“We wish to study in high school, to study all over the world; we wish to be queens, to be princesses; We wish to live in a free Palestine, to dream of freedom in Palestine; and (we wish) to have a house under the sea!” Plastered on poster paper with a black sharpie in the Palestinian Children’s Center, these wishes are the second thing that struck me upon entering the Jalazone refugee camp. The first, was the number of kids roaming around. They’re everywhere - playing football in the streets, chasing each other with sticks through narrow alleyways in a game of cops and robbers, people watching from doorways and stone steps leading onto dirt roads, or following visitors such as myself around with a keen curiosity.
I first came across Jalazone’s children as a volunteer for Inspire Dreams Inc, a small NGO which holds a summer and afterschool program called Camp “I Have a Dream” for Palestinian youth living in refugee camps across the West Bank. For two days I participated as a camp counselor, engaging children between the ages of 6-12 in a range of activities from fitness to art. Yet, in those two days it was the theater activity that was the most powerful. Divided into groups, given a scenario, and instructed to create a story, Jalazone’s kids weaved an intricate array of narratives which illustrated their everyday struggles and exposed their most intrinsic dreams for themselves and their community.
It was the children’s performance of the “checkpoint” scene that left its mark on me. It was unsettling for me to watch; young children acting out such a painfully normal part of their everyday lives. I watched, mortified, as an older child played the part of an Israeli soldier, forcing his younger peer to the ground with a stick, yelling at him as a young girl draped with a kuffiyeh over her head wailed. Her female friends held her back, as the older boys dragged the younger one out the door, leaving me breathless. Yet, as I held my stomach in horror, the kids held theirs in mirth. The sentiment of the room was caught in a dichotomy between my distress and the sound of children’s laughter. Perhaps, though, their response was more appropriate than my own. As disturbing as such facets of the Palestinian struggle are, they are ultimately ridiculously farcical; the whole occupation is among mankind’s sickest and longest running hoaxes.
Refugee youth are among those most drastically affected by this sadistic sense of humor, growing up in the punch line Israel has been delivering since its creation when it first displaced around 800,000 Palestinians in 1948. Due to the economic paralysis experienced by most of their families, they suffer from malnutrition, the inability to finish their education, and are often forced into early marriages. Additionally, many refugee youth revealed that they frequently experience humiliation and harassment. Their status as exiled persons leaves them vulnerable to violence by Israeli soldiers, as well as internal pressures from within the Palestinian community; a consequence of the stigmas associated with the camps they have been forced to call home.
Perhaps the greatest hindrance for refugee youth in the West Bank, though, is the lack of space. They live cramped within the crevices of UNRWA-established housing, in which an average of five families share one roof. Amany lives like this. A 15-year old girl I met in Jalazone, Amany lives with her parents, her many siblings, her siblings’ spouses, and their children in a small home with only a few rooms. In addition to the lack of privacy and personal space, such overcrowded living conditions can make it difficult for her to study.
The pressure cooker of home life might be eased for youth such as Amany if there were more recreational activities to get involved in. However, for Jalazone’s 5,000 youth under the age of 15, there is only one center and one park. On a recent visit back to the camp, the director of the Children’s Center, Mushira, told me, “It’s not enough. These kids need a place to go, to play, to grow, and we don’t have enough space for them all.” Wandering through the playground and the basketball court, this may not be immediately apparent. The kids make room for one another, and Jalazone is considered to be in relatively better condition than other camps by simply having such facilities to begin with. Yet, the problem became more clear as I watched a group of teens struggle to play a game of football. They were restricted to a corner of the playground the size of a storage closet, where broken toddler equipment and the fear of hitting a younger child close by, were silent participants in the game. If they weren’t on the playground, they would be forced to resort to the streets where they would be interrupted by vehicles edging their way through the camp’s constricted pathways. All of these issues render these young men incapable of “spreading their wings,” whether in the narrow terms of football or the broader sense of having space to explore and develop their individual gifts.
As I was leaving the children’s center, I noticed a young girl smiling at me curiously and invited her over and asked her name. She shyly shook my outstretched hand and told me her name was “Yamama” (dove) and then flittered off to a rusty swing set. Whether it was the relevance of her name in that moment, or the cautiously hopeful way in which she looked at me, Yamama’s image has left an imprint in my memory which will undoubtedly insist I return to Jalazone.
Part of a line of generations experiencing the largest and longest-standing case of forced displacement in the world, Palestinian refugee youth play in the leftovers of ineffectual UN Resolutions. Resolution 194 affirms that, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” This was stated in 1948. It’s been 62 years, and the “earliest practicable date” for people to rightfully return to their homes has not been determined. These outdated, wasted promises only reinforce the wish list of refugee youth, much like the one hanging up in Jalazone’s Children’s Center. They only affirm that perhaps the dream of living in a free Palestine does indeed belong next to the dream of having a house under the sea. In the meantime, though, Palestinians continue to live as they have since well before Israel’s punch line in ’48; in the laugh lines of their children.
Hajr Al-Ali is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.