many Palestinian families are dependent, to varying extents, on such sources for subsistence.

Some youth also derive livelihood opportunities and other benefits, such as acquiring skills and certifications through workshops organized by NGOs. Absent changes in the broader Lebanese environment, however, these rarely secure sustainable employment. “Empowerment” projects may nonetheless offer a stipend or a sponsored internship, or more simply postpone the hardships that await young adults by prolonging their learning phase. Beneficiaries often jump from one such program to the next, for lack of more durable prospects. Ironically, such courses seem to prepare recipients for jobs within the NGO sector itself rather than the broader Lebanese economy. “I started working as a volunteer,” said a Palestinian social worker residing on the outskirts of Beddawi. “I participated in many trainings and ended up being recruited by an NGO, which is great. At least I have a salary now and help my parents pay the bills.”

We do a lot with very little

Ultimately, Palestinians active in the humanitarian field may develop a network, launch an initiative or form an association of their own. Much of the sector depends on grassroots activism, as larger entities typically need partners and intermediaries on the ground. The latter provide local savvy and access, while the former funnel the funds. This hierarchical arrangement generates the kind of friction that is customary in the humanitarian world. “We do a lot with very little compared to international NGOs who spend their money on cars, drivers and phone bills,” grumbled the director of a Palestinian NGO operating in Northern Lebanon. Frustration toward Western NGO workers, accused of commoditizing the plight of Palestinians rather than tackling their fundamental problems, is widespread. 

Compounding this frustration is the fact that—however necessary from a service-provision perspective—aid work often seems to suck up Palestinian talent more than prepare it to contribute sustainably within local markets. The sector feeds into a caste system of sorts, widening the gap between those young people who hone the skills required to join the club, and those left behind. “If it wasn’t for my brother and my friend, I would still be at home watching TV,” said a young Palestinian from Nahr al-Bared. “They got me an internship with an NGO, which since gave me a job.”

Such employment ushers in a change in status. Social workers are more likely to speak English, rub shoulders with foreigners, engage with officials, or control access to resources—setting them apart from the constituencies they nonetheless come to represent. Some assume genuine forms of local leadership, but they also risk estrangement and alienation from their roots. High performers are likely to be hired by larger entities, more removed from local realities. The project coordinator for a small Palestinian NGO empathized, despite the fact that staff turnover makes his job difficult: “I cannot force my best people to stay. Their living conditions are very harsh here. If they find a better salary elsewhere, I encourage them to go.” Naturally, the brain drain doesn’t stop there. For the most qualified, international aid and development agencies offer rare chances to leave the country legally.

Fewer services, more people

Despite significant humanitarian involvement, everyday living conditions in refugee camps have deteriorated noticeably in recent years, putting growing pressure on today’s youth compared to earlier generations. Palestinians rely primarily on a dedicated international entity, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, for certain basic services, notably education, healthcare and sanitation. This enormous organization also provides steady employment to large numbers of refugees, who in turn support their extended families.

These functions, however, are increasingly under strain. Donors have grown fatigued with the organization’s archaic structures, and indeed with the very premise of a UN agency dedicated solely to Palestinian refugee affairs. Recent budget cuts, which in early 2018 slashed UNRWA’s funding by $250 million—roughly 25 percent of the agency’s global budget, per UNRWA’s own figures—represent only the latest development in a deepening crisis. In 2016, funding shortfalls led UNRWA’s offices in Lebanon to abruptly decrease reimbursements of health expenses from 100 percent down to 90 or 85 percent, depending on the nature of the care or medicine provided. This move sent shockwaves through a community that is excluded from Lebanon’s National Social Security Fund—a form of discrimination made all the more galling by the fact that employers are required, legally, to pay almost 15 percent of Palestinians’ salaries to an NSSF scheme from which Palestinian employees themselves cannot benefit.

We don’t even have space to bury our dead

Meanwhile, and despite the promise to cover at least 85 percent of health costs, Palestinians maintain that UNRWA in fact tends to cover somewhere between 40 and, at maximum, 70 percent of claims. As a result, families are often forced to help out distant relatives and borrow money from friends and neighbors. “What am I supposed to do if I have a heart attack? My sons don’t work and we don’t have any money aside,” agonized a shop owner from Beddawi. “UNRWA will only pay 60 percent of what I need. Should I die at the hospital door to send a message?” To make matters worse, most families report members suffering from cardiovascular diseases that seem to suggest a general state of anxiety. The cumulative effect of this downward spiral is a profound sense of insecurity regarding the future, especially for those who still have their whole lives ahead of them.

