Monday, March 2, 2015

We All Lose Our Childhood at Some Point… tales from a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Children of Balata Refugee Camp
This simple statement becomes complicated depending on how you grew up.  For many, losing one’s childhood happens when we stop lying to children about the realities of the world and allow them to see the world for what it is.  When parents choose to take off the gloves and goggles that skew a child's view of the real world is when they begin to lose that innocence.  A society that provides and ensures both security and opportunities, provides the conditions for a parent to have the choice of when that veil is slowly removed.  Even when an environment cannot provide security and opportunity, one should not be restricted from upward and outward mobility.  Unfortunately, the chance for a full and comfortable life is not possible for most Palestinians in the refugee camps.

First Impressions from Entering Ramallah
Kalandia checkpoint
Crossing through Kalandia checkpoint from Jerusalem to Ramallah, is one’s first reminder of what an occupied territory looks like.  Twenty-foot barrier walls with barbwire and sensors act like a wall of soldiers wearing Kevlar vests with bayonets.   Imposing guard towers stand like bold explanation points sending a clear message to the other side on who really runs shit.  Entering the occupied territory of the West Bank, it is immediately clear to me that life is different on this side of the fence.

Where does one begin?  Dilapidated and simple concrete colored building where graffiti and signs offer the only signs of color.  Dust fills the air.  Holes and broken concrete dot the roads. Shouting men, offering bargains from store fronts, only to be drowned out by blaring horns of beaten down vehicles from another era.  This is Ramallah, but despite the chaotic scene on the outside, Ramallah, as well as the other parts of Palestine I visited, the Palestinian people make up for in beauty and their reception of foreigners. 

Area D Hostel
Staying in one of the only two hostels in the city of Ramallah, Hostel D is the perfect place for any outsider to get acquainted with Palestine.  The hostel feels more like a base for foreigners who have a genuine interest and understanding of the Palestinian plight.  There are aid workers, volunteers, journalists, veteran backpackers, Palestinians from abroad, activists, as well as foreign university students who are here studying Arabic, politics, or medicine.  The hostel is filled with books and posters related to the Palestinian- Israeli situation.  One immediately feels a sense of community and compassion with the Palestinian people here.

Balata Refugee Camp
Balata Refugee Camp
From Ramallah, I took a local bus to the most overcrowded refugee camp in the West Bank with thirty thousand refugees confined to an area, one square kilometer.  The camp is actually located in the city of Nablus about an hour north of Ramallah.  A refugee camp, in an already occupied territory, results in a different reality than what I first expected.  Refugee camps here in Palestine are not tent cities without any running water or electricity, surrounded by barb-wired fences confining the people inside.  Instead, the “camp” has evolved more into a neighborhood of ghetto-like proportions with unemployment at around seventy percent and alleyways about a meter wide.   

I decided the best way to experience and learn about the “Palestinian” side of the conflict with Israel was to visit an NGO working within the camp directly.  After wandering through the main gate about three hundred meters along the main street of the camp under the curious gaze of the residents, I decided to ask a fruit seller if he could point me in the direction of any NGO’s that served the community.  After some friendly banter, he introduced me to a man, who took me for a five minute walk to the main NGO of the camp.  There, at the Yafa Cultural Center, I was introduced to Feryal Kahroub, the director of the center.  From the office, we sat and I was able to ask her the history of the camp and the role the center serves.  Afterwards, she took me on a tour of the center and then a quick tour through parts of the camp itself. 
Feryal Kahroub, the director of the Yafa Cultural Center

 Firstly, Balata Refugee Camp was a refuge for Palestinians escaping the violence of war from the 1948 war with Israel.  Most quickly left all they had with exception of a few suitcases of provisions, with the belief that after a few weeks they would return to their homes.  Weeks turned to months and then years.  When it became clear that returning to their villages was unlikely to happen anytime soon, the refugees began replacing tents with shacks and simple concrete structures.  Balata, established in 1948 was confined to an area of one square kilometer for about five thousand refugees.  By 1954, all the tents were replaced with a more long-term solution, but still, the buildings were done haphazardly and without a central plan.  So the neighborhood began to look more like a Rio de Janeiro favela.  Limited resources, lack of sanitation, cramped conditions, overpopulation, poverty, and Israeli incursions to the camp have been a regular part of life in Balata for the past sixty-years.  For three generations, this is all the people know here. 
Balata Refugee Camp in the earlier years

The Palestinian children lose their innocence the day they are born here.  Quickly, they must learn solidarity and how to survive the conditions of living in occupied territory with restriction, barriers, and military incursions.  They know who plays the cowboy and who is the Indian.  Education, resistance, and martyrdom are all just paths for the Palestinian cause.  The collective dream to return to their ancestors’ villages, which lay in the control of Israel, remains strong.   
losing your childhood earlier
Yafa Cultural Center
outside Yafa Cultural Center
One place where the children can experience the resources and exposure of a greater and more enriching life in the camp is the Yafa Cultural Center (YCC).  Established in 1996 by the Committee for Defense of Refugee Rights as a place to improve the cultural and intellectual conditions of Palestinian refugees by providing them with a space where they can develop their talents and skills and enrich their awareness of their national rights through civic education, particularly, on democracy and human rights.  This is done through a wide variety of activities and programs that are designed and implemented by volunteers.  Through different activities, YCC aims to empower Palestinians by fostering a strong and independent identity, and to enable positive accomplishments in the future while dealing with the negative effects of the on-going Israeli occupation.

