Visiting and staying overnight at the Balata Refugee Camp in the Yafa Cultural Center guest house is always a sobering reality check and every year the camp feels more desperate. Mahmoud, the 47-year-old head of the health unit at the camp says nothing that changes my mind.
Balata, one of the camps just outside of Nablus, is the most populated Palestinian refugee camp and is a mirror of all the other camps where generations of refugees have waited and fought and survived for decades. It was established in the early 1950s by the UN after the 830,000 refugees had lived without official support for two years all over the West Bank and surrounding Arab countries, in caves, in the mountains, churches, schools, and mosques.
UNRWA, first established in 1949 ostensibly to deal with the temporary refugee crisis, built the primitive tent camps. They rented one square kilometer for the 5,000 refugees that came to Balata, most having fled from the Jaffa area. We see a photo from 1953, a clearly temporary arrangement: rows of tents with a stately camel standing in front. After five years, UNRWA started building small units, three by three meters for each family, (that is probably the size of your smallest bathroom). Imagine a mother from a middle class family from Jaffa, torn from all that she knows, trying to deal with her many, many children, a humiliated and unemployed husband, minimal resources, food handouts, poor sanitation and a recent massive amount of trauma. And then crowd everyone together in a totally inhumane situation. That is the history of Balata. But the human will to survive is strong and gradually families expanded their living spaces and added rooms in an unplanned jumble of construction.
By the mid 1960s (this mother has been struggling now for more than a decade) an infrastructure began to develop, a sewer system evolved, but horizontal expansion reached its limits and families started building vertically.
Mahmoud’s grandfather was born in Haifa and came to the camp when his son was around ten years old. He had owned a successful restaurant and guest house, but fled when the bombing started, attempted to return for his belongings but was unsuccessful, then fled with his family to Jenin, Nablus, living in the mountains until he arrived at Balata. This proud, wealthy businessman lost everything and was now totally dependent on UNRWA. Mahmoud’s mother was born in August 1948. Her family including the very pregnant wife, walked from the area near Lydd to a cave in Rafidia where she was born. After a year living in the cave, the family moved to Balata Refugee Camp where his grandfather sold vegetables. Mahmoud’s parents met in the camp, had seven children living in a 60 square meter house with family and grandparents. Because of the desperate living conditions, many of the refugees have left for Jordan, other cities in the Middle East, the Gulf, Europe, and the US.
According to UN statistics, everyone in the camp is officially registered as a refugee and by the end of 2012, some 29,000 people were crowded together, each house 60 to 80 square meters, three to four generations in a house, no privacy and no space. The houses are all attached to each other so, “You hear everybody’s business, privacy is nonexistent, don’t even know what it means, everybody is in everybody’s business.” Most houses are dark and humid, and there is mold and other health hazards. This creates much social stress, disputes, and psychological problems.
Not surprisingly, Balata became the political leader of refugee camps and has a long history of uprisings, demonstrations, and encounters with the IDF. Reportedly, the First Intifada started here and the first martyr died here. During the Second Intifada, there were large numbers of militants and guns, and a high level of violence within the camp and against the camp, 246 people were killed, and almost every adult male has been in Israeli prisons.
The camp was largely a working class area before 2000; 60% of the men worked in Israel. After 2000 and the start of the Intifada, the camp was totally shut down, surrounded by barbed wire, all entrances closed, soldiers were everywhere, curfews from one to 100 days were common. We became, “a gated community,” Mahmoud remarks ironically. In 2002, every three days, the curfew was lifted for a few hours so that families could get food, the UN could bring in supplies, the sick could get medical care. The children did not attend school and the educational system was destroyed. Workers were unemployed, snipers were everywhere, and the separation wall began its intimidating construction, permits were virtually impossible. “We were guilty until proven innocent.”
By 2006, things started to calm down, the Palestinian Authority restored some security, but it became clear they were protecting the Israeli settlers more than the local Palestinians. Settlements expanded and the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians became tighter. The camp is clearly a pressure cooker waiting to explode as the economic and living situations get worse and worse, there is more corruption, poverty, and unemployment. There is no functional economy, the Israelis control birth certificates, business licenses, export licenses, etc. While income has remained stable since 2004, prices have increased five to six times. In 2004 one kilo of bread cost one shekel; it is now four shekels. Businesses are shutting down.
