Humans of the Holy Land, Post #7: Al-Amari Refugee Camp
When I told friends back home that I was in a refugee camp the past few days, a couple of them thought I must have been in a Syrian refugee camp for some strange reason. Though the Syrian refugee crisis is absolutely devastating, there are now 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees worldwide, 1.5 million of whom live in UNRWA refugee camps, such as Al-Amari Refugee Camp, which is located to the south of Ramallah in the West Bank.
I experienced a tremendous shift in my environment, going from a Zionist settlement to a refugee camp in the same day. The refugee camps are the locations of some of the most fervently anti-Zionists in all of Palestine, and understandably so. Whenever you ask people where they are from, they may tell you they are born and raised in Al-Amari, but where they are from is their family’s village before the Nakba.
The Nakba is a topic that is misunderstood by many. What transpired in 1948 is absolutely pivotal in understanding the Palestinian psyche, particular those in these refugee camps. Early Israeli historians — many of whom served in Israeli forces — practiced self-censorship in order to portray the Palestinian exodus as voluntary. However, with corroboration of Palestinian survivors, historians over the years have admitted to a violent displacement of more than ¾ of all Palestinians in what is today Israel. Displacement was largely a result of violent expulsion by Israeli soldiers or mass paranoia of impending Israeli onslaught following massacres such as the Deir Yassin massacre. Most refugees were forced to leave all their possessions behind, with their homes either demolished or later occupied by incoming Jewish immigrants — a tactic to solve the Israeli housing crisis at the time and make the return of these Palestinians even more difficult. To this day, many people in the refugee camp still have the keys to their homes.
In its nearly 70 years of existence, Al-Amari Refugee Camp has transformed from a city of tents into a full-blown city within itself. Now, the nearly 10,000-strong camp has faced overcrowding, insufficient sewage, poorly built buildings, and poverty. IDF arrests occur monthly within the camp, and they entered the camp in the middle of the night during my stay here.
During the day, you can hear kids detonate firecrackers in the streets — I love all Palestinians, but children in the refugee camp can be absolutely devilish. While the adults work during the day and smoke arghilah at night, the kids are always out and about, fighting each other with parts from couches, metal rods, whatever they have at their disposal.
Many of the people in the refugee camp come from the areas around Ramle and Lydda, areas that suffered some of the most violent expulsions during the Nakba. From Ramle and Lydda, Israeli soldiers stripped many families of all possessions so that the Arab League would need to pay extra attention to these new refugees. The strategy of sending residents of Lydda on what became a death march was a further part of a strategy to keep roads clogged so Arab League units could not advance.
Through both their family’s history and the difficulty and oppression they face to this day, the people of Al-Amari still remain focused on one goal: returning to their homes.
Though the stories and perspectives I heard over the last few days were saddening and shocking, it was oddly refreshing. In contrast to the previous month, everything I was hearing felt utterly and completely real. These weren’t really people’s opinions or what they had heard from the media. It was the story of their lives. These are stories that can produce ugly outlooks, but it is recognizing what these stories mean that are essential in understanding both those perspectives and why we face this difficult reality today.
Without further ado, here are some of the human beings I encountered:
Waleed is the personification of the Arab man. He is gruff, but he will slap you with a handshake any time he sees you. He will holler at the kids around the street, but you still see them returning from school to crowd around his small stand to get have freshly made French fries while they laugh around him.
Waleed was the one who helped arrange for my stay at the Palestinian Society for Care & Development in the refugee camp. When I mentioned to him how I wanted to talk to him about his experiences in the refugee camp, he told me, “Yes, yes, we can talk tonight at like 7 or 8. We can smoke some arghilah or something, sounds good.” When I came to him at 8:20 (accounting for Arab time), he was nowhere to be seen. I spoke to someone at the Internet café that Waleed owns, and Waleed came a few minutes later out from his house. Of course, we started going over something completely unrelated to my project, and when I asked if we could talk about his experiences, he shook my hand and replied, “later, later, another day.”
And in perfect Arab character, the way I was able to speak to him wasn’t without an appointment but with a handshake and eating some ful and fries during a Friday mid-afternoon meal. All I had to do was ask him a couple questions, and Waleed opened up about his long life here in the camp.