With no prospects of returning to the homeland and an increasingly unsustainable situation in Lebanon, Palestinian youth are caught in a vice that is getting tighter—not just metaphorically, but also physically. While populations grow, the camps themselves—established on land rented by UNRWA for a period of 99 years—are locked within their current boundaries. Originally built on the periphery of Lebanese cities, many have since been absorbed by them: Shatilah and Bourj al-Barajneh now are wedged into Beirut, just as Ain al-Heloue is in Saida, Beddawi in Tripoli, or Rashidiye in Sur. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees along with many Lebanese, whether poor or lower-middle class, have moved into these camps, as the country’s real estate bubble made housing prohibitively expensive elsewhere. Overcrowding has reached such extremes that it even affects the deceased. “We don’t have space to bury our dead,” said a Beddawi camp official. “We had to negotiate with someone to donate a piece of land so we can transform it into a cemetery.”

Because camps cannot grow larger, they grow taller. Communities stack new, improvised floors on top of existing structures, which in turn raises the risk of collapse. “I do not dare imagine what would happen if Lebanon was hit by an earthquake,” said a Palestinian NGO director based in Sabra. Lebanon indeed sits on an active seismic zone that has caused a string of catastrophes over the centuries. Today, such fears of impending ruin capture the profound sense of precariousness attached to the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

Rapid, haphazard urbanization also has other consequences, which are as banal as they are oppressive. Narrow streets bring apartment windows within feet of each other, depriving families of basic dignity and privacy. “With our neighbors, we take turns to open windows,” explained a young activist from Nahr al-Bared. “We get the mornings. They take the afternoon shift.” Young people struggle to find enough space to become more independent and build a family or business of their own. An elderly shop owner in Beddawi camp conjured an example: “A young couple that rents, for example, a small, street-level apartment, will turn a room into a grocery store—which means they will live with customers walking in and out of their home.” The paucity of commercial space leads young, entrepreneurial Palestinians to sell their merchandise from the boot of a car or the bed of a pick-up truck. But this solution creates its own problems: Such makeshift arrangements block already congested traffic and eclipse conventional stores, causing resentment and friction. There seems to be no limit to the list of social tensions related to the saturation of the camps’ urban fabric.

Refugees hosting refugees

While all of the above trends existed before 2011, the fallout from Syria’s war has unmistakably made them worse. Already crowded Palestinian camps have further swelled with refugees escaping the conflict next door: According to the LPDC census, over 60 percent of the population in Shatilah are fresh arrivals from Syria. In Bourj al-Barajneh, the proportion is just over half. An UNRWA representative said that this latest wave of refugees included up to 45,000 Syrian Palestinians, a number other sources estimate around 30,000. Naturally, the camps—in terms of space, jobs, infrastructure and services—were wholly unprepared to absorb this spillover.

Palestinian communities, having experienced exile themselves, often seem to have been more welcoming than the surrounding Lebanese society. “After all, we are all refugees,” said a resident of Nahr al-Bared. Helping out Syrian Palestinians made immediate sense to many, said a social worker in Beddawi: “They are our cousins, members of our family. We cannot leave them on the street.”

After all, we are all refugees

Notwithstanding such warm sentiments, the additional pressure felt by host communities is unmistakable. Water shortages and piled-up garbage are among the most obvious manifestations, but others are more insidious and, arguably, destabilizing. UNRWA classrooms that used to host between 20 and 30 pupils now deal with more than 50, making it very difficult for children to learn and for teachers to work effectively. Consequently, parents already strapped for cash feel forced to pay private tutors to make up for these schools’ shortcomings. An NGO representative in charge of educational programs remarked that more and more students were dropping out and drifting into delinquency as the sector cracked at the seams.

Even the humanitarian landscape has been affected in pernicious ways. Various local and international NGOs supporting Palestinians have shifted their focus toward Syrian refugees, because the latter tend to bring in more donor funds. Others have lost qualified staff to Syria-related programming, or been required to fold Syrian beneficiaries into programs that struggled to meet Palestinian needs in the first place. The Palestinian cause again seemed subordinated to another agenda, further entrenching a multilayered, decades-old sense of disempowerment.

To be or not to be

For lack of opportunities, many young Palestinians submit to their community’s stifling social order. When they don’t rely on NGOs, their most straightforward options are to seek help from political factions or their parents. Such protracted dependence puts them in a humiliating state of limbo. Some well-meaning parents, having invested heavily in their children’s education and future, are at pains to understand why their offspring fail to thrive and give back. A Palestinian woman from Tripoli stressed that such cases were a frequent source of tension: “My parents, for example, are very angry at my brother. They spent so much on his studies, and now he’s home from morning till night, doing nothing. It’s been two years, while my father is sick and cannot provide for our needs.”

