The Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin is in a festive mood. Palestinian flags are being waved across the streets to welcome the return of Wissam, a young boy detained for five years in Israeli prisons. On the walls are still visible the posters portraying the numerous men killed in clashes with the Israeli army.
They represent the memory and the story of Israeli occupation that has been ongoing for decades, that feeds on soldiers and tanks in the streets, demolished houses, arrests and “martyrs”, as they are called here in the camp. It is largely believed that the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades – a militant group linked to Fatah, the party of President Abu Mazen – active in the second Intifada with suicide-attacks that took the life of dozens of Israeli citizens, were created here. In this area of the West Bank the colours of the Palestinian flag showcase their topical relevance: the red of the blood spilled for the liberation of Palestine, the black of the suffering caused by Israeli occupation, the white of peace before the occupation and the green of Palestinian land, the same shade that colours the cultivated fields and hills surrounding Jenin.
Today some 13 thousand people live in Jenin’s refugee camp, in an area that extends for less than one-square-km (0,420 kmq). They are assisted by UNWRA, the United Nations Agency created in 1949 which supports 5.4 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Their living conditions are characterised by one of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the West Bank. Before the Intifada of the year 2000 many of them used to go to Israel to work, but after the wall was built every movement became difficult. The result is increasing frustration, especially among the young and better educated Palestinians.
The housing facilities of the Jenin camp lack appropriate living areas, attached dwellings extend into the narrow, winding internal streets. Amidst heaps of rubbish scattered throughout, and vehicles that try to circulate along these narrow alleyways, children try to play football with a deflated ball. The 106 shelters, restructured by UNWRA in 2013 with Saudi funding, are but a drop in the ocean of the camp’s needs. UNWRA runs a hospital, four schools – two for boys and two for girls – in Jenin, attended by 2000 students. All of these youths have been victims of violence and critical living conditions and are thus recipients of psychological support and education programs.
The rules inside the camp. We meet some of these students inside the camp: Soraya, Salha, Basmalah, Maha, Inas, Roaya, Ikram, Dima and Ghazal. They are all waiting to enter school wearing their traditional garments and with a deep yearning to share their teenage dreams, their desires and projects, occasionally marred by nightmares. Such is the story told by Ghazal, 12, the first to break the ice and speak about that “time when an Israeli soldier hit me on the neck with the rifle butt and ordered me to go back home. I don’t know why he did it. I ran and took shelter inside the school in fear.” At the wrong place in the wrong moment, one might say, but inside the Jenin camp this appears to be a rule of life.
We try to make the situation seem less daunting. Why are you wearing these clothes?
“Because they are part of our culture, they are a sign of our roots and our identity. The represent the bond with our history that abounds with strength, attachment and patience.”
That very patience that rhymes with “resistance”. It’s no longer a matter of taking up arms but to study to extend their horizons, to assert their rights and try to have a brighter future. Also for this reason the students participate in the UNRWRA program, “the students’ Parliament”, designed to enhance the culture of human rights among the pupils and foster their empowerment in the accomplishment of the democratic process.
The dreams of Salha, Basmalah, Maha, Inas, Roaya, Ikram, Dima and Ghazal are just like those of their peers in world countries: “Some of us – they say – want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers. We want to choose our future and do something for the good of our people.”
“Nobody can take away our dreams.”
Gwyn Lewis, recently appointed UNWRA Director for the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, nods and smiles, but to SIR he voices his concerns about the dark clouds that threaten the Agency’s relief activities after the US President Donald Trump eliminated $300 million funding to UNWRA.
“These cuts have a serious impact on our programs and refugee assistance services – the Director said -. We hope that the other partners involved will mobilize to collect the needed funds enabling the continuation of our activities. Some Countries have been great donors in 2018, these include European Union and Gulf countries.”Exactly 70 years have gone by – 1949-2019 – since UNWRA’s creation. Throughout these years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained unsolved. “It’s paradoxical that nobody has been able to put an end to this conflict – Lewis pointed out -. Some Palestinians have no other choice than to live like refugees, without being able to return to their homes and to their homeland, without the possibility of integrating themselves into the community in which they live. Without peace, tensions are doomed to continue, rather than to decline. And dreams are bound to vanish”, including those of Soraya, Salha, Basmalah, Maha, Inas, Roaya, Ikram, Dima and Ghazal.