Waleed was born and raised in the refugee camp, and he has lived here for over 60 years. “My family comes from near Lydda,” said Waleed, “My family is from where Ben Gurion Airport is today. Every day, people land on my home, people from all over the world, they trample on my home without knowing it is my home. And I can never see my home. I want to go on the runway and rebuild my house right there in the middle of it. Let’s see them try to fly in from Paris then!” he laughed, “My father never forgot when we were removed from our homes. He never forgot when he was forced to walk for days from their homes with guns telling them to move,” referring to the Lydda death marches that occurred, “and I won’t either.”
Waleed described the evolution of the camp over time. “There were the tents at first,” he said, “and then we had buildings built out of complete rubbish.” His narrative of the buildings in the camp follows a course of decreasing “rubbish” as he put it, essentially, going from tents, to scrap metal, to concrete. “I remember early on, everyone would wake up to go line up at four in the morning to wait for water. We would wait four hours in these long lines. Everyone in the camp knew whenever anyone else took a shower,” he gruffly laughed. He described the difficulties they faced over the years as the population grew but the land they were confined in remained the same. “Until the 70s, we weren’t allowed to build a second level to our houses, but we had our kids and nephews who needed places for them to live. So people would build on top of their houses themselves. It is dangerous, and the houses aren’t safe, but families were forced to do it.”
Waleed continued to speak, and he began to discuss his mistrust of larger organizations and governments. “The UNRWA, the US, all these places maybe help us build 10 or 15 homes, but that’s it. They don’t care to actually help the people. They want to tell everyone they help us so they look good, but they don’t actually care about us.” Not surprising considering his experience in the camp, Waleed was also quite pessimistic when it comes to the military. “If all governments for one year stopped their militaries,” he said while serving a boy his French fries, “there would not be any poor people in the world.”
“Every day, people land on my home, people from all over the world, they trample on my home without knowing it is my home. ”
When the topic of the IDF was raised, Waleed’s gruff voice turned passionate. “The army, they don’t see us as people. We are cattle. I have these soldiers come into my home at three in the morning for no reason. My children are sleeping, we are being quiet and peaceful. But you go through my home, you damage what little we have built, and for what? My family has done nothing. We sit here while we wait for us to return to our homes, that’s it. How can you expect us to live like this and smile?“
His disdain for the people that have emigrated from other countries to his homeland was clear. “All these people who are coming into my land, who are living in my homes, please, go back to Europe, go back to your own homes. Let us live in our homes.” I asked him, what about the people who survived the Holocaust? He replied, “The Holocaust, I don’t believe that the number of people in it are as much as they say. How can you put 1 million people into an oven? You would need at least 2 million people to do it, and the oven would get full. It just isn’t possible.” Of course, I was very disheartened by what he said, and I asked him if he believed the Holocaust had happened. “Yes,” he replied, “I know the Holocaust happened. But why do we, Palestinians, have to pay for your Holocaust? Why must we suffer? We have no choice in any of this. We didn’t put you in those ovens. But you make it so that every day we live is like a Holocaust.”
In spite of what he has faced in his life, Waleed has remained an active member in the Al-Amari community. He dreams of opening a restaurant in New York, a dream he tells any foreigner he crosses paths with. “Visas are very hard and expensive to get. But one day, insha’allah, I will be able to open a restaurant in New York.”
Shaher’s voice has become coarse thanks to the hundreds of cigarettes he’s had. His gaze upon you is intimidating, but mesmerizing. Everything about him should strike fear into you, but when you listen to this man’s thoughts, his feelings and sentiments, you quickly realize that this is a special man with a kind heart and a great mind.
Shaher’s family is also from Lydde, suffering through the death march. He has been in the refugee camp all his life.
