Yafa Cultural Center is one of the few places left for Palestinian children from Balata refugee camp to cope with the violence they witness on a daily basis. With funding running low, the center is at risk of closing.
When the door opens, I am surprised to see a six or seven-year-old boy on the other side. “Can I sign up for karate classes, uncle?”
“Yes, come on Saturday, there will be an instructor,” answers Ibrahim Jammal. The boy asks if he needs to bring anything. “As always, habibi, you don’t need to bring a thing.”
Although he tries to appear optimistic, my meeting with with Jammal, 34, one of the main organizers at the Yafa Cultural Center at Balata refugee camp near Nablus, takes place at a difficult moment.
The community center, one of the largest in the camp, is under threat of closing. At its peak, it served as a home for over a thousand children and teenagers, providing them with a range of activities and programs. With the start of the new year, the number of workers decreased from 25 to 17. By May, when the center’s main source of funding is expected to cut off, the number might fall to eight. All the employees are Balata residents. The center is planning on maintaining a small number of staff members to operate Yafa’s mental health unit.
Yafa Cultural Center was established by a number of local organizers in 1996 as part of a local initiative Jammal said was meant to “protect the right of return.” Funding comes primarily from a German political foundation, the Danish parliament, and the European Union.
Now the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), which supports international development and education initiatives, has announced it can no longer support the center. Its bylaws, subject to German law, prevent it from supporting any project for more than nine years.
“Once we were able to organize at least seven summer camps a year,” Jammal says. “Last summer we only had three. I can only accept 300 children from the camp. Our door is always open, but I can’t expect employees to come to work if we cannot pay them.”
Hana is one of those employees. She lives in the camp with her older sister, who suffers from an eye disease, and her husband, who hasn’t been able to work ever since he suffered a stroke 13 years ago. The two of them have five children, the eldest of whom graduated high school with honors and began studying at Ibn Sina College in Nablus. Hana adopted her sister’s family, after the latter was unable to provide for herself. Even though she no longer receives a salary from Yafa, she continues to come to the center every day. “All the other centers in the camp, such as the women’s center or the physical disabilities center, are closed. But I keep coming because it is important for me to show that Yafa will always remain open.”
“Sorry about the question,” I say to both of them after Hana joins us, “but what’s the average salary here?”
“Our manager makes 4,500 NIS a month ($1,200),” Jamal answers. “You do the math.”
“1,500 shekels,” Hana says with a pained look on her face. She says it will embarrass her if I write her real name, preferring I use a pseudonym. I answer that everyone in the camp will know who is behind the name regardless. “So what?” she responds, “after all, there are lots of people like me in the camp, so we all know about each other. Those outside the camp won’t know.”
Embarrassed, I ask Hana how she is still able to support her sister’s family. “I borrow money and receive help from the community,” she answers.
This is not the first time I meet Hana and Jammal. The two previously helped me when I filmed a movie in Balata. Jammal, despite his life story, is upbeat. Hana used to be much happier; today I can hardly recognize any joy in her.
She leaves the room and goes upstairs to the main hall, where a group of children are waiting for their dabke rehearsals. If things are this bad for employees, I say to myself, imagine how bad it will be for children who have nowhere to go after school or any way to escape their crowded homes.
With close to 30,000 residents, Balata refugee camp, located next to Nablus and Askar refugee camp, is the largest and most densely-populated refugee camp in the West Bank. Many of the residents are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war, most of them from Jaffa, Ramle, and Lyd (“Lod” in Hebrew).
The camp was established in 1950 by UNRWA, the UN Agency that provides aid and relief to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, and is regarded as one of the bastions of Palestinian resistance. According to both Yafa Cultural Center and the Palestinian Health Ministry, over 200 residents of Balata have been killed by Israeli forces. In the past, the camp was identified with the Fatah party; today many speak about independent, non-party affiliated resistance fighters as well as armed gangs trying to take over the camp.
“I was 11 when the center was established. Today, those who founded it are either in Israeli prison or dead,” says Jamal, mentioning Nasser Awis, a resident of the camp who was sentenced to 14 successive life sentences in 2003 for leading the Tanzim militia in Balata during the Second Intifada.
“It’s important to state that today our goals are very different,” Jamal continues. “Even then we built the center so that kids could have a place to be, but today our goal is cultural resistance to the occupation and to provide community services to the camp. We don’t want the children of the camp to go through what we went through with the army, or to wander aimlessly outside.”
Jammal’s father is originally from the Haifa area, while his mother is from Tantura, a Palestinian village that was destroyed during the Nakba. “At five, during the First Intifada, I remember the army entering our home and beating my mother in front of me because she protected my brother or other children in the camp,” he says. “My brother was shot in the head during the First Intifada, while my other brother suffers from nerve damage because the army fired gas at him and his friends during a soccer game. After he got married, he was also hit by a shell, during the Second Intifada.
