Children from Aida look on as Israeli soldiers search the camp. (photo: David Silverman/Getty Images)
Kamil Al-Sultan returns home to his family’s poorly lit and overcrowded apartment. (photo: J Carrier)
A child from the Aida refugee camp looks out from the balcony of his family home. (photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
I want my children to live in peace, to get what they want, to practice their rights, to have a stable life, to do whatever they want and to have the opportunity to do it, says 43- year-old Nidal Al-Azzeh, a resident of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Aida is one of 58 such camps in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria housing Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), worldwide there are more than four million refugees registered with the United Nations, one third of whom live in these camps. Built in 1950, Aida is currently home to more than 4,700 refugees.
At the camps entrance stands a massive steel gate designed to look like a keyhole. A 33-foot- long steel key is mounted on top of the gate. On the key, the words Not for Sale in English and Arabic have been painted in red. For the refugees, the key has deep meaning. When families fled their homes in 1948, most locked their doors and took their keys with them, believing they would return to their homes days or weeks later. They could not fathom that they, much less their children and grandchildren, would spend the rest of their lives as refugees.
The camp itself is little more than a cramped cluster of cinder-block houses with few windows. The grounds lack proper streets; narrow alleyways weave the complex together. Graffiti adorn the concrete walls and wires hover above the ramshackle structures. No greenery of any sort — no trees, grass or flowers — seems to grow in the camp. Without yards, patios or playgrounds, children play in the alleys, amid cracked cement, potholes and garbage.
Mr. Al-Azzeh, his wife, Afaf, and four children — boys Miras and Rowayd, and girls Layan and Athal — live in one of the camps gray structures. A slight man with a dark mustache and graying temples, Mr. Al-Azzeh is no stranger to the psychological trauma characteristic of life in the occupied West Bank.
As a teenager, he spent a total of four years in an Israeli prison. In 1983, at the age of 14, Israeli authorities arrested him and five friends for waving a flag at a demonstration. He was sentenced to and served two years behind bars. Then in 1987, during the first intifada, Israeli soldiers stopped him on his way home from school. They found his name on a list and sent him back to prison.
Upon release, Mr. Al-Azzeh returned to high school on his fathers insistence. Older than the other students, he graduated at the age of 21. He went on to study law at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Shortly after, the Open Society Institute awarded him a scholarship to Columbia University Law School in New York City, where he earned a masters degree in 2006. He now teaches international human rights law at his alma mater.
For Mr. Al-Azzeh, life as a refugee is degrading. We are dependent on international agencies, and while we need this, its not a solution for life. It may solve temporary problems but it doesnt give the refugee a feeling of equality to others.
Despite his and his wifes loving attention, they have been unable to insulate their children from the hardships of life in the camp.
It feels like we are in prison, and that makes our life difficult. They like to push us in a crowded area and not let us grow; [they] keep us in a corner, says Rowayd, the younger of the two boys.
None of the children, however, knows better the trauma of life under occupation than 16-year-old Miras. Miras loves to dance the dabka, the traditional folk dance of the Levant. But four years ago, he and his loved ones feared he would never dance again.
It was early morning and I was playing with my cousin, my brother and one of my sisters on the balcony of our apartment, recalls Miras.
Looming near their home is the 25-foot-high Israeli separation barrier and an attached watchtower. Only a small, overgrown cemetery stands between the camp and the barrier and its heavily armed soldiers.
An Israeli soldier opened fire from the tower and the bullet hit me in the back, traveled through me and came out from my stomach, he continues. I didnt feel anything at first.
My sister told me I had blood on my T-shirt, he says, clutching his hands together and looking away. I asked myself, from where?
The boy stumbled downstairs to his mother, who works as a nurse in the camps clinic. She immediately called a taxi and rushed him to the hospital. The doctors performed emergency surgery, determining he had been struck by a dumdum bullet, which expands upon impact.
Miras remained in the hospital for seven days and was unable to walk for six months. Now in the 11th grade at the Latin Patriarchate school in Beit Jala, he plans on studying civil engineering at Polytechnic University in Hebron.
Explaining how life in the camps affects childrens mental health, Dr. Norma Masriyyeh Hazboun, chair of the social sciences department at Bethlehem University, says that if there is increased nurturing and support from the parents, a more cohesive family who is aware of how to protect their children from all the violations, the trauma will be less.