Going back to my short stay here last year, there was one question that I couldn’t completely answer to people back home — why would people remain in this impoverished refugee camp if they are already in the West Bank? I asked Shaher this question, and he replied, “there are two reasons why nearly all of us have stayed in the refugee camp. If you go to lands around us, if you go to Ramallah or Al-Bireh, these lands are too expensive. We don’t have the money in the camp to leave. You see these rich families in Ramallah, they pay for their kids to go to these schools where there are 20 kids in a classroom. In the UNRWA school in the camp, there are over 50 students in one classroom. But only a few people with enough money have left the camp. And even that number is small because Ramallah is not my land. The West Bank is not my land. My land is in Lydda, where I will return to my home.” Whenever Shaher spoke of returning to his home, there was no question that it would happen. It was the purpose of his and everyone else’s existence in the refugee camp. “This camp has become a city, but it is only a temporary city, for we will return to our homes some day.”
at us as Muslims, Christians, Jews,” he said, “They want to make war out of this. But I don’t look at you as Muslim, Christian, Jewish.” He did the classic Palestinian ‘tsk tsk tsk.’ “I think of a person as a human. Yes, I am a Muslim. I am a Palestinian. I drink Arab coffee and I dance Debke. I have suffered as all my people have. But what makes me human is my ideas,” pointing to his head, then down to his chest,“and what is in my heart. That is what makes me a human.” Shaher continued for quite a while about this idea that in his mind, people should not be judged by what you can call them, but rather by who they truly are as individuals.
He lamented the rampant Islamophobia in the United States, in Israel, and the rest of the world. “These people never speak to us, yet they know better than anyone how dangerous we are,” he stated, “in America, they read on the news about us Muslims. Americans think that Muslims, we only want two things — to eat,” pointing to his stomach, and then to his crotch, “and to fuck. They think we want blood. But that is not the truth. Humans must speak to other humans. And when there is a person listening to another person from another place, they can listen to what they think and feel in that place. When I listen to you, maybe some of my ideas might change a little. And when you listen to me, maybe some of your ideas might change a little. This is how we can no longer be Muslims or Jews or Christians. We can be humans, with ideas and with hearts.”
I mentioned to him the idea many Israelis have that Palestinians only came here the last 150 years. “In the Old City in Jerusalem,” he said, “your neighbor was Jewish, your neighbor was Christian, your neighbor was Muslim, it didn’t matter. We were neighbors, brothers. Palestinian Jews have been here for always. We have lived together forever. But now, Netanyahu, he wants to make us into Muslims, he wants to make them into Jews. But we are brothers, we are humans. My family name, Harun, it is a Jewish name! But does it matter? Because I know who I am. I know I am Arab. I know I am Muslim. But more than that, I am a human being with ideas,” he pointed to his head once again, and he then moved his finger to his chest, “and a heart.”
With that in mind, I asked him what would be his reaction to the Israelis living in the land when he would return to his home. Would he live side-by-side with them? Or would he want to send them away? “Yes, of course I would live with them. If you are Christian, if you are Jewish, if you are Muslim, it doesn’t matter. You are a human being. We will build a life together.”
I asked him what he will do when he finally returns to his home. “I don’t know what I would do with it,” he replied, “maybe I will love my home, or maybe I might not like it, maybe I might sell it or do something else with it, but at least give me the choice! These governments, the media, they tell me what I want. But let me say what I want.”
As was the case in everyone I spoke to within the camp, Shehar was against all governments. He spoke of his belief that America, Britain, and Israel were to blame for the creation of ISIS. When I asked him who he would want to rule this land, he exclaimed, “The Palestinian people. You can say all you want about Fatah and all these parties, but it is the Palestinian people who must rule over their own lives.” As he saw it, it was these dehumanizing groups that changed the dynamic between different people. “When you speak to a Jew alone, we don’t have problems. We are a human speaking to another human. But when they come in groups here, then we are not humans. We are Muslims in their eyes, and that is it. So when you have whole governments and armies coming from one place to another, all they see is what they want to see. They never see our ideas or our hearts.”
This was a man whose family endured a death march from their homes leaving hundreds killed. And yet, here he was, a human being speaking with another from a far away land. Sure, he drank Arab coffee and did Debke, but this was more than anything a man of ideas and empathy. And that is what made this man Shehar Harun.
