Walking in Balata Refugee Camp

We unexpectedly had the Islamic New Year off on Tuesday. My Drama class volunteers, Ayham and Yazid, also unexpectedly invited me to spend some time with them Tuesday afternoon. Both Yazid and Ayham are from the refugee camps of Nablus. Ayham is from Balata and Yazid is from Askar. They asked me if I wanted to spend the afternoon with them in Balata. I eagerly agreed since I only had entered the camp once before and saw little of my volunteers outside of class. Balata is the West Bank’s largest refugee camp and is also one of the most densely populated areas in the world with over 23,000 registered refugees living in 0.25 sq. km. It is also one of the areas that suffered the most during the Second Intifada with constant curfews and incursions by the Israeli army (IDF). This knowledge braced me for what I was to see and hear on my trip.

The taxi dropped me off in front of the entrance to Balata. Ayham and Yazid greeted me there with their friends who also wanted to meet me. The air was finally starting to chill in what has been a surprisingly warm prelude to winter, so we were quick to start moving. They began by walking me down the main street of the camp often referred to as the ‘Souk’ or the ‘Market.’ The street was not wider than a one-way street in New York City and it was filled with people. The barbershops, falafel restaurants, butcher shops and grocery stores had a constant flow of potential customers streaming before them in the late afternoon. We navigated our way through the crowd, occasionally greeting friends of Ayham, and made our way to what Ayham informed me was the center of the camp.

The experience of walking through the center of the camp was a profoundly weird one. The idea of a camp does not adequately represent what I was witnessing. A more accurate word to describe the physicality of what I saw would be slum. There was a sense of awkward and inhibited permanence about the infrastructure. The architecture itself illuminates the history of the camp. The land the camp was built on is actually rented on a 99-year lease from Palestinian farmers negotiated by UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It started as a tent city and eventually evolved into concrete housing on the same plots each family had for their tents.

From that point, they wanted me to see the alleyways that split off from the main street. There was originally one street that the tents lined up against. As the population grew the camp expanded away from this main street. What this led to was a serious of maze like alleyways that now lead to houses. The alleyways are so narrow at points that one has to walk sideways through them. Windows on these alleyways have views of the concrete wall of neighboring houses only two or three feet away. Despite the fact that it was still daylight outside these alleys were remarkably dark. This was not a walk for the claustrophobic.

The walls were often lined with bullet holes. The limited sanitation system meant that waste filled some of the streets, and a stench occupied the air. This was especially true when we arrived at the small park that doubled as a garbage dump, where I was told the children play soccer because there is no space elsewhere in the camp.

We finally arrived at Ayham’s house and ate a wonderful meal of kafta. Afterwards we enjoyed some shisha and tea, while having discussions about a variety of topics, from politics, to life in America, to our studies, to life in Balata. With the exception of only one of Ayham’s friends, who was an Arabic Literature Major, everyone studied English literature so I was able to communicate with them in English.

Typical of Palestinian households, Ayham made sure I was more than adequately full and caffeinated before I was allowed to leave his home.  I also had an impromptu Debka lesson at the very end, when I expressed my desire to learn. The warmth of the hospitality lingered as I stepped out into the chilly night. We continued walking through the camp some more and came back to the Souk. I was told this area of the camp experienced particular hardship during the intifada and suffered the most damage. Now the street was even more crowded than the afternoon. Old men walked in their patient pace, while children scurried around them under the store lights.

As we neared the end of the street we came across a funeral procession going in the opposite direction. A coffin surrounded by men who took turns holding death above their shoulders, floated along with their hurried march. We stepped to the side and respected the riveting silence. There was no apparent sadness in the eyes of most of these men. Only a clear sense of duty and direction, emanated from them. I was not left empty after witnessing the sight. Instead I was comforted. Life goes on in Balata camp. Its people live with a collective and resilient strength while bearing its hardships. I left with a renewed sense of duty in my own work with the children of the camps. I also left with the comfort of knowing that the friendships I have made here will last longer than this winter.

– Samee

Samee is an intern at TYO Nablus.


