It’s night time, and Jalazone Camp is slowly going to sleep. Sitting on a roof at the top of the hill overlooking the camp, I look out on the buildings below as they turn off their lights, one by one. While I can only make out dim outlines of buildings, I can hear life in Jalazone continuing in the dark by the sounds that punctuate the silence. Behind me, sheep and goats bleat as their owner herds them into their stalls for the night and clangs the doors shut. Off to the right, some of the older men from Jalazone sit around the entrance to a store and converse in low monotones. Down the hill, pots and pans clatter as a woman cleans up from dinner, and across the road, it sounds like there are some children that aren’t thrilled with the prospect of bedtime. In one of the more affluent houses on the edge of the camp, someone is revving a small motor in his garage workshop. Now and again some of the dogs from across the camp converse with each other. A minute or two later, a few more dogs join in. If tonight is anything like last night, the cacophony of canine voices is going to make sleep hard to find. Doors slam, cars rattle down the gravel roads, and voices carry.
While Jalzone may be still, it is not at peace.
Jalazone is a refugee camp in the West Bank, established in 1949 for Palestinian refugees who fled their homes following the creation of Israel and subsequent war in 1948. There are over 19 refugee camps in the West Bank, built by UNRWA, that today house over 119,000. (Worldwide, the UN recognizes around 4.6 million Palestinian refugees.) For the most part, these camps are far worse off than the surrounding Palestinian villages in the West Bank; they are poorer, more cramped, less educated, have higher rates of unemployment, and perhaps worst of all, are socially isolated from their neighbors. According to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Jalazone’s affairs are administered by the Palestinian Authority, but its security falls under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Defense Forces. After 62 years in Jalazone, the residents continue to consider themselves refugees, waiting for the day when they will be able to return to their family homes on land now held by Israel. In the absence of any near-term solution to this refugee problem, however, residents of Jalazone have built their town knowing that they will likely live in it for a long time.
I arrived in the region four days ago, exhausted and bleary eyed after an overnight flight to Tel Aviv that went via Moscow. I managed, with a bit of difficulty, to make it into Israel after a long… discussion with the border guards, and I met one of my supervisors at the airport. We hopped a taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where I caught a few glimpses of the city before hopping another taxi to Ramallah. A small city of only 25,000 Ramllah is the major cultural, financial, and social hub of the West Bank, and luckily, it is quite close to Jalazone. A taxi ride later, we found ourselves in Jalazone, where we were kindly greeted by our hosts at the community center and were able to move into our apartment.
Now, four days later, I feel settled. I’ve been joined by the three other student volunteers from Inspire Dreams, and we’ve spent our days walking around the camp, getting to know the locals, buying food for ourselves and not getting ripped off, and stopping to talk to the children on nearly every corner.
Most people here have been very welcoming to us so far. Of course, the men are a bit more discreet with their nods and winks, while the children are a lot more outgoing, but I’d hate to stereotype or generalize. So far, in my short time here, it seems [unsurprisingly] that people here are just like people anywhere else. Some of them seem thrilled to have us, some of them not less so. I’ve encountered nice people and rude people, some outgoing, and some shy. Some people here are rich, some people are poor. Some are educated, some are not. Some people go to prayer five times a day, some people drink beer on weekends. Some people, I think, do both. About 12,000 people live here in the camp, and I feel that there’s a good diversity among them. Hopefully, I’ll get to know a lot of them over the summer, and in doing so, get a better picture of the character of the camp.
For now, I’ll leave you with a few random first impressions of the camp.
- Felafel sandwiches are only 2 shekels. (45 US cents)
- There are a lot of twenty year old mercedes here, but there are also one or two brand new mercedes. I don’t understand.
- There are a lot of hair salons for men. I think later in the summer I’ll do a count of hair salons (spelled ‘saloon’ here) and calculate how many there are per capita. There are a lot.
- A lot of people I’ve met here don’t like the U.N. I am surprised.
- A lot of people I’ve met here don’t like Barak Obama. From what I hear, most don’t. I am surprised.
- Some of our hosts jokingly harassed us today for having a bottle of juice with Hebrew writing on it (meaning it was an Israeli product). We bought it in the camp though, so we asked them why people sold it in stores there. “Because there are some people who buy it,” was they’re response. Hmm..
- People often ask me my religion, and when I tell them Christian, they smile and say something like “It is okay. We have no problem between us.” Good to hear!
- The food here is fantastic.
- We haven’t been ripped off too much while shopping. Despite what Lonely Planet would have you believe, most people have been pretty fair to us. (With the exception of one egregious case where the shop owner told us the price of our goods without even looking in the bags to see what was in them.)
- The kids here (and the adults) feel pretty strongly about football. Today, some kids asked me what my favorite football team was, and I told them Barcelona, since I here that the reigning cup champion is usually the favorite around here. Later in the day, we ran across the same group of kids, and a little girl smiled and giggled and told me she wouldn’t talk to me because I liked Barcelona and she was a fan of Manchester United.
- People have been very kind in putting up with my sad attempts at Arabic. When I try speaking to people, I really do sound like a cross between a three year old and a Shakespearean performer, but people are very polite about it and together we’re able to accomplish what needs to get done. (“In truth good sir, have you… bottle.. water? Please? I… have… no no. I … need. it. Please.”) It seems like people appreciate the attempts. Also, our native speaking volunteers have been really helpful to us American volunteers in explaining, translating and teaching. Thanks girls!
In the coming week, we will be going more deeply into our work, planning our programs and getting to know the kids of the camp better. As I do some more interesting things, I’ll be sure to post some more stories and pictures that are more specific, less rambling, and hopefully interesting too.
Oh. There are some dogs down below. And some people. Calling their friends over. What is this building I’m up on? Is it okay to be on? I’d better climb down.