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.”