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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.




Breathe easy child
We have left the camps
Found breadth for full lungs
Extend your rusted joints
There is space for broad shoulders and uncurled fingers
Fear not smashing them into concrete when dancing
The air out here is much softer on our hopeful bones
Remind your eyes of the way
sun light splinters into rays at the edges of clouds
and how they form golden pyramids over the mountains of Nablus
Remind yourself of how far you used to let your eyes wander
Before asking them to return with images of lemon trees
In there it was not very far.
There were no trees for eyes to wander to.
Windows only looked into windows
In there caged eyes could only gaze into eyes gazing back
days go by where you think you are looking in a mirror
before it always shatters
pieces of hope cut deeper then knives
The lucky ones stare out at brick walls, you think
For the rest, the soul is a public matter.
Now brush off the dust and shadow
make room for the light to dance on your skin and clothes
The skies are open again
let the breeze tickle your spine and shiver the worries  away
they are slick on your still smooth skin and slip off easy
I hope
relax your tense mind,
let the abrupt darkness of bullet holes blend into the crisp grayness of  the walls
and let that grayness fade into grayer memories
make space for the color of pomegranates
Filter out the silence with comforting city street noise
Let your lingering thoughts ride that river out of your head
Speak light with the sun on your tongue
Cough the coffin dust from your lungs
You do not have to wear your father’s ghost out here
The sleeves fall awkward over your short arm
And it hangs low over your voice
Which should be in the register of dreams
not the heavy manhood you are chained to
I know that you have seen death reflecting
through the other end of a gun barrel
but have you seen how much brighter
your eyes pierce through the daylight
So learn to breathe easy child
You are still young like the sun at dawn
Do not yield to the night just yet
– Samee
Samee is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

New Van helps TYO to unite Nablus

A generous donation from a philanthropist in Cairo funded the purchase of a new 19-passenger van for the Tomorrow’s Youth Organization center in Nablus! The van means a lot to TYO’s entire community, because they come to TYO from all over the city of Nablus and its refugee camps.

As a result of poverty, minimal public transportation infrastructure, and the safety risks of moving around the city, most Nabulsis with whom we work have never ventured beyond their immediate neighborhoods. Further, the large population of the three refugee camps within the city limits (about 1/3 of Nablus’s 120,000 people) is as isolated from residents of the ‘city’ of Nablus as those in the far-away city of Jerusalem.

TYO Van Stereotypes and mistrust flourish as a result of this lack of exposure to residents of Nablus’s other camps and neighborhoods. Indeed, on the first days of each TYO session, we see a variety of name-calling, teasing, and occasional physical conflict among the children who live in different areas of the city. Tensions have even flared between mothers from different neighborhoods in aerobics and computer classes.

But these quickly subside as the participants get to know each other. This spring, one family said: “Our children have formed new friendships across Balata/Askar lines” [two refugee camps located next to each other on the edge of Nablus].

This summer, for the first time, we have opened registration for some of the summer camps run by international interns to families from the city of Nablus who do not live in the five at-risk areas where most of our beneficiaries live. With the incentive of enjoying a high-quality educational and fun summer program, both children and parents have put aside their stereotypes about people they don’t usually associate with and we’ve seen barriers tumble. Summer intern Doris reports that some of the new participants from the city request to visit other classes at TYO, eager to join in on the movie-making, photo-taking fun with the participants from the camps and our other primary target areas.

On its pick-up route throughout the city, the new IVECO van helps TYO to invigorate and unite the city of Nablus, one family at a time!
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