In the Palestinian refugee camp called Sabra, the people wait for their return home. They wait in houses made of brick and stone, but also of flatenned olive oil cans and corrugated steel and cardboard pushed into holes where the cold winter rain comes in. They have been waiting since 1948.

They wait in houses of one, maybe two rooms, and they wait as families, very often large families of grandparents, parents and many children. The children are everywhere.

A camp is not a camp. This one is right in the city of Beirut. It is not surrounded by a fence or barbed wire and people do not live in tents or huts. They live in what they can make -- homes built little by little. They build them and repair them and sometimes rent them. Sometimes, as when the Syrians shelled the camp, they have to build them all over again.

They are ugly to look at, nothing more than slums. The housing is poor, but not wretched by middle-class standards. Electricity and running water come right into them by garden hose. There is worse housing right here in Beirut, far worse in the area. Still, this is bad. Still, these people once lived better, often on land they owned.

In Jordan and Israel, the Palestinian refugee camps are run by the government. Here, that is not the case. Here the PLO runs the camps, and on my tour I was accompanied by a member of the PLO army and guided by a man from PLO headquarters.

In the tortured debate about why after 30 years the refugees still live in the camp, one side blames the other. The Israelis say the camps have been maintained for propaganda purposes and that the host governments have refused to allow the Palestinians to assimilate. There is something to that.

But it is also true that many Palestinians have no desire to assimilate. They are not immigrants, but refugees. They don't want to blend with the population, but instead want to return to their homeland.

It is also true, though, that many Palestinians have left the campus. The ones who remain are mostly poor. They stay in many cases for reasons having nothing to do with ideology. They stay because they have no place to go.

From time to time we stop and talk to people. An old man, 80, and dressed traditionally, tells how he left Palestine. He is known as Abu Riyad and he is from Acre, the old city to the north of Haifa. He says he was expelled from the city. The PLO guide translates.

"He says there was shooting and then they blew up the prison and they told the people to go away." This is how he told the story. Then he asked for money, blankets. He said it had been a very cold winter.

Toward the end of the tour, we wind up at the house of a woman. She sits in her one room, rocking a very small child in a cradle. The woman sits on the floor. There is not furniture. A little girl sits on the floor next to the woman.

The woman is old looking, but probably not old. She is dark-skinned. Her face is lined and creased. She wears a green skirt and brown sweater, both made out of a coarse, heavy wool. A television set sits on a shelf. A picture of Yasser Arafat hangs from a wall, and along another wall, stacked to the ceiling, are eight mattresses. The entire family sleeps in this one room.

I asked the woman how many children she has. "Eight," she says.

I am surprised and the guide tells her this.

"She says she is producing freedom fighters for the revolution."

"Ask her where she is from."

"Tiberias," the woman says. The guide explains: "It is on Galilee."

People crowd into the house when word spreads that there are visitors. They say "welcome" to me in English, greet the woman, and then pretty much ignore her as they talk among themselves and with the PLO guide. The woman sits on the floor rocking the cradle, she and I being the ones left out of the general conversation.

I look at her and I think of a song I learned as a kid. It is about the Sea of Galilee -- Kinneret in Hebrew. It is a very pretty song and I have always imagined a very pretty place -- a blue lake and mountains nearby, good, bracing weather, and, as the song says, "woods divinely planted."

In the great debate about who is responsible for the refugees, it is never clear if they were driven out of their homes by the Israelis or told to leave by Arab leaders, who promised them a quick return.

One thing is clear. It no longer matters. They exist and they will have to be taken into account for there are far too many like the woman from the lake in northern Israel. Some may call it Galilee and some Kinneret, but after 30 years she still calls it something else. She calls it home.