A ten minutes drive across town, in the Dheisheh refugee camp, another 11th-grade boy, Kamil Al-Sultan, is not so lucky. (His and his mothers names have been changed to protect the familys identity.)
Established in 1949, the Dheisheh camp differs little from Aida. It consists of an austere complex of cinder-block houses, home to more than 13,000 refugees. Most striking are the posters and murals on the buildings walls, each depicting suicide bombers whom residents revere as martyrs.
One such poster features Ayat Al-Akhras, a beautiful 18-year-old girl with dark, oval-shaped eyes and pencil-thin eyebrows. On a Friday afternoon in 2002, the high school senior blew herself up in a supermarket on the outskirts of Jerusalem, killing herself, the security guard and an Israeli woman.
Kamil is one of seven children. His mother, Amal, normally works once a week as a cleaning woman, but for the time being she has stopped since she is expecting another child. His father is unemployed, apart from occasional odd jobs as a day laborer.
Kamils nine-member family shares a small, poorly maintained three-room unit. A childs coughing fills the dark and damp apartment, where the water has been shut off for the last 21 days — a common occurrence in the West Bank. In the main living area, the only decoration on the cracked concrete walls is a map of Palestine, embroidered in green, black and red — the colors of the Palestinian flag.
Mrs. Al-Sultan, a thin woman with short curly hair, sits at a table holding her youngest child, a 2-year-old boy. She has diabetes and high blood pressure and recently suffered a heart attack. Though only 37 years old, her frail frame and the deep lines on her face make her look older.
I can do nothing for my children. They are my life, my humiliation, she says, tears rolling down her gaunt pale cheeks. My priority is when they ask for something, to be able to give it to them. But I am forced to say no.
The family, she says, cannot even afford chicken. I wish death on myself and my family rather than stay in this refugee camp, says Mrs. Al-Sultan, who more than once considered putting her children up for adoption.
My life is disgusting; I have no future.
At that moment, her 4-year-old daughter, with disheveled frizzy black hair, emerges from another room, dragging a pink and white tricycle. Its rear wheels are missing and the seat is broken. She nonetheless touches it over and over, pretending it works.
In Palestines refugee camps, families such as the Al-Sultans — impoverished and desperate to provide for their children — are the norm, says Diana Mubarak, director of social affairs for the Palestinian Authority. A social worker, Ms. Mubarak has committed the past 36 years of her life to serving families in and around Bethlehem and the refugee camps. Currently, she oversees some 3,000 cases each year.
In the Al-Sultans living room, Kamil sits under the framed map on a broken metal heater covered with dirt, his jet-black curls falling over his forehead, perhaps to hide his teenage acne. He is in the 11th grade at the nearby public school and says he finds his studies very difficult. This year, his grade point average has fallen.
I like to study. I am not lazy. It is just too crowded in the camp. I cannot study. The room is dark and there is no quiet, Kamil says, looking at the room around him. As the oldest son, he says he feels tremendous pressure from his parents, who struggle to pay the $16 a month it costs to bus him to and from school.
After I finish school, I would love to study more but we cannot afford that, says Kamil. I will try my best, but I will have to work. I might work before I go back to school. My dream is to be a lawyer. I still havent given up.
Yahia Dajaaneh, a 48-year-old English teacher at the United Nations-run Dheisheh School, understands students such as Kamil. There is a lack of motivation among the students that starts at home. If the parents have no money, the boy will have to provide for himself and drop out of school.
Ninety percent of the students fathers are day workers or unemployed with a grim economic outlook, adds 40-year-old Muhammad Al-Azza, who for the past 20 years has taught mathematics at the school.
Qais Manasara, a 30-year-old history and geography teacher at Dheisheh, says the children in the camp are living in a pressure cooker. They live in overcrowded homes, have no place to play and attend a school where the average class size ranges from 40 to 50 students. The confinement, he says, creates hyperactivity, aggressive behavior and an inability to concentrate in the classroom.
Kamil loves sports and often plays outside with other children to decompress from the daily grind of life in a refugee camp. Children play football in the street. It is crowded in the house and outside, he says.
However, overcrowding is not the only source of childrens behavioral problems and poor performance in school, stresses Ramzi Zananiri, executive director of the Near East Council of Churches. It is also the raids and home arrests in the middle of the night that terrorize the whole community. The kids go to school half asleep and traumatized.
