This is my first post from Jalazone, a Palestinian refugee camp outside Ramallah. I’m volunteering for Inspire Dreams, an organization that provides academic, athletic, and arts-based education to the youth in the refugee camps. From here until mid-August, this blog will be focusing on my experiences here. It’s only been a week, and I already feel incredibly comfortable. We’ve just barely started our programming, and most of our time has been spent getting to know the camp and the people in it. That’s how things go in Palestine: work is important, but you should stay another hour for tea.
Jalazone isn’t what you imagine from the term “refugee camp.” It looks like a poor section of any Arab city (those of you who have been to East Amman will have a good visual.) Streets are winding and narrow, bordered by walls painted pastel colors or covered in graffiti. Children play outside, scattering when the occasional car drives by, and small markets sell fresh apricots and cherries. Gates in the walls lead to small, pleasant courtyards stained blue with the juice of berries from overhanging trees. The homes are simple, and people take pride in making them look nice, feeding you delicious food, and giving you tea. Invitations are insistent; days go by floating between a cup of tea in one family’s house, lunch in another, and a surprise car trip to eat watermelon overlooking a sunset.
It surprised me, perhaps illogically, that the families seem so happy, that life on the surface is so pleasant. But every house has a picture of someone who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and some artwork or craft done by a son while he was in an Israeli prison. Young men mention it casually, that they were in jail for three years, or five. When you ask them why, they throw their hands up and say, “Because of the occupation,” as though the answer is too obvious to bother asking the question. We did get an answer once: five years for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers.
Jalazone is just one of many camps dotting the West Bank. It houses 14,500 people on .1 square mile. I am staying in an apartment above a Palestinian home with two other volunteers, and it’s plenty of space for us – three open, airy rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen – but the family downstairs has the same amount of space for nine people. The atmosphere that seems charming to me is really the result of severe overcrowding.
If you ask the people here where they’re from, they’ll tell you the village that they, or their parents or grandparents, fled from sixty years ago. The West Bank is a patchwork of different jurisdictions: different areas are under varying percentages of PA or Israeli control, and the camps are controlled by UNRWA, the UN agency set up in 1948 to deal with the Palestinian refugee crisis. People in the camps can legally move out of them, but couldn’t possibly find the money, and even if they could, they don’t want to. That would mean they were giving up hope of ever going back to their homes.
The organization I’m working for isn’t a political one; its mission is to educate children and develop their leadership skills, a decidedly unpolitical goal. But on the ground, it’s impossible to avoid what could be deemed political. People in Jalazone talk about the occupation constantly, because it’s the major factor in why their lives are as they are. It’s the reason the water is shut off, or the electricity. It’s the reason they can’t visit Jerusalem, or return to the place their parents were born and raised. It’s the reason their sons are in prison. It’s the reason the children need a program like this to begin with. What we call politics is their daily life.