Balata Refugee Camp: fieldnotes and reflections

Last Saturday my friends and Kalimatna partners Mary and Khamees met with the director of the Yafa Cultural Center, which offers programming similar to TYO for children and youth in Balata refugee camp. Since almost half of the kids in my art and storytelling class come from Balata, I tagged along. After the director’s introduction to the Center’s activities, two young men took us on a tour of the camp. Balata is 1 square kilometer, with more than 20,000 inhabitants. It is the smallest camp in the West Bank in land size, but with the largest population. Like so many camps, it was created in the 1950s for a population of 5,000-6,000, and the infrastructure has grown disproportionately (and haphazardly) with the population.

What follows combines our guides’ commentary with my thoughts during and after the tour.

Walking through narrow alleys that many U.S. Americans would not even fit through, I wonder what I am doing here. How can it be that tours of refugee camps even exist? The shabby but temporary tents that the word “camp” evokes are nowhere to be seen—just buildings crammed between and on top of more buildings. The guide points out the window to the first building erected in the camp decades ago. It now faces a wall to another apartment, less than a meter away. Again and again we are told about the lack of privacy and fresh air in the homes here. Sunshine cannot get inside, so lights are kept on all day.

Uncomfortable that I am taking in people’s living quarters as if they were a tourist attraction, I turn to the other young man from the Yaffa Center, Ahmed. “How often do you give these tours?” I ask. Every day, more or less, because there are lots of interested internationals, he says. (A curious response since Nablus is purportedly a city unfrequented by foreigners). Then I ask how he feels about leading tours for these visitors. He says that he likes to show people the conditions of the camp. He studied journalism and he knows that the media coverage of Palestine mostly only shows one side of the issues.

“You don’t have to be born in Palestine to believe in the Palestinian issue,” he tells me. “It is a matter of the heart of all human beings.” Ahmed talks about poverty, the right to return, and the change that foreigners can make from “the outside.” I am reminded of my time in coup-led Honduras, where so many interviewees trusted foreign journalists to tell the world “the truth.”

The tour ends with so many of my questions unasked. In particular, how do Ahmed and the others at the Yaffa center envision change from within? This question is always difficult to answer, but here in Palestine, where community (the basic unit for internal change) has been so intensely and purposefully fractured, I am at a loss to know where people’s answers will begin.

Additionally I want to ask what he is proud of about Palestine. I realize that my feeling of conspicuousness as I hugged my Nikon around tight corners of Balata’s alleys comes from my focus on what is lacking in the camp. It seems absurd to walk through such an impoverished place while knowing the way I and others richer than myself live. Yet it strikes me that perhaps people in all places like to show and describe where they live to visitors. In that sense, our tour is no different from the time years ago when I showed some friends from England the Amish sites of Pennsylvania. Of course Ahmed and the others declare life in Balata to be nearly unlivable, but there is also something here that they recognize as theirs—something to be proud of. Though I didn’t ask the question, I can guess at the answer: the people.

– Kara

Kara is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative. The views expressed in Kalimatna blog entries are those of the author; TYO does not take positions on Middle East policy.

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