YCC offers an array of opportunities and resources to accomplish this such as, a theater group that specializes through workshops and training courses related to theater, music, and dance.  Many of the plays put on convey the everyday struggles of the camp people, including: loss, displacement, political, humanitarian, and social events.  In addition, YCC, in 2005, started an initiative to bring awareness of the difficulties and stories of the camp through film and journalism.  There, children learn the tools to film, interview, and produce videos and websites to bring further awareness.  Here are a couple of examples of such videos that the center produced.

Balata Rhapsody – Rap video about the Balata Refugee Camp

Balata Rhapsody

Nour’s Dreama powerful short film about the Story of Stones that showcased at the Chicago Film Festival.

remember where her beloved "home" before 1948
For educational support, YCC has computer resource center and library where they can have access to the Internet, learn to use software, and play video games.  The library acts as a reading center that houses both Arabic and English books.  The library regularly shows documentaries and provides workshops for mothers to help them discuss educational and social issues affecting their children. Another initiative YCC offers, is documenting the collective memory of those in the camp who experienced the “Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948”, when they fled the war with Israel.

 In 2013, YCC created the Scouts and Guides Band, which aims at promoting a spirit of cooperation through volunteer work, emphasizing the value of loyalty, fostering social relations among youth. 

YCC Scout

Because of the social issues affecting the people in the camp for the past sixty-six years, many show symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In 2010, a German organization began working with the center to help refugees in the camp to cope with the many social and psychological effects of living here. 

For volunteers to the camp, male and female dorms with a kitchen, living room and bathrooms are provided for a small fee.  On the rooftop of the center is a cafeteria and a fine view of the camp and UN operated school below. 

Despite the amount of resources and opportunities YCC offers the camp, you learn very quickly how deprived the children are.  This is only one center, which has no way of accommodating the five thousand school aged children.  Looking above from the rooftop, you can see that the only playgrounds the children have to run and play are the same cramped alleyways that pedestrians and vehicles pass through non-stop.  There is literally no more space in the camp to accommodate the natural growth.  As a result, families, only have the option to build vertically on existing sketchy structures.  I spoke to a fifty-two year resident with a wife and six children who was born in the camp and all live in the same small “apartment” with added rooms as the family grew. 

Balata from the roofs
Nearly all the children, never get to experience the freedom that green spaces provide.  Organized sports remain a dream for most, especially females.  Coming from a land of privilege, where nearly all children have the opportunity to play sports, or spend time on a playground, or attend a summer camp, or go to a theme park, the refugees in the refugee camps of Palestine will never experience the benefits of such a life.  Our youth is the most precious time for development and to see first hand, that these children are condemned to such a bleak reality before birth depresses my soul.

lacking space to play
Serving the Palestinian Cause
I returned to the Ramallah late in the night, exchanging stories with the others staying at the hostel.  Some are volunteers and aid workers who have invested through their education and dedicated time and money in helping the plight of the Palestinian cause by serving in hospitals and schools.  Then you have the militant foreign activist who seems to only want to agitate and instigate confrontation with Israeli soldiers at protests, making the Palestinian cause more about themselves than about the Palestinians. 

There are so many ways to get involved.  One has to ask, “What can I do?”  What role can one best serve the Palestinian cause?  What is fair to Israelis?  What are they entitled to?  There are so many layers to the Palestinian crisis; one can lose their bearing?  Where do you begin?  How do you propose a peaceful solution where everyone is satisfied?  How do you build bridges without wanting to hurl stones or burn olive trees? 

The deeper you get sucked into the belly of the Palestinians plight, the harder it is to stay silent or indifferent, because you know without the foreign presence here, the Palestinians remain invisible behind barrier walls and tear gas.  Their calls for solidarity and the end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank are muffled behind artillery fire and from sensationalized news of suicide or knife attacks.  The whole situation feels like a quagmire with no solution in sight, but for now all I can do is bring the situation light!

streets of Balata can be less than a meter wide

playing for the camera
Symbolism of solidarity

Martyrs from Balata

new initiative for Yafa Cultural Center? Trash pickup

wheeling UN food home

UN School


father and son working

a fruit seller's welcome


  1. Here is an excellent documentary 35 min... on different aspects of the Occupation of Palestine... including the Balata Camp

  2. Another from the perspective of an American Jew....

    Al Jazeera's Matthew Cassel examines why so many American Jews defend Israeli policies regardless of the issue or cost.