Going to Shufat refugee camp is like throwing your heart against barbed wire. No matter how many times you go, it never hurts less, and you never grow numb to its piercing pain.

This time around, we had interviews with 16-20 year-old-young men. Most of them have dropped out of high school already and have been working for a while. Moreover, three of them have been to jail already. They described in vivid detail the unbearable cells sinking in urine, the food that’s infested with drugs to get them addicted, and the trials that hurt their pride and mothers. These young men were very aware of their circumstances, and had even less dreams.

They told us that %65 of the young men at the camp are already addicted to drugs, and rehab centers cost more than they could ever afford. One of the guys stretched out both his hands, one weighed down more than the other and said “you have addiction on one hand, and the cost of rehab on the other, clearly addiction is much cheaper, and more enjoyable.” It makes you forget your troubles, they all emphasized. I was translating what they were saying to Tim and had to pause in disbelief multiple times. Drugs in Palestine? A huge taboo like this going unnoticed? Then again, who wants to deal with addiction in a country infested with dividing checkpoints?

I wanted to get up and touch their hands. Touch the hands that touched cell-bars, drugs, the hands of stray refugee children, overflowing garbage containers, goats, the Wall, Israeli soldiers, Israeli goods, you name it, they’ve touched it.

“Do you want to go back to school?” We asked and one of the guys said that he wouldn’t, because he had a teacher in tenth grade who hated him, and would always pick on him in class, so he got sick and tired of it, “after everything I have to go through in the camp and on the checkpoints I have to deal with this asshole?

One of the other guys, who was more articulate all throughout the session, said that he wanted to finish university, and then start his own record label. He was a well-established rapper, and without much pleading he rapped one of his original tracks titled “A New Middle East.” He was so fluent and quick that I had to stop translating, and promise Tim for analysis of the track later.

Our session didn’t last for long. The guys wanted to take Tim to a local wedding, they told me I couldn’t go because it wasn’t a coed wedding, so I had to stay in an office with Sulimah, a young woman who just got her law degree, and was studying to take the Israeli bar exam. Sulimah’s words and thoughts were much wider than Shufat’s horizon, although she could already work as a lawyer in the West Bank, she wanted to study Israeli law to be able to help young Shufat kids who are wrongly accused and unfairly tried. “You are signing yourself up for heartache,” I said. “These kids deserve the best, they are incredibly talented and brilliant. If they were given the chance, they could change the world.”

A couple of the guys we met up with earlier came by and got me sweets and pastries, they kept asking me if I wanted something else because they felt bad I couldn’t go with Tim and have lunch at the wedding. Sulimah made me coffee and we sat to eat and chat. For the first time since I got back from Washington DC, and in that little office hidden between the gray buildings of Shufat, I felt at home.

After gulping down delicious pastries, Tim came back, and along with our guide (the young youth consular) and his brother, we went for a tour in the camp.

Never have I felt so helpless. The streets were incredibly dirty, piles of garbage everywhere, flies so fat they could sit on your shoulder, wires dangling down on alleys crammed with children, nationalistic graffiti drowning the walls in color, and as we walked out into a little bit of light, my eyes were overwhelmed with the massive Israeli settlement that ate up most of the land.

I have never been this close to a settlement, it was sitting comfortably right across the street from us. It was so organized and trimmed. From where we stood I could see a little community park, freshly planted backyards, and a life so much cleaner than the one we were standing in.

In the middle of my long stare, our guides’ phone kept ringing incessantly, when he picked up I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation about a shooting nearby. When he got off the phone he told us that there was a big fight between two families in the camp, and there was shooting involved.

My face dried up. Although I hear shooting in Ramallah a lot, and I have lived through shooting near my house, from my house (from Israeli soldiers who took over our apartment during the invasion of 2002), and at my house, I never got used to it. My heart was trembling at the thought of being near a shooting in a camp so small you could touch the corners of it with one arm stretched out.

