The Yaffa Guest House in the Balata Refugee Camp just outside of Nablus is new. There are quarters for men and for women, a well equipped kitchen with refrigerator, microwave, washer/dryer and a living room with WIFI and piles of magazines that leave a record of previous guests. Ironically, there is a “Cosmopolitan” on top of the pile with the alluring article “Secrets of Male Sexual Arousal.” We climb into our bunk beds, crank up the heat and collapse into deep sleep.
In the morning after a breakfast of Mu’ajanat, a dough with eggs, cheese and zetar, we meet with a thin young man named Faisal. He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1986 where his father went for work. His family came from a small village near Jaffa and escaped to the mountains near Nablus after 1948 until they came to live in the Balata Refugee Camp in the early 1980s. Faisel went to UNRWA schools and studied journalism at Najah University in Nablus and now works in public relations for the Yaffa Cultural Center.
Balata was founded in 1952 and 90% of the refugees are from Yaffa and surrounding villages. The UN announced the establishment of the camp by loudspeaker and in an area 1000 square meters, set up rows of tents, one tent per family, 5-6,000 refugees, with scattered public bathrooms. Because everyone was sure this was a temporary arrangement, they lived in tents for eight years until the UN started building housing, one room for each family. Sewer systems, water, and electricity were finally established in the 1970s. As the population grew, people expanded their homes vertically, literally on top of each other in a maze of winding dirt and stone paths and stairs, second floors jutting out into the airspace of the paths, no fresh air, no privacy. Residents can hear and smell everything. Balata is now the largest camp in the smallest space in the West Bank with more than 25,000 residents, UN offices, a cemetery and market. The land is rented by UNRWA from the village of Balata for 99 years.
After 1967 60% of Balata workers became laborers in Israel. Balata also has the reputation for resistance. In 1987 the First Intifada started in this camp. In 2000 there were many clashes in the camp, 230 people were killed, many in their homes, and thousands were wounded. Israel closed the border and now only 3% are able to work in Israel. This has all resulted in high levels of frustration, depression, psychiatric problems, violence, and trauma. Faisel discusses the damage done by IDF soldiers breaking into homes, through walls to the next house, Palestinian children losing their childhoods to war and teenagers seeing no opportunities.
The cultural center was established by Balata residents to encourage children to release their energy in a positive fashion through the arts, Dabke dancing, theater, drawing, reading, storytelling, etc. The teenagers are involved in programs for leadership, women’s rights, photography, journalism and there is a recently built theater facility. Faisel says education is the main vehicle; sometimes there is no hope, but there is a need for optimism. “I am very optimistic because I believe in young people.”
We ask why people stay in Balata and he replies that they have no place to go, no financial resources, and the UN helps them with education, housing, and health care, although these supports have been diminishing in recent years. Food distribution is less frequent and there is one medical clinic with one doctor and one nurse. UNRWA covers 1/3 of the medical care if a patient needs to go to the local hospital. As we hear over and over again, refugees also still dream of return to their former villages. Faisel talks about the seven million Palestinian refugees all over the world and the international laws that guarantee the right of return and compensation. I have had these conversations before, the need for the Israeli government to recognize its role in the displacement of refugees and its responsibility to engage in creative solutions for return and compensation.
We begin a walk through the camp where 70% of the population is less than 18 years old. We look down on the school yard where hundreds of little girls in blue uniforms and pants are playing and when they see us, waving enthusiastically and yelling hello. The paths between the grey concrete houses are often two to three feet wide with uneven surfaces and I try to imagine the disabled children who must be carried to school, the laboring pregnant woman or critically ill patient physically carried by two men through the maze to an ambulance waiting on the street, the difficulties bringing anything from food to furniture into the homes. Laundry hangs from windows and balconies and the poverty is obvious. There are patches of brightly painted graffiti: Love Palestine, Hate Racism, 1 People, 1 World, Those who make peace impossible make violence inevitable, Existence is resistance, if you are not willing to die for it, take the word freedom out of your vocabulary. Posters for political factions plaster some areas.
I think about the many conversations I have had about Palestinian refugees and the many generations that have known no other life. Clearly Balata is bursting with people, there is tremendous unemployment, a huge focus on education and youth, but the future is bleak unless there is some resolution to this unsustainable situation. As I recently heard, humanitarian crisis require political solutions. I wish my friends who refuse to discuss the plight of refugees could walk these winding streets and look into the eyes of these children. They deserve a better life than this.