Children of Catastrophe cover art
A review of Children of Catastrophe: Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America by Jamal Krayem Kanj.
Children of Catastrophe is an autobiographical story by Jamal Kanj, a descendant of Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes in 1948. In 1958, Jamal came into the world in the refugee camp Nahr el Bared in Northern Lebanon. He was his parents’ first child to be born in a room instead of a tent like his older siblings. The story tells of the crude structures that gradually replaced the tents.
Although Jamal came into the world with what we might perceive as the bare minimum, a refugee in a country that did not want his kind, in anything but a stable political environment, throughout his life he had the love and encouragement of an unshakeable family that would do anything for each other. Despite the overwhelming hardships, incredibly his family persevered as a unit under seemingly insurmountable conditions. They faced everything as a solid unit that could not be broken, through thick and thin, his family lived for each other.
Jamal Kanj is an engineer and his style of writing is almost clinical. He is very clear, direct and precise. Reading Children of Catastrophe I experienced what Zionism meant to Jamal and his people, the Palestinians. How one people’s dream became another people’s nightmare.
So often we only think of our own dreams and desires and not how what we want affects others. As a Jewish American, I was taught that after the Holocaust, the Jews found a “land without a people for a people without a land” and made the desert bloom. When I first went to Israel, an Israeli told me that there were 21 Arab countries and the Palestinians needed to choose one as they didn’t want them in Israel. I had no idea who he was talking about. I thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli and referred to the Jews who were in Israel before 1948. I thought it was like Persian and Iranian. How would I know otherwise when I was indoctrinated that we Jews found a land without a people? All we learned was how Israel was the safe-haven for Jews. We never understood what Zionism meant to the Palestinians. Our entitlement to the land was inculcated into our heads because of the Holocaust even though Palestinians weren’t responsible for the Holocaust.
As I read his book, I was stung by how people can be so cruel and amazed how resourceful children can be. Here in the US where drinking and drugs are prevalent in our society among our youth, Jamal and his friends were fighting to survive. There was no sense of entitlement or laziness that we experience in the US among many of our youth. Instead I could see the deep desire to improve not only one’s own life, but the lives of one’s family members as well.
I stand in awe of the distance Jamal had to traverse as a refugee to make a new life in America becoming a registered professional engineer in California with graduate and post graduate degrees in civil engineering, management and executive leadership.
In the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el Bared, the brutal environment motivated parents to stress the power of education to excel and succeed in life. With the divorce rate said to be about 50% in our American culture of instant satisfaction, people jump ship when things get difficult. I doubt many couples would remain together when faced with the hardships that Jamal’s parents faced.
As an American, it’s important to read Jamal Kanj’s story, not just because he is a Palestinian, but a Muslim. With the prevalent Islamophobia in America, it’s vital we not focus on the extremes in any one culture, for we find these cases in every religion and culture. It is more important to see how Muslims face injustice and overcome adversity.
Unfortunately too often instead of celebrating differences and working together to advance humanity, we focus on our differences and destroy opportunities. At the end of the day, we all belong to the human race. We all want the same things for our children: a safe environment, a place to call home with a roof over our heads, education, freedom, love, happiness, a future, a world in which our children’s worth isn’t judged on their religion, race, color of skin or any other dividing factor, and their basic needs are met. Children of Catastrophe should be required reading for all and I hope one day Kanj’s book will become a movie so that people can see what it was like to be a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.
We need to hear these stories because awareness leads to understanding and understanding leads to change. By reading Jamal Kanj’s story, we become aware of ourselves as human beings and the horrors we create for others. We cannot afford to be ignorant to the truth, holding onto fallacies. In the words of Stephen Hawking, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” Through awareness we can put an end to these great injustices committed against the Palestinians. No one lives in peace when we condemn others to misery.
(Michelle Cohen Corasanti is the author of The Almond Tree)