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Caught between stigma and pity, Amaari refugee camp refuses to succumb

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Inside the office of the Palestinian Society for Care and Development in Amaari refugee camp (PSCD), Shaher and Waleed explained the non-profit’s activities to an international delegation as two cats caterwauled outside. Plastic chairs scatter around the empty room while the two men stand in the middle speaking in broken English “we are trying to not be defined by circumstance, and changing the situation for the youth of the camp” said Waleed as he motioned a younger man to get coffee for the visitors.

Waleed and Shaher are both members of the PSCD, a non-profit created in 1998 in response to the cries of the disabled people in Amaari camp. In 2007 UN-OCHA has recorded approximately 215 cases of disabled individuals in Amaari. The main mission of the organization is to assist the disabled, however, the projects of the organization extend to the rest of the youth and women in the camp, providing summer programs and extracurricular activities.

Upon entering the camp you are greeted with a kaleidoscope of faction affiliated flags, and a small coffee shop where most youth, mainly men, hang out during the day and late evenings. On the walls, half ripped posters of martyrs sprawl across the cement coated with graffiti reiterating the right of return or proclamations of political affinity, mostly to Fatah.

Amaari refugee camp, 15 KM north of Jerusalem and one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank, is similar in structure to most Palestinian refugee camps. Usually overcrowded with little facilities to accommodate the residents. In al-Amaari approximately 10,000 people live on 96 dunums of land.

It is within the first few meters at the entrance of the camp that one is afforded the view of open sky, which is obscured as you walk further into the camp. As you get closer to the heart of the camp, you’re bombarded with a claustrophobic image of buildings that seem to have nowhere to go but upwards. On average, the distance of alleyways to get around the camp is 2 meters.

Most residents of refugee camps in the West Bank are portrayed as thugs and trouble seekers by Palestinian society. There is an increased neglect of the dispossessed population, despite the fact that the Palestinian cause is built in their names. “Refugees will be abused and forgotten if they have no influential hand to care for them. We are shunned out because no one powerful speaks for us, and so we’re left on the curb under the mercy of the people. Our people” Shaher explains.

“There is an institutionalized discrimination towards the people of the camp and organizations from the camp, mainly perpetuated by the Palestinian Authority and extended to the rest of Palestinian society” explains Shaher in a weak voice, as though he has reiterated that sentiment one too many times.

Summer camp event hosted by PSCD, 2014, Ramallah West Bank. (Photo: PSCD)
Summer camp event hosted by PSCD, 2014, Ramallah West Bank. (Photo: PSCD)

Palestinian refugees in Palestine find difficulty securing employment and engaging with the rest Palestinian society because of the protruding prejudice towards them. The schism between impoverished refugees and other Palestinians has a lot to do with socio-economic factors. As the prejudice towards refugees is reserved to those that remain in the camps.

“We are looked at as the scary ghetto. To the point where you even have some Palestinians afraid to come into the camp alone,” Shaher bitterly explains. The misguided fear embedded within Palestinian society has resulted in further marginalization of Palestinian refugees exasperating the division between Palestinians. In some Palestinian circles when refugee camps are discussed, the discourse usually incorporates pity or an erroneous portrayal of the camp as a dangerous place. Presented as “the other,” Palestinian refugees forge a different identity which contrasts with the rest of Palestinian population.

Due to the marginalization of the camp and the lack of funding, progress is lagging. Little opportunities are provided for the youth of the camp. Almost 40% of the residents of the camp are between the ages of 0-14, with the average age in the camp being 22 according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. With a youthful population, the camp requires development centers to ensure the nurture and growth of the youth to productive members of their society.

There are only two children and youth centers in the camp provided by the UNRWA, which are meant to serve the estimated 6,200 children and youth.

Most youth and children camps in the West Bank are not offered for free, and the typical monthly pay in Amaari is 1,500 NIS (430 USD) per household. Each household in Amaari carries on average 5-6 people. The rate of household poverty in the camp in 2007 was at 46%.

With such monetary limitations, it is difficult for many families to pursue extracurricular activities for their children, which is why organizations such as PSCD are vital for the improvement of the camp. PSCD provides summer camps for the children and facilities to be used by the women and youth of the refugee camp all year around. As Waleed explains “we want to give our children what we can, but with the increase of marginalization, lack of support and monetary restrictions that process is hindered.”

When asking for funding PSCD and similar organizations are made out to seem like vagrants, “when we want to promote a project it turns to a scenario of beggars at the knees of the sultan.”

After the creation of Israel, Palestinians that were displaced had no representation and no support. Therefore, UNRWA was established after 1948 as to care for the needs of Palestinian refugees. Waleed believes that the PA has used this fact to alleviate itself from the affairs of the camp and its residents. Consequently, the PA rarely interferes in the social issues of the camp, which is not exclusive to Amaari RC, rather extends to other camps in the West Bank.

Even though the organization has helped in supporting disabled individuals in the camp, trying to sustain the non-profit without efficient funding is difficult. “We have broken homes, no infrastructure and lost hope with the Palestinian people here [West Bank] and the institutions that play into the discrimination.” Which forces the organization to depend on international volunteers to carry out its activities. Providing a hostel above the offices of the organization, the PSCD ensures that the volunteers interact with the local community, seeing beyond the narrative of impoverished refugees turned thugs.

Despite absence of funding from the Palestinian Authority, the PSCD depends on external funding from international groups and NGO’s to carry out their activities. However there is a problem with external funders as they often don’t accommodate to the needs of the camp, rather what they as outsiders perceive to be the needs for the camp; “we ask for new jackets during the winter season for our local football team, and they come to us with shoes. We didn’t need shoes, we needed jackets and they come to us without really talking and filling our needs” Shaher remarks sourly.

It is within those two avenues that the camp and organizations such as PSCD remain trapped. The lack of interference of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society’s constant defamation of the camp. Along with this is the support of international organizations which fail to truly assist by listening and meeting the needs of the camp.

An optimistic Waleed refuses to succumb to the obstacles, “We will continue to make what we can with what we have and with the volunteer work we are getting. As long as there are genuine people that are willing to give, we will continue to work.”

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Thanks, Mariam. On my visit to Amaari last year I was struck by how many children are there and how few places there are in the overcrowded conditions for children to play.

Speaking of children, just a short distance south of Amaari is one of two of Banksy’s iconic ‘Girl with Balloons’ on the wall. (The other is near Bethlehem.)

BTW, Mariam, the AP State Dept correspondent Matt Lee, an ally perhaps, was pressing hard at department briefings for info about your captivity.