Finding Joy in a Refugee Camp

Entering the West Bank from Jerusalem is unsettling if you’ve never done it before. My bus slugs along in traffic through the gates of a menacing cement wall trapped under barbed wire and flanked by tall, sturdy guard towers. The Palestinian side of the wall is not well-kept. Services to remove trash and maintain greenery, while abundant on the Israeli side, are non-existent on Palestinian territory. I don’t speak any Arabic and am traveling alone, so I nervously ask in English if anyone knows how to get to Nablus once we enter Ramallah.

A green-eyed, 16-year-old boy named Abed takes me under his wing (and takes advantage of the opportunity to improve his beginner’s English). Once we leave Ramallah in a shared taxi, I’m surprised by the beauty of the rolling hills and farmland along the way to Nablus. Abed points out Israeli soldiers and tanks speckling our route, as well as young girls harvesting crops in huge, golden fields. He smiles and talks about his family and studies. When we arrive in Nablus, Abed leads me through a sandstone bazaar filled with bright spices and sweet aromas. He signals a taxi driver, who brings me along to drop off a cake at a neighboring house, and then calls my contact at Keffiyeh Center in the New Askar Refugee Camp, which is situated on a small hill toward the bottom of the descent out of Nablus.

I’m taken aback by Mohammad’s age. While we were corresponding via e-mail, I imagined him to be much older, but a twenty-something-year-old shakes my hand and gives me a warm smile through the window of the taxi. We climb the stairs to Keffiyeh Center, where he tells me that he and about forty other young volunteers established this small not-for-profit that operates out of a single room in a building designated for community use. Most of them had been volunteering for years at other organizations run by older generations. They wanted to weigh in on the development of extracurricular activities for young people between the ages of eight and 30, so they established Keffiyeh. Their mission is to offer fun activities that distract children from their violent, tenuous upbringing under Israeli occupation, and to give young adults a sense of community and mutual support.

Mohammad and his friends sit in a circle and give me coriander-infused coffee. Though they primarily speak in Arabic, they make me feel at home from day one. Ali, Saleh, and Mohammad, amongst others, joke and laugh with one another in ways that manifest the strong friendship they’ve built growing up together in the Camp. One of them shows me pictures of his children and wife. Another shows me pictures of his friends throwing him in the air during his recent wedding celebration. We sit around talking—about wedding traditions and Palestinian culture—as I imagine people do when they’re truly content and not worried about having to move on to their next errand. Some of the guys speak almost no English, but their humor is universal. They work hard to wind up hand-powered flashlights, and we all burst out laughing upon realizing that the reason the flashlight refuses to work is not actually due to a lack of elbow grease (which grows more and more fervent as desired results seem more and more elusive), but rather an on-off switch that happens to be flipped to the off position.

I learn about life in the New Askar refugee camp little by little during my five-day stay in a well-equipped volunteer house. Mohammad and his friends take me through the one-square-kilometer camp, home to about six and a half thousand displaced Palestinians. The people of New Askar live in crowded houses that were built in slapdash style and are now pocked with holes from Israeli bullets. Because of limited space, the alleyways that separate residences are often just two or three feet wide, making the camp feel like a tight labrynth. Small children play in the streets alongside heaps of litter. Mohammad points out a large health clinic that’s obviously been vacant for many years now. He explains that it was sufficient to meet the demands of the camp’s health needs, but Israeli forces shut it down, claiming that it received funding from terrorist organizations. Now, a single doctor works at the camp from the morning until two in the afternoon. There are no health services available after he leaves and it’s impossible for him to see all the patients who need medical attention. It’s also almost impossible for Palestinians to receive healthcare form outside the camp thanks to Israeli-controlled roads.

It’s common for the sheer number of refugees to create logistical nightmares in Palestine. New Askar was established after the original Askar Camp became overcrowded. Although it’s located kilometers away from Old Askar, the refugees of New Askar are considered a part of Old Askar, and, as such, used to travel to Old Askar to share scarce U.N.-allotted resources. Children walked along Israeli-controlled roads to go to school, a dangerous endeavor thanks to the IDF’s trigger-happy ideologies. With lots of petitioning, a couple schools were recently built in New Askar. A kindergarten stands in a separate corridor of the Camp. Mohammed explains that New Askar has no cemetary for its dead, so when the IDF killed nine of its refugees, they were buried on the kindergarten plot. Two of the kindergartners had dead parents right beneath their classroom windows.

Such tragedy defines the Israeli occuption of Palestine. The people in New Askar constantly marvel at the injustice of their children having no rights to enjoy the land and homes that belong to their families. In Israel’s eyes, Palestinians are second-class citizens who must be compelled by brute force to remain quiet in elaborate camp prisons, while any jew from anywhere in the world is allowed—even encouraged—to move to Israel and enjoy what were once the Palestinian people’s spectacular beaches, productive farmlands, and basic human rights. Now, young people like Mohammed live their entire lives in refugee camps. Their 16-year-old friends throw rocks at Israeli tanks to protest the occupation and are tortured as political prisoners for years. Their neighbors’ houses are bombed. Their family members spend years in jail. They wake up to animals shot dead around the camp from Israeli guns operated by motion sensors.

What’s amazing is not their survival here. What’s amazing is that they actually find joy in this constantly-threatened existence. Mohammad and his friends come to the volunteer house to keep me company a few nights of the week. On my second day here, they take me to Nablus and give me a tour of the beautiful market Abed guided me through. They buy me a delicious bright yellow sweet layered with cheese. I tell them how much I love it, so, one night they bring over ingredients to make it for me themselves. We crack up laughing at their cooking skills and at how different their final product is from the one they bought for me in the market.

I can’t think of another time in which I’ve felt so at home with people who I’ve only known for a few days, and in the midst of conversations I don’t even understand. After having their land and belongings and rights stripped from them, they seem to possess what so many people in the U.S. don’t: joy. These guys can connect with the foreigners who come to visit them here because they radiate a kind of inner peace. They’ve accepted that the brute power Palestinians might muster is not enough to physically oust this U.S.-backed occupation, so, for now, they overcome it on a daily basis in another way, by refusing to let the occupation drag every aspect of their lives down… by emanating joy.

It’s this joy that rubs off on the children who go to Keffiyeh Center. About thirty little bodies squeeze into Keffiyeh’s small facility and are just kids a few times a week. I sit in on one of the activity sessions and observe one of Mohammad’s friends, a gifted educator, occupy eager and attentive children’s time with simple games reminiscent of duck-duck-goose and freeze tag. A Swiss volunteer explains to me why the children are so well-behaved. They crave these activities and cherish this time with Mohammad and his friends. During these couple hours, they’re not kids whose family members are imprisoned for some ridiculous, made-up charge. They’re not kids whose houses are destroyed by Israeli rockets. They’re not kids who have nothing. They’re just kids jumping and drawing and laughing and playing. They’re kids who have the same twinkle in their eyes that Mohammed and his friends have when they crank flashlights and make delicious sweets. They emanate joy. The Israelis might treat them worse than caged animals, but, even if for just a couple hours, these kids display an inner peace that makes them more powerful than the occupiers.



Entrance to New Askar’s kindergarten with makeshift cemetary.


Kids at Keffiyeh Center.


Playing a game at Keffiyeh.


Enjoying a homemade treat with Mohammad and friends.


New Askar’s former health clinic, closed by Israel.