Life in a Refugee Camp
(By Sumana Singha)
You can just imagine it. You can never feel it. The feeling of being displaced, of insecurity, of oppression, of fear; the feeling of living with hopes and hopelessness at the same time; the feeling of living with death. It is my home but still it is not. I cannot let it be. I feel at home here but yet I don’t feel at home.
I tried to understand what he was trying to tell me. I wanted him to tell me more. He was born in a refugee camp. I was having this serious conversation with a Palestinian guy, when the bus screeched to a halt. And we could hear the coordinator shouting “yalla yalla”. It is a common expression in Arabic meaning, “come on”, “let’s get going” or “hurry up”. To be honest, by the time the trip was drawing to an end, we could no longer hear these two words “yalla yalla”. Because whenever we would start to enjoy a place, we would hear the coordinators shouting the words, “yalla yalla; time to leave”.
He was so engrossed in expressing his feelings and his experiences of his time in a refugee camp. I was so absorbed in listening, trying to comprehend and imagine, when the words “yalla yalla” interrupted us once again. He stopped speaking and looked out of the window and said, “See it for yourself”.
We stepped out of the bus. We were in the Al-Jalazone refugee camp. It is seven kilometers from Ramallah. Our coordinator gave us some instructions regarding what to do and what not to do.
We were asked not to do anything that might hurt the sensitivity of the people of the refugee camp. I was not sure what the coordinator was talking about.
We were also instructed not to leave the group at any time, as refugee camps are like a maze where you could easily get lost. It could be really difficult for someone who gets lost to locate his or her group because of the language barrier.
I started to walk around, taking photos of the walls full of graffiti, of billboards, of narrow alleys and everything that attracted my attention. The walls were painted with pictures and full of posters of martyrs: those killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), those killed during demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli soldiers, and those who chose death over life to liberate their land. The faces of martyrs were accompanied by a short paragraph, describing their age, the date when they left the world and the circumstances under which they became martyrs.
The paintings and posters of the dead on each and every wall were a little disturbing for me. I started to think about how the families of these dead people feel when they have to see the pictures of their dead everywhere and every single day. It was like forcing them to re-experience the pain and distress they once went through. I wondered if they really want their pain to melt away. Do they really want their wounds to be healed? I think they do not want that.
We usually want to be released from the clutches of pain and suffering. But when suffering has become mundane, an undeniable reality, I think pain gives us the strength to deal with the suffering that waits outside our door every single day. It is pain that reminds them of the loss they suffer, of the injustice meted out to them, of the struggles that await them, of the need to carry on, of the need to jump once more into the fray, of the need to never give up.
What else could be the reaon for painting graffiti of martyrs and pasting their posters all over the walls, on billboards and over everything possible? It is not just to remember their dead loved ones. It is to strengthen their resilience even in the face of death.
I believe that one of the first things that comes in our minds when we think of a refugee camp is that it would be overpopulated. Crowded streets and neighborhoods. I had the same expectation and image in my mind when I was travelling to Al-Jalazone refugee camp. But to my surprise, the roads were completely deserted. We could see the shop keepers inside their shops and a few locals. It was completely unexpected. I could not understand how this was possible.
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