As the battle got harsher and louder, our guide took us to a friend’s house. As we walked in, we were shocked by the sight of seven, clearly foreign men and women, resting in the house’s elaborately furnished living room. It took me seconds to register their faces, and this unusual gathering amidst serious shooting. Minutes into the encounter we got the story straight. These tourists were from Italy, France, Spain and the US. They had just finished a course in Economics at a university in Tel-Aviv, and wanted to come for a tour in the West Bank before they depart to their home countries.

According to Josh, the American guy from Philly who was sitting next to me, him and his colleagues were wandering around, and a couple of men from the camp saw them and invited them in for coffee. The hosts filled the coffee table with juice, coffee, tea, and biscuits, and naturally, half way through our visit, they brought out shishas in all different flavors.

It was all too surreal, here we were, smoking shisha in the heart of a sadness stricken camp, and trying to navigate between five different languages. None of the hosts spoke any English, so everyone was asking me to translate bouquets of thanks and appreciation.

As the conversation slowed down, and July’s heat settled over the room, the hosts decided to sing a song to their guests:

“I’ll write your name, my country, on the sun that wouldn’t set. I would give up all my money and my children, for your love, oh, my dear country.”

Ramallah never ceases to amaze me.

A couple of days ago I went to Stars and Bucks, our special version of Starbucks! When the place first opened, we found out that its owner used to be a Starbucks manager in Manhattan. Supposedly, this guy wanted to bring Starbucks to Palestine, but when the company refused to open a branch in a warzone (mind you there used to a starbucks in Israel), our friend got mad and decided to take revenge, in his own Palestinian style!

I have to say, having been to multiple Starbucks coffeeshops in DC and New York, nothing tops our Stars and Bucks. For starters, its a pretty big hangout spot, the menus are shaped like table-tennis rackets, and they serve almost everything. As you flip the pages you are introduced to all kinds of hot and iced drinks, appetizers, hot meals, sandwiches and of course all kinds of desert. One must never forget, to make this place a quality Middle Eastern hangout, you cannot do without the shisha (hookah). It is fine dining indeed.

There is something astonishing about being in a place as alive as Ramallah, it wakes up every morning and continues happening. The streets are constantly spilling cars and vegetable carts, and despite the grimness of the political and economic situation, its always bursting with color.

Being on the other side of the world made me forget people’s uncompromising capacity for familiarity. Just yesterday, I was in a cab going somewhere, and when we got to the traffic light, the driver rolled down his window, and asked a guy in the car right next to us for a cigarette! The other driver, asked no questions, took one out and threw it through the window to him. I could not help but smile.

I think part of me is desperate to remember what I used to love so much about home. Growing up in a place like Palestine scares me. A country as contagious as this is destined to become what you love and hate the most. Its roughness creeps onto your skin and into your heart, and when it settles inside, you are never the same. The other part of myself is longing for Ramallah to love me enough for me to cling to it. I feel like an unwanted child wanting the mother that walked away.

Sometimes I worry that we mistake survival for love, but the kindness of the city’s evening wipes my exhausted forehead, and I think: maybe there are ten different kinds of love, and one of them must be hurtful.

I pray that Ramallah will continue feeding its children freshly backed bread, and choosing chaotic love in a place that thrives on hate.

I’ve been saying that I wanted to keep a blog for a while. Today seemed to be the day to start it.
I have been out all day at Shufat refugee camp, which is four minutes outside of Jerusalem. I went with Tim, a friend of mine, who is writing his masters thesis on the choices young men make about their future in that camp.
On our way there, I kept complaining about the sun and the unbearable heaviness of the desert. The view from my window consisted of yellow hills and heaps of dryness.

Once we were in close range, you could immediately recognize that its a refugee camp. Not only were the streets inhumanely narrow, but since the Israeli government locked it inside of the wall, there was no room for expansion. What did the residents do? Shoot high up. The buildings were expanded upwards with cement rather than concrete, making the floors dangerous and uncomfortable. To be technical, the camp is 1 square kilometer in size and it holds 35,000 people. They are literally stacked on top of each other.

