Tuesday, November 24, 2020

From Aida to Shoufat, Part 4

By Ruairi Henchy - May 23, 2015
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Shuafat refugee camp] [refugees] [Qalandiya checkpoint]

This is the fourth and last segment in a series of articles to be published by the Palestine Monitor focused on the plight of Palestinian refugees throughout occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our correspondent, Ruairi Henchy, visited a handful of camps in order to give voice to their grievances and to highlight the distinctly unique character of each camp. To read the first three segments in the series, click here, here and here.

Even in the maze of different bureaucratic jurisdictions, walls and settlements around Occupied Jerusalem, Shoufat refugee camp is a unique - and shocking - place.

As Hanan el-Kak put it to me in the Shoufat Children’s Center, “If I want to go to Jordan it takes one hour. But from here to al-Ram [a village directly east of Shoufat on the far side of the separation barrier] it takes maybe three hours.”

As a foreigner, walking through Occupied Jerusalem, you sense an air of curiosity from residents that you don’t experience elsewhere in the West Bank or Israel, particularly around the Old City and the east of Jerusalem. These predominantly Palestinian neighbourhoods are slowly being settled by Jewish Israelis in a process referred to as the Judaization of Jerusalem.

On the main road in Shoufat village I met three young girls wearing the conspicuously Palestinian veils and after they confirmed that I was sure I wanted to go to the refugee camp, they pointed out which turns to take and wished me luck.

I followed their directions through a narrow underpass which slipped beneath an Israeli motorway. As I made my way downhill, a mass of buildings came into view with the ubiquitous black water tanks of Palestinian residential areas. But when I saw the separation wall in front of me I turned back to look for directions thinking I had come too far.

I asked some locals where the camp was, but they were all non-responsive, smiling uneasily before shaking their heads. Eventually I came upon a taxi driver -  eager for a fare, but when I asked him to bring me to the camp, he sighed that it was too dangerous. “The Israelis watch everyone who goes in and out,” he said.

After explaining that I had organised to meet someone in the camp’s children’s center, he made a phone call and agreed to bring me to camp’s entrance in another, unmarked car, without taxi plates. When we pulled up, he explained to me that the camp was in fact completely encircled with the separation wall and showed me which route to take to enter on foot. All the time the taxi driver seemed unduly tense. He struck me as someone who felt he was being watched.

I took off quickly along a fenced-off corridor leading to the pedestrian entrance to the camp. As I pushed through the metal turnstile, a group of bemused Israeli soldiers shouted at me in Hebrew. I kept my head down and approached a group of kids sitting outside a shop front at the first street corner in the camp. I asked them if they knew where the children’s center was but they were unusually evasive and kept asking me where I was from and if I spoke Hebrew.

After speaking with a few older resident of the camp outside shops nearby the entrance, they eventually warmed to me and accompanied me on the five minute walk to the children’s center where I’d arranged to meet Khalid al-Sheikh.

The squalor in the camp shocked me. In piles against the separation wall and down neglected back alleys, heaps of rubbish smouldered against blackened concrete. The rattle of drills from makeshift construction sites buzzed all around and the streets were dishevelled and torn up. 'Ghetto’ was the word that played over in my head as I took it all in.

The children in the center were playing away however, seemingly without a care in the world when I met Khalid al-Sheikh in his office. He explained to me that despite being part of the Jerusalem municipality and de facto part of the State of Israel, Shoufat camp doesn’t receive civic services.

The residents pay municipal taxes to Israel, but are forced to connect to the water and electricity without oversight. The lack of basic services in the camp, combined with the fact that Palestinian Authority personnel have no jurisdiction over the camp, means that the residents have to self-organise when it comes to fires, crime, waste management, and other civil services.

This renders Shoufat a kind of no-man’s land of around 20,000 people. This is immediately obvious from the burning rubbish, which Khalid claims is leading to increased instances of skin and lung conditions among camp residents, particularly young children.

I first sat down with Ola Golani, who told me that although she and her husband were born and raised in the camp, they now also live in Kufr Aqab, on the side of the separation wall governed by the Palestinian Authority, between Qalandia and Ramallah. “My children go to college in the West Bank, so we don’t have to come through the checkpoints from Jerusalem,” she explained.

Though the two places are divided by Israel’s separation wall, Kufr Aqab is contiguous to Jerusalem city, and is still part of the Jerusalem municipality. Accordingly, it is the only place on earth where Ola can live without either having to renounce her Jerusalem permanent residency status or face having her children endure the daily humiliation and hours long delays of going through Israeli checkpoints to access services in the West Bank.

Living in Shoufat full-time became untenable for Ola when three of her children started attending university in Nablus, Ramallah and Birzeit respectively. “My family still lives in Shoufat, my sisters and brothers… [And] My youngest son is still going to school in Shoufat camp,” she said, explaining that many others in the camp have been goose stepped into the same fate of leading their old life inside the wall and being forced to start a new one outside.

Ola’s family are refugees from the Old City of Jerusalem just a few miles away, having been driven out in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. She feels as though the family is slowly being pushed further away. “The Future is not clear. At any time the Israelis could remove us from Jerusalem,” she told the Palestine Monitor.

Muhammad Mughrabi, aged 27 recently started working full time at the children’s center, having previously been a volunteer. A rapper, filmmaker and capoeira enthusiast, Muhammad teaches music to the kids as well as engaging them in film projects.

Muhammad is clearly popular with the children, who constantly interrupt to get a high-fives from him. “When you see the participants, how they develop, it gives you hope. I need hope also,” he said, adding with a smile, “If I see hope in the new generation it gives me energy to do more stuff.”

When I asked Muhammad about growing up in Shoufat camp, he painted a bleak picture. “Ever since I walked in the streets when I was very little, maybe at age five or six, I realised that it’s really bad here because it looks bad and it feels bad,” he said.

He described himself as a “spoiled kid” because he didn’t attend the camp’s UN-run school, initially going to private school in West Jerusalem, then from the 5th grade on walking every day to the nearby school in Shoufat village.

For Shoufat camp’s “spoiled kids” this meant going through the checkpoint at the camp entrance every day for the Israeli soldiers to inspect him. “I was so scared actually,” he said, “to see soldiers with the guns, they look scary, even kids had to show their birth certificates every time and if you don’t have it they send you back. It’s messed up man.”

“I was passing every day through the checkpoint and I’ve seen the development of it, how it was growing day after day,” he said, explaining how the camp was once an open area like anywhere else in Jerusalem.

“There were no checkpoints, there was no Qalandia [checkpoint], there was only one checkpoint that I knew of at that time, and it was Erez in Gaza,” Muhammad said enthusiastically recounting how his father used to bring him to the beach in Gaza.

The Israelis and the Palestinian Authority alike have washed their hands of Shoufat camp, leading to a spiral of decline in the social fabric. “It’s always been one of the main sources of drugs in Jerusalem, maybe the main source, because there are no authorities,” Muhammad said.

“My generation, maybe we had a chance to see hope, but I don’t think that there’s any kind of hope in the younger generation’s vision for the future. We see this very clearly through our work,” Muhammad detailed. “I’m having this film project with the children from the local schools in the refugee camp, boys and girls. Ninety percent describe the refugee camp as a prison and they don’t see anything positive about it,” he said.

“We try to give them hope and to show them that violence is not the way to get your rights and needs.  We teach them that arts and non-violent resistance is the only way to achieve your goals,” he explained, saying that he still draws hope from his own experience, finding art as a means of expression. “I want to escape from this reality and music is my happiness. Music changed me, I believe it can change anyone.” 


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