I met Eyad last year, and when I saw him again, he was just as much of the loveable teddy bear that enjoys arghilah maybe just a bit too much. He is Mohammad’s older brother, but you can always find the two in the camp or a café together. Eyad works in industrial painting, and he’s been working long hours this week in preparation for the Eid holiday next week. He’s very even-tempered, and he has the ability to laugh or smile wistfully while he speaks about unspeakable horrors. Growing up in the refugee camp, this is an asset he has needed to acquire if he wanted to be involved within this community.
Eyad lived in the refugee camp until he was 15, “though I’m still back in the refugee camp like 90% of the time,” he laughed, “All my family and friends are still in the camp.”
We sat together at a café smoking some fantastic arghilah, leemon wa nana (lemon and mint). I asked him a general question at first, “what do you recollect of all your experiences in the camp — the good, the bad, whatever comes to mind.” Eyad’s eyes opened wide, and he took a big puff from the water pipe. “Wow, that’s a lot,” he laughed. He paused, and he replied, “It was mostly bad.”
What makes speaking with Palestinians so unique is the wealth of experiences they have in terms of the occupation. The more I would dig into all the experiences Eyad and others have, mores stories would be revealed, stories that may define another person’s life but are simply one of many here in Al-Amari.
“I didn’t realize what I grew up in until I went to Barcelona,” he said, “it was then that I realized it wasn’t a normal life,” he said, commencing his light-spirited laugh. “It was all we ever saw, so it is only now looking back that I can realize how crazy some of these things are.”
The first experience that he revealed to me occurred just over a year ago. “Last September,” he said, “my cousin was killed. It was 4 AM, and the soldiers came into the camp to arrest just one man. My cousin came out in the street to just see what was going on. He wasn’t doing anything. A sniper was shooting at anyone on the street, and they shot and killed him. The army later claimed he had a bomb, but that was completely not true. There was no reason for him to throw rocks or to…to have a bomb!” he laughed, but his eyes expressed melancholy. “It was only a week before his wedding. He was in love with this girl since he was five years old. He worked from 8 in the morning until 8 or 9 at night every day so he could provide for his future family, to build a home and create a life for them. He was only going to see what was going on. But it is so easy for them, all they need to do is tell the media that he was a terrorist strapped with a bomb, and there is nothing we can do.” It was hard for Eyad to speak about it as a family member. “The most difficult thing afterward was seeing his mother. It was very difficult. But there’s nothing you could do about it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Yes, people in the family were angry after. But there is nothing you can do. You just have to accept it.”
It was only after I asked him directly if he ever felt like he had his life threatened on him did he reveal those stories. Again, what amazed me was how it was only when I would prod people specifically that such stories came up. There were multiple stories Eyad went into. “The day after my cousin died,” he explained, “we were walking back from the funeral. We were walking on the side of Ramallah near the settlement (of Psagot). All of a sudden, all these settlers started shooting at us from the settlement for no reason. I ran and dove on the ground. Bullets whizzed past me, and I was lucky that I wasn’t shot.” Eyad mentioned other times at clashes in which he wasn’t throwing stones, “just watching,” and he was almost hit by bullets aimed at such bystanders.
I asked Eyad how he felt about kids throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. His face appeared conflicted. “It’s a difficult question,” he said, “it’s the only way people can express their anger when their brother is killed or their cousin is put in jail for no reason. There’s no other option for kids. It is their only way of showing resistance. Otherwise, they feel like nothing will change for the better.” Him and Muhammad spoke of a French friend of theirs who was taking photos of a clash occurring. “He became so angry at what he was watching — at these soldiers shooting live bullets at demonstrators who were trying to speak out against the occupation — and this is a calm man, you would never expect this from him, but he started throwing rocks after what he saw the soldiers doing.“
After discussing with him the events that were going on last summer, I was curious what this mild-natured man thought of Hamas. “I don’t really know Hamas here because you can’t see it in the West Bank. You meet a guy or two who are Hamas, but it isn’t here politically. But I have met people from Gaza, and they all hate Hamas. They say they have took over everything, they control their lives, they make everything horrible for them.” When the topic of Hamas rockets from last summer, Eyad again seemed uneasy. “I couldn’t say I was against Hamas sending the rockets into Israel,” he said, “It was their only way for defense. It is their only way to do something about Israel killing 4,000 people in one month.” Even though they are sending these rockets into civilian areas? “What else are they do? They don’t have the capabilities Israel does. Look at how the rockets did almost nothing last summer.”
