Today is Sunday, and classes start tomorrow. We’ve only been here a day, but hey, no pressure.
Project Hope sent me, my flatmates, and three other volunteers to Balata and Askar, two of the refugee camps adjoining Nablus. As the taxi neared Balata, I began preparing myself for — well, I don’t know what I was expecting. Tents? Campfires with families huddled around? Sadness and Ruin, everywhere you look? But no. In reality, Tel Balata looks like a small section of any other crowded city. White skyscrapers are huddled together, lining both sides of a main street where all the street vendors gather.
Not that Balata doesn’t have its differences. It is, after all, a refugee camp. 30,000 people are jam-packed into the one squared kilometer that the camp is allowed to reside on. The people can’t expand horizontally, so they build vertically. The result is a forest of huge, looming skyscrapers, built so close together that you’d have to squeeze to get through the alleys. We were