Muhannad is a sixteen year old boy living in Dheisheh refugee camp, who attended our leadership camp two weeks ago. He has an infectious smile and boundless energy. Maybe sometimes he’s a little unfocused, or jokes around too much, but his heart is so big and he means so well, that we can never hold it against him. He’s the kind of kid you can reasonably expect to turn out really well – with such a good spirit and positive energy, he’ll get somewhere in a few years.
During the last few days of the camp, he and a few other campers started hanging out with us, joking around and playing cards after the day was over. Pretty soon, they were a fixture, coming on excursions with us and sitting around with us late into the night. One night, as I was making tea, Muhannad came up to me to chat. He asked me what my plans were for the future, and I told him, as best I could in Arabic, about my interests in civil society and development in the Middle East.
I asked him what his dreams were, and he said he wanted to join the police. “You don’t want to go to university?” I asked. He looked down and fiddled with the cup in his hand. “I mean, I have to go to a police academy,” he said. “I would love to go to university and study law. Then I could defend Palestine. My father went to law school, but he couldn’t finish because he was the oldest in his family, and when his family needed income, he had to drop out of college to work. It was his responsibility. But he’s still upset that he couldn’t finish school. It’s hard, though. it’s hard to pay for. And the universities in Palestine aren’t that great. I’d love to travel to Jordan or the UAE to study. But it’s hard to travel when you’re a Palestinian. I know I’m smart, but I don’t really study, because I know I’m not going to be able to do anything with it. What’s the point?”
I asked him, if money wasn’t a problem, if there were no occupation, if there were no obstacles to getting where you wanted, what would you want to do. He smiled. “I don’t know. Big things. I would go to college. I don’t know.” His smile disappeared. “It seems like every plan I make, every dream I have, there’s a wall that stops me. There’s a checkpoint that makes me go a different way.”
In Palestine, there is a wall that separate villages from each other, people from their property, worshippers from a sacred mosque. There are checkpoints that stop Palestinians from getting to the land their grandparents owned, that make it difficult to get to hospitals or universities or the ocean, that stop Israeli citizens from interacting with Palestinians in the few cities they themselves control. But occupations also build walls and create checkpoints inside. So many of these kids we’ve worked with from the refugee camps don’t have dreams. They don’t believe they can make anything of themselves, so they don’t bother to try to overcome the obstacles that are set for them even when they have great potential. And the obstacles they face in the lack of quality education, the cost of college, the difficulty of finding a job are legitimate. But almost more damaging is the psychological effect of all these barriers: the belief that they are not valuable as people, because their whole lives they’ve been treated that way.