Eyad is not one to promote violence. He has experienced so much violence in his life, yet he still maintains a serene exterior. No matter what we talked about, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable speaking to this man while arghilah came out from his mouth in a seemingly steady stream.
Mohammad has a soft voice like his brother, but he doesn’t laugh so easily when discussing the injustices they have witnessed and suffered. He has a more serious demeanor.
I asked Mohammad where his and Eyad’s family came from before the Nakba. He told me that the village’s name was Innaba, just a few kilometers from Ramle. “There was the massacre at Deir Yassin nearby,” he explained, “and then people said, ‘the Israelis! They’re coming! They will kill us all!’” In the hysteria, Mohammad and Eyad’s family fled for another village, thinking that it would only be for a week.
I threw out the common Israeli idea that Palestinians only came here 150 years ago. This was one time where Mohammad let himself laugh. “You can find our village, Innaba, on Roman maps 2,000 years ago. My family has always been here.”
Mohammad went into greater depth regarding the many things him and Eyad saw growing up. It was shocking hearing the things they went through that Eyad hadn’t even thought about; the extent of their traumatic experiences was unbelievable. There were so many stories and anecdotes they had, some I won’t even have the space to mention.
Mohammad recalled much of what happened during the Second Intifada inside the refugee camp. “The day of the 2002 World Cup Final, soldiers rounded all of us up,” he said, “they [blindfolded] us and took us out of our homes, cuffing us all together. For eight hours they had us out there. During that time, the soldiers went in our houses. They ate our food so there was nothing left after, they made themselves tea, and they watched the match while we were all [tied up and blindfolded].”
There was a harsh curfew implemented in the camp during the Second Intifada. “For three months,” he explained, “we weren’t allowed outside of our house. Then, the soldiers would scream that everyone had two hours to get groceries. Those two hours, the streets were completely packed with everyone rushing to get everything they needed. It was impossible to because everyone needed everything in that time. The soldiers would scream, ‘anyone who is outside in ten minutes will be shot!’
Multiple times, soldiers entered their home. “They do the same thing every time — they come out of the jeeps wearing green and black on their faces so you can’t see who they are, holding assault rifles and M16 guns. It will be like five in the morning when everyone is sleeping. Then, they flash these really bright lights on everyone so you can’t see who they are. You just see their lights and hear them scream, ‘take off your clothes! Take off your clothes!’ It doesn’t matter if you’re two years old, they still expect you to have a bomb underneath your shirt when you’ve all been sleeping. They separate all the women and children and the men. All the men over 16, they would start beating them in front of the women and children.
“My brother was four years old when he first experienced it. They were eating watermelon and playing when the soldiers came. Out of nowhere, the jeeps and F-16 helicopters came. They were looking for a neighbor, so they go through our house, calling out in Arabic for everyone in the house to come outside. They destroyed our things. They beat up the men and screamed in my younger brother’s face, pointing their guns putting the red lasers on him. Eyad and I were older, so we were already used to it by then (Mohammad was 12 at the time). But for more than two months after that, my brother couldn’t do anything. He wouldn’t move, he couldn’t speak, he was afraid to go to the bathroom, so he would wet the bed or [pee in his pants]. Every day, we had doctors coming in to try to help him, but it took almost three months for him to be able to do anything.
“When these kids experience this from when they are so young, how do you expect them to be when they are 18?”
Mohammad talked about the kids in the camp and their lives quite a bit. “Their favorite game — and I remember playing it when I was a kid — was called Arabs vs. Jews. One street of kids would be Arabs, and the other street would be Jews. The ‘Arabs’ would launch fireworks and throw stones at the ‘Jews,’ while the ‘Jews’ would start beating up the ‘Arabs.’ These kids don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re just playing. But this is what they see around them. They don’t have [soccer] fields or anywhere to play, so this is all they’re left to play.”