More recently laborers have been able to get work permits into Israel but never more than 10% of the men who apply. Five to 10% of the workers sneak into Israel illegally, the PA hires 25-30 % of Palestinian workers, the private sector employs 10-15%. Unemployment in Balata, however, is currently 46% and higher in people under 29.
There are three UNRWA schools from first to ninth grade with 6,000 children ages six to15. After ninth grade students go outside the camp for public education. As you can imagine, the classes are overcrowded, underfunded, and inadequate to meet the needs of the students. The enormous numbers of young people is a serious problem; there is no space in the camp, no playgrounds, they “can’t breath.” The children born in the First Intifada were the fighters in the Second Intifada and have known no other life. They have witnessed or experienced more arrests, killings, bombings, suicide bombings, and social problems than we can possible imagine.
Mahmoud then focuses on Palestinians in general in the West Bank. He notes that amongst the educated, unemployment is 56%. “I have 252,000 young people in Palestinian universities, when they graduate, how many will get a job?” They rarely can travel and there is no functional economy. He talks about area C under full Israeli control, where the PA had plans to build a new city, there were blueprints, money raised, engineers were ready, and on the day the project was due to start, the IDF declared the area a closed military zone. A large part of Jericho is very fertile with dates and palm trees. 2,000 Palestinian families lived there, but the Israelis seized their land, leaving 5% to the Palestinians. “What kind of businesses can you create here?” So much for the former prime minister’s plans for an economic miracle.
“In the past, the Gulf was our Mecca, but after the first Gulf War, they kicked us out of Kuwait.” Instead of help from “my Gulf brothers,” obtaining passports and traveling have become more challenging. So Palestinians feel increasingly cornered by Israelis and Arabs, with no options. “What will happen, they becoming suicidal, very violent.” This is the first time I have heard of suicide in Palestinian society except for the rare suicide bomber, but now suicide is becoming more common.
Mahmoud runs a psychosocial project; their biggest target is the youth, particularly in the boys’ school, fifth to ninth grade. I can hear the anger and frustration in his voice when he explains that the schools are awful, with high levels of violence, little education, a 50% illiteracy rate. School means nothing; the students have nothing to look forward to, there are problems at home and in the street. There are increasing difficulties with all kinds of drug abuse and more children are taking their own lives. He tells us a chilling story of a child who tried to enter an Israeli settlement, unarmed. “Why? Suicide is forbidden in Islam, but if killed, then becomes a martyr. If not killed, then he goes to prison, is fed, smoking, hanging with friends. This happens daily, because there is no solution, no future.” Another chilling story: two nights ago, the Israelis arrested four young people, this happens twice a week. “But nobody is doing anything and nobody is even paying attention. Why are they getting arrested?” All four students were about to take their high stakes high school diploma exam; now their lives are effectively destroyed.
Mahmoud’s program provides psychosocial support, individual and family counseling inside the school. In each school there is one counselor for 2,000 children (almost all children have some PTSD). They provide lots of activities, music therapy, psychodrama, literacy. He finds the illiterate are the trouble makers, but “they are lost,” often getting up early to work in the vegetable market to support their mothers before coming to an increasingly irrelevant school. Most violent kids are sons of martyrs. Now these children beat their parents. They have experienced the humiliation of their parents at the checkpoints, the night time arrests, where the whole family is terrorized, beaten and the father and mother are humiliated in front of their children. The Israeli forces have effectively attacked the psyches and sanity of Palestinian children and destroyed the functions and authority of previous healthy families.
Mahmoud explains that in the past, they did not have those problems; respect for his parents was absolute. He got out of Balata through education, a degree from Birzeit University. “There is no other inheritance.” He has three sisters and three brothers, all well-educated: a nurse, a lawyer, a marketer, a hospital director, an advisor for Fayyad on media, and one living in Rome, practicing alternative medicine. The next generation from Balata will not have these strengths or these options. “I will never live in Balata again, I will never raise my children in Balata. This is a very bad place; anyone would leave if given the opportunity. 65 yrs is too long.”
At this point we are leaving for a walking tour of the camp and I am feeling profoundly sad and the trauma, rage, and despair makes me physically ill. The dirty streets, barefoot children, narrow stone paths, houses leaning over us, the look of hopelessness in many mothers, shopkeepers, makes me put away my camera. The words “occupation tourism” passes across my thoughts; I cannot look any more, but I cannot turn away. Perhaps all I can do is to share my outrage with you, and perhaps the next time someone says the question of refugees is “off the table,” you can tell them about the resilient and tired men, women, and children of Balata Refugee Camp.