A Zeitoon Afternoon

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of an extended visit with the Zeitoon family.   Zeitoon women make up six out of the eight students in my lower level English class here at TYO.  Last term, they rarely came to class, and when they did all six would stroll in at the same time (usually late), babies in tow, laughing raucously, never-ever remembering all 26 letters of the alphabet.  Whenever I heard their booming voices echoing in the hallway outside of my classroom, I was always filled with simultaneous dread and pleasure.

The Zeitoon family is from Balata refugee camp, the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the West Bank.  People say the problems that pervade the camps in the West Bank are worse in Balata because it is smaller and more crowded – more 25,000 people live together on one square kilometer.  Balata is where the first events of the 1987 Intifada took place, and it is also where the Second Intifada turned into an armed uprising.  Balata also happens to be the home of about fifty Zeitoons.

So last Sunday afternoon, I made my way over to Balata camp to spend time with Mona, Sameera, Samar, Fawziyya, Nisreen, and Salam, my Zeitoon mothers.  I had a meeting at TYO at 5:00, and I assumed that two and a half hours of lunch and socializing in a language that I cannot speak fluently would be more than enough time.  Of course, I should have known better.

After arriving at Mona’s house and sitting for an hour with the twenty children and grandchildren that filled the tiny sitting room, Mona explained to me that we were going on a special trip to a “nadi” or club.  The club, she explained, is a members-only club for the rich, influential families of Nablus.  “Are you members?” I asked, confused and somewhat incredulous.  Was I missing something? “No, we are not members,” Mona explained.  “You see, the club is closed on Sundays.  But my mom and dad live at the club.  My dad is the security guard.  He has the key.”

Every Sunday for the past fifteen years, the whole Zeitoon clan has taken over the fields and patios of this exclusive country club, leaving the cramped spaces and cloying smells of Balata refugee camp behind.  As Mona explained to me, “everyone needs a change of air every now and then.”  Of course, Mona is  right, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at the good fortune of this family that in so many other respects seems very unfortunate.  Dispossessed of land and home, subjected to life in a dangerous and impoverished refugee camp, the Zeitoons get to spend their Sunday afternoons sitting among the rose bushes of a swanky Nabulsi country club.

So what I thought would be a two and a half hour lunch with the Zeitoon ladies turned into an eight hour extravaganza with Zeitoon uncles, aunts, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and cousins.  As I watched the multitude of Zeitoon children running around, riding bicycles, bouncing balls, and swinging on swings, I happily surrendered to the reality that I would not be able to leave the club anytime soon.  There were no cars in sight, and the only way home was by way of a Zeitoon cousin who drives a taxi. And anyway, I didn’t want to cut short the one day of the week when the Zeitoons get to enjoy themselves outside.

Together, the Zeitoons and I ate six huge trays of home-made oozi topped with sour goats milk yogurt.  We drank cup after cup of sweetened tea, black coffee, and various soft drinks.  The men of the family sat on one side of the empty parking lot under a loquat tree  smoking argileh.  The ladies sat on the other side of the parking lot with the babies, toddlers, teenagers, and other youth of the Zeitoon clan.  The division of labor in the family was clear: the ladies took care of everything.  They prepared the trays of food, set up the tables, fed the army of children, cleaned the tables, and organized whatever needed to be organized.  Meanwhile, the men sat, smoked, and ate.

Finally, at 9:30 at night, when the mosquitoes and the cold-night air no longer made sitting outside comfortable, the family started to consider heading back to the camp.  They packed me into the first shuttle back to the city, my hands overflowing with fresh loquats and a new basil plant.  I went to bed that night stuffed to the gills and smiling, feeling lucky that I got to share in a little bit of this crazy family’s fun.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Triple Exposure: Dinner in Balata

Check out the latest post by Project Coordinator Kelsey on the Triple Exposure blog:

Ever since coming back from our winter holiday, everyone has been busy preparing for the upcoming semester. Between planning classes and getting together materials there has been little free time, but the other day, Doris and I had the opportunity to have dinner with some of our students in Balata refugee camp. I hadn’t been back to Balata since the first time I went there nearly nine months ago. The combination of it being a rainy night and the fact that I hadn’t been back in so long made it a particularly powerful experience.