Kamil agrees. What demoralizes me, he says, is the [Israeli] soldiers entry into the camp at night and the situation in the camp itself. They have been arresting young people like me for doing nothing. We are accused of throwing stones. I do not throw stones.
Though proud of who he is, the young man sometimes feels ashamed around those who are not refugees. I dont like the way they look at me. I burn inside when they look at me. I only have God and my refugee card unlike those who have their land, their villages. I miss out on a lot.
Kamil does have relatives, however, who help him remember the old days before life in the camp. His 73-year-old great-uncle, Kahlil Qaraqe, for instance, lives nearby. Small in build with a salt and pepper mustache and deep lines across his face, he sports a gray pinstriped suit and black and white keffiyeh, the traditional headscarf worn by men in the region.
Mr. Qaraqe was 11 years old when the Israelis seized his village in 1948. He remembers it well.
We ran, he recalls. What would anybody do? They confiscated our land. We thought we would return the next day but that never happened.
They put us in tents in the village of Al Khader near Bethlehem. Then, they moved us east to Hindaza, then to Dheisheh, which was all tents back then. Ever since, we have had the same life. It has not improved, says Mr. Qaraqe, who for 20 years labored in an Israeli-owned stone quarry before retiring ten years ago.
I am a miserable person as a refugee. They only abuse our status. Every three months the U.N. gives us 30 kilos [66 pounds] of flour.
All I want is to return to my home village. We had orchards, trees and springs. It was heaven, he says. We had sheep, camels and donkeys. We were peasants but we harvested wheat and lentils. We lived off the land.
Mr. Qaraqe has 90 grandchildren. I cannot give them an education, he says. I wish my grandchildren had the opportunity to leave the camp or the country. Education raises the level of people, but it doesnt allow them to get better jobs or mix with other people of different countries. What use is education if they will not get jobs?
Anas Al-Kahtib, a 13-year-old neighbor with thick eyebrows and peach fuzz on his upper lip, feels differently. He wants an education, because he believes with one he can find a job that will support a family.
A seventh grader at the Dheisheh School, he is already a serious student. In his backpack, he carries his English, mathematics and history textbooks. Unlike many of his classmates, who vent their frustrations on their books, he keeps them in good condition.
Anass mathematics teacher, Mr. Al-Azza, says the schools student body is split into two main groups: the majority, who succumb to the odds against them, and the minority, who surmount the odds and succeed. The minority, he says, generally have parents who themselves achieved academically and pay careful attention to how they rear their children.
Anas clearly belongs to the minority. His 43-year-old father, Muhammad Al-Kahtib, has taught English at the Dheisheh School for 17 years. The boys 33-year-old mother, Suha, teaches Arabic at a school in Bethlehem.
Anas loves to fly kites and wants to be a pilot. But, I cannot study to be a pilot here. I have to study abroad, he laments.
I want to travel the world, he continues. All of Palestine is a small village compared to America or Russia. I want to see Turkey because it has beautiful historical sites; Germany because I like the language; Spain because I love the Spanish football [soccer] team.
Above all, Anass parents want a better life for their son. It is important my children get out and go somewhere else for a better life, says his father. But I would like them to come back. Education is a priority for my children.
Mr. Al-Kahtib still hopes for a better life for himself, his wife and his parents, too. I want to exonerate myself of the miseries here, he says. My ancestral village of Beit Itab is dear to my heart. I went there 30 years ago with my mother. We live a dream to go back to our land with prosperity. God willing!
Sada, Mr. Al-Kahtibs mother, is dressed in a thobe, or traditional Palestinian gown, and a white hijab, or traditional headscarf. On her left middle finger, she wears a gold ring.
In her late sixties, she was 7 when the war broke out. She recalls Israeli soldiers entering the village and shooting at the young men. A cousin of hers, not yet 18, was killed. The shooting intensified and her family fled.
My grandmother had put clothes in a cloth and tied the bundle at the top, she says. She then gave Sada the bundle to carry on her head, but it was too heavy and she dropped it and was unable to retrieve it.
We left land, camels, sheep and cows in our village, she says. We left everything we had.
Anas also wants to return to the familys village. But, his dreams are far more ambitious.
I want to wake up to see a soccer team here, a park and security, says the 13-year-old. I want a diverse career. And, I want to be a pilot and fly, but I will return to my land.
Formerly with The Associated Press, Diane Handal covers events in the Middle East.