Existing forms of political representation make things worse. Palestinian factions are full of elderly officials who are keen to mobilize youth when it suits them politically, but who show precious little interest in finding ways to redress young Palestinians’ multiplying problems—let alone meaningfully empower them. The camps are run by committees appointed by said factions; the committees themselves tend to be thuggish, intimidating critics rather than engaging in any form of dialogue that might offer youth a forum to voice their opinions. They use their control of resources—in the form of employment, access to donor funding, political connections, and so on—to reward loyalists. Given widespread desperation, this system provides powerful incentives for young people to buy into a status quo that deprives them of any form of political expression. “The youth who join the security forces guarding the camps don’t do it because they’re patriots,” commented a Palestinian activist from Northern Lebanon. “They just need the money.”

These many ordeals cast a heavy shadow over young Palestinians’ transition to adulthood. The shift to maturity can best be described as traumatic. Indeed, many Palestinians under 25 years old still display the kind of eagerness and cheerfulness one would expect: They formulate optimistic plans for the future involving studies, a career, activism, and even some hope of a return to Palestine. And then they seem to cross a threshold where disillusionment suddenly hits them. It would be unjust to qualify this as pessimism; it is, rather, an abrupt realization of the reality that awaits them. The job market, the practicalities of marriage, the costs of emigration, the housing crisis, the apathetic but solidly entrenched political factions: Everything seems to drive home the message that even modest ambitions are largely unattainable. Indifference, bitterness, or even self-destructive reactions then become common.

The spread of such negativity—which sometimes verges on fatalism—deprives Palestinian youth of much-needed endogenous leadership. The most energetic activists often lack experience and credibility, while more established figures routinely sink into resignation. This combination impedes the emergence of a critical mass of influencers who could challenge at least some aspects of the status quo.

* * *

The future, however, isn’t entirely bleak, as subtle changes in Lebanese society hold at least some prospect of increasing the space available for the country’s Palestinians to live a normal life. In recent years, the fates of young Palestinian refugees and Lebanese citizens have converged more than they tend to recognize. The new generation on both sides, although shaped by prejudices forged during the civil war, hold no grudge of their own. Their parents also appear to have started moving on—however gradually and partially. Indeed, few people even paid attention when in November 2016 the LPDC published a potentially contentious document representing a groundbreaking consensus among the political class: “A Unified Lebanese Vision for the Palestinian Refugees Affairs in Lebanon,” which was ratified by all major parties, defied once powerful taboos on legally defining the status of Palestinian refugees and fully integrating them into national social security schemes.

Just over a year later, in December 2017, the results of the LPDC census addressed another sensitive issue: Palestinian demographics, long perceived as a time bomb. Notwithstanding some disagreements regarding methodology, the figures mostly dispel perceptions of a large, growing Palestinian population that Lebanon cannot possibly assimilate. The census found that Palestinian refugees and their descendants officially represent something like 175,000 individuals, not the half-million previously thought to live in a country with around four million Lebanese. Only 50,000, meanwhile, are of working age—a number even Lebanon’s ailing economy could afford to absorb, assuming adequate support from external donors.

The remaining obstacles to progress are psychological more than practical, rooted in outdated fears that integrating Palestinians would upend Lebanon’s demographic balance or threaten its stability. The absurdity of such notions is increasingly clear: Palestinians have never petitioned for Lebanese passports, nor are they keen to shed their distinct identity. Rather, their demands focus overwhelmingly on basic rights, which the political class is now considering extending to them. That conversation is, itself, a breakthrough, reflecting a tacit recognition that discriminatory policies have only exacerbated the most destabilizing side-effects of the Palestinian presence—such as violence in the camps, drug abuse and illegal employment.

Moving forward, progress on the Palestinian issue may hinge on simple things—such as Lebanese and Palestinians learning more about each other’s current predicament, rather than dwelling indefinitely on the past. That is where the new generations have most to offer.

Young Lebanese reading this essay will recognize much of their own suffering in the trials of their Palestinian neighbors. A predatory economy mired in nepotism, a housing crisis, overpriced education, an awkward dependence on elders who fail to understand, fatigue with fruitless mobilization, and a derelict state cut across boundaries. Lebanon almost forces its best and brightest into reluctant exile. And the parallels run deeper still: Young Lebanese, like their Palestinian counterparts, are hostage to unaccountable political factions that are byproducts of war. Their purported representatives offer little by way of a future, endlessly rehashing a forlorn past. Palestinian refugees arrived as aliens, but they are no strangers to everything that makes Lebanon. Seventy years on, it is about time we meet, and get to know each other.

25 June 2018

Georges Haddad is a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credit: Synaps photography / licensed by CC.  

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