The purpose of our visit was to meet with 10 young men, who were willing to answer Tim’s questions about their daily lives and future. I was hesitant to go along because not only have I heard and lived my share of occupation engrossed stories, but because our society has become so infested with victim hood and our youth have become equipped to walk into a room and narrate breathlessly, how terrible our lives have become as a result of the endless Israeli aggression, and how few choices we have because of the imposed restrictions. Of course we suffer from limitations, but the gravity of the occupation made a lot of people unable to recognize their own fault in their miserable living conditions.

When we walked into the room, the boys looked ready to spill it all out. Its worth mentioning that Shufat is a special refugee camp because although its under Israeli jurisdiction, Jerusalem municipality doesn’t provide any services whatsoever. Talk about state racism.
I couldn’t help but stare at the boys’ faces, I felt so alien from them, their accent and gestures. The way they greeted us made me feel so small, their hands thick with labor but still had enough room for a tender “nice to meet you.” I thought about myself, standing there with a present so much more hopeful than theirs. I thought about how privileged I am to be able to sit in my bed after an exhausting day and read poetry, or day dream, while they played football in a street the size of my corridor.

I wish I could sit here, and transport to all of you all their stories, but there is never enough space. A lot of them dropped out of high school to work as laborers, dishwashers and janitors in Israel, to help their families put food on the table. I tried to imagine them in my head, young men ripe and full of spirit, holding brooms and sweeping buildings that were built on top of a land that was unjustly stolen from them. They were so fearless, most of them haven’t even reached 18 and have already learned the world the hard way. They told us stories about sneaking past the wall to the mountain and flying kites, or dozing off in class.

What scared me the most was not their terrible financial situation, or the inhumane living conditions, but their inability to dream. We asked them what they wanted to be in the future and so many of them said nothing, they just wanted to get by and survive, some of them wanted to become famous football players but you could see it in their eyes: they didn’t believe they could be anything, they didn’t see their value as human beings, they looked down upon themselves. There is no peace agreement that can remedy that.
When they spoke these words I couldn’t breathe, a wave of suffocating sadness settled over my heart. I wanted to stand up and hug them all, I wanted to say even though checkpoints and walls want us to believe that we don’t matter, we do! I wanted to say that just because they exist they matter, that even if they don’t write books or invent things they still fill a significant space in the world, they still deserve to be loved and respected. They still deserve to dream big, massive, ridiculous, colorful dreams that their hearts can hardly contain.
I said absolutely nothing.

When we asked if they would leave the camp, most of them screamed No. “We grew up here.” “People here are a community and they love each other.” One kid even said that if the Israeli army was to attack, he would know where to hide because he knew every nook and cranny of the camp. We said goodbye, and they stormed out to the street. Tim and I gathered up the stuff and barely said a word to each other. One of the older guys, who was a 22-year-old social worker, took us for a short tour around the camp and showed us the old youth center that was destroyed by informers and as a result of bad infrastructure. In one corner of the old center, there was a homemade bong sitting there, it has become a center for drug use.

We left, but half my heart stayed behind in the camp. I want to believe that there is hope, that my country still holds us close and will allow us to survive, that these children will grow up and become magnificent humans, that all our wounds will heal and we will arrive to a day when we can feel sad over ordinary things. Mahmoud Darwish said when the place heals, we will feel its side effects. If the place ever heals, we are more than equipped to handle side effects.

The past months in the US have made me recollect, think about hatred and its awful residue, think about considering the “other” and learning to coexist, but when I saw these kids today, I relearned that so much needs to be done prior to or maybe simultaneously with reexamining the “other .” The biggest atrocity the Israeli government has committed is its creation of a systematic process that makes Palestinians feel so much less human, and so much less significant than Israelis. The first thing that needs to be done is opening people’s eyes to their immense potential, and their ability to build dreams despite the difficulties.

I’m not sure what our future is here, but all I know is, we are so much larger, and grander than mere survival.

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