Mohammad talked about how the different generations of kids adapt in such ways to what they see around them. “Our generation, the ones that grew up during the Second Intifada, we experienced the curfews and all that violence, so our games would be based on that. Today, the kids experience the funerals and people being released from jail. Like when my cousin was killed, just before the actual funeral, all the kids put on their own masks, and they put together all these rocks. They had their own funeral for my cousin before the actual funeral.”
Like Eyad, Mohammad has always dealt with those around him getting shot. “My good friend was shot by a bullet right below his stomach. He wasn’t throwing rocks or anything. I rushed him to the hospital. They did surgery on him for five hours, and they asked me if he had any other brothers because they thought he was going to die.” He told me a couple stories similar to this.
What Mohammad has done with his upbringing has been most interesting. Mohammad played soccer and fencing, having been on the national fencing team when he was younger. In college, he decided to study journalism, getting into photography so that he could cover sporting events. “Multiple times,” he said, “I jumped the fence to try to cover games at the [soccer] stadium in East Jerusalem. I was always caught and brought back, though.” However, as he jokes, “I realized that we didn’t really have any sports in Palestine.” He began to pursue photojournalism, in which over the past few years he has taken photos of clashes, of life (and especially children) in the refugee camp, and other events of the occupation. Both Mohammad and Eyad go around Europe putting on exhibitions and workshops involving visual elements of the occupation and resistance. His photographs are often used by international organizations.
“What I like most about photography in these situations,” he explained, “is the action. Running, hiding, trying to figure out how to get the best pictures without getting shot — it’s all action.” I made the analogy with him that it was like trying to be a fly on the wall in which all flies were being swatted at, and he agreed with a smile.
Over the course of his time covering clashes with IDF soldiers, Mohammad has faced systematic violence and targeting by soldiers, something found among all such photographers. He knew one photographer who, over the course of his career, had been shot 32 times by the army.
Mohammad told me many stories regarding his close calls during the clashes. He mentioned one time in which he was taking photos from under a balcony of clashes going on. “There was a soldier directly above me on the balcony, though,” he explained, “and he shot a tear gas canister directly below at me. The canisters can kill, especially close range like that. I barely dodged the canister hitting my head. The canister exploded in front of me, and the impact it had knocked me unconscious. Through the tear gas, my friends carried me out and brought me to a hospital.” Another story he mentioned, he showed on the table where the army, the protestors, and the journalists were located. He indicated that the journalists and photographers were located far to the side of the clashes. “The soldiers were moving towards the people throwing stones. They were shooting at them with live bullets. But then, they turned and started walking towards us and shot at us. A man working for Al-Jazeera was badly hurt then.” Among other fun little tidbits, he remembered getting sprayed with burning “dirty water” and getting caught in between fireworks on one side and live fire, going to the ground as bullets whizzed past him. “It’s kind of like a weird game of cat and mouse,” he said, “because we are trying to follow them, but they will always try to do something to us. By keeping us from covering these events and showing what is happening, that is the only way they can keep the world from knowing the terrible things they do here.”
Mohammad would lament how Palestinian Authority police can’t do anything against the Israeli soldiers. As Mohammad explained, “Whenever the soldiers go into the camp, they tell the Palestinian police first because they don’t want any Palestinian police there. And the agreement with Israel is that if soldiers come and Palestinian police are where ever the soldiers go, the policeman must turn his back and drop his weapon…My uncle works in the police. He knows when they are about to do terrible things in the camp, but he does nothing. It makes me so angry, but I would never do anything to my uncle. We can’t fight each other. The focus must be on what Israel is doing to us.”
Mohammad and Eyad devote so much of their lives to fighting the occupation that has played such a huge role in their lives. Once again, I’ve come to meet amazing souls borne out of lives of rubble. This is what I’ve found in Al-Amari Refugee Camp. Sure, there are the annoying kids who ask me silly questions. There are the rocket imprints you find on tattered walls. But it is when I step out of my home, and the little boy living around the corner continues to say “Hi!” to me with the most upbeat expression, or when I am treated to free arghilah and juice as a guest of the people, or I see the kids using whatever scraps they can to imitate normal childhood playing, that I feel such an unbelievable warmth and happiness here.