“I was also wounded, during the Second Intifada. I was 16 and the army invaded the camp after the explosion in Netanya [the Park Hotel suicide bombing – R.Y.], even though those who carried out the operation weren’t even from the camp. There was a group of children who threw stones at a tank from a distance. One of the [tanks] fired a shell toward me. I stood next to three other children; two of us were killed and two others were wounded. I was in the intensive care unit for two weeks.”
One of the children killed was a good friend of Jammal’s brother, a moment that pushed him to join one of the armed groups in the camp. In 2004, the brother was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jammal painfully describes how his brother could not attend their father’s funeral after he passed away in 2006.
I climb to the roof to see Balata from above. There I meet Adrian and Frida, two social work students from Lillehammer University in Norway, who are volunteering in the camp.
“We wanted to come to the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, it doesn’t worry me that there is trouble with the army sometimes,” says Adrian. “When you hear the army shooting in the camp, you understand the term ‘justified aggression.’ After all, it’s human nature to resist occupation. I am here to witness it. To try and help those who are discriminated against here.”
Adrian and Frida are hoping to work with children, as well as form a women’s discussion group. I ask them if there is something particular that characterizes the camp’s children. “Violence!” they both say in unison. “There is a normalized violence here that I have never witnessed,” says Frida. “It’s sad. It’s painful to see children play with each other violently in the camp, even if we understand why they act this way.”
The conversation shifts toward the causes of said violence: the constant tension of the army’s presence, the poverty and the crowdedness of the camp. Behavior patterns at all ages turn violent, particularly among children, they say. Even when they play with each other.
From the roof I gaze at the UNRWA-run school, adjacent to Yafa Cultural Center. Because of the recent cuts in U.S. aid to agency, classes have been combined and half the staff has been laid off. Today, every class has between 50-60 students for every teacher packed into small classrooms.
The children start their dabke lesson along with their instructor, Abu al-Ruz. After they finish dancing, I ask the children where they are from. “Yafa!” the majority answer. When I ask where the rest are from, they say “Lyd.”
Abu al-Ruz is like a second father to them. Despite what Adrian and Frida say, it seems the children get along quite well. “That’s the effect the center has,” Jammal explains.
Rami Ja’arim, 33, manages the center’s mental health unit, which comprises eight instructors and social workers. There are no doctors or psychologists. The unit is mainly active through school programs funded by European governmental organizations through the EU. Because the unit’s financial support is separate from the rest of the center, it is not in current danger of shutting down.
“Like in every camp, we have our fair share of problems. But because we are the largest camp in the West Bank, we have problems that are unique to us,” Ja’arim says. “Lately we have been having problems between armed fighters and PA forces in the camp. Of course, the blame is primarily on the occupation — if young people here weren’t unemployed they wouldn’t be acting like members of a gang.”
“We have experts on learning problems in our unit, we have a speech expert and social workers. There is not a single child in the camp who doesn’t suffer from psychological issues. Not one. Violence is the symptom. Many children wet the bed or are in a perpetual state of anxiety — these are the most common cases. After all, if adults in the camp have psychological problems, you think children will have it easier?”
Ja’arim says that girls are far morel likely to come in for treatment than boys. “That’s a good thing, right?” I ask.
“No, he answers, “it is impossible to hide anything in the camp due to the lack of privacy. We see boys who are able to channel their energies into playing games, even if violently, on the street. There are no playgrounds, and aside from the cultural center they have nowhere to go. So where will the girls go? The fact that they are here with us is a sign of the immense hardship they go through — they really have nowhere to go.”
“We have dozens of young people who go to the checkpoint to attack soldiers when what they really want is to either commit suicide or because they want to go to prison. I have seen a few who have told me they prefer prison to living in the camp.”
After my meeting with Ja’arim, Jammal and I continued for a short tour of the camp. As opposed to nearby Askar refugee camp, in Balata one can constantly feel the tension in the air. The children are all in the streets. We pass a group of children and one of them throws a stone that hits me in the shoulder.
My instinct is to become angry, but after I turn around and see the children laughing, I realize that I caught a glimpse into what Ja’arim, Adrian, and Frida spoke of: it was only a children’s game, albeit a violent and unpleasant one. Jammal smiles at me, embarrassed, telling me his vision for the children of the camp.
“I lived here during the Second Intifada. People my age went through trauma that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. I don’t want the thousands of children in the camp to go through that. We want to dream of a different reality for our children, so that it is a place they can live safely. In the end, and despite it all, we believe in the right of return, and educate them about return. But today we also explain to them that we want to live in peace. Even with Israelis. We are willing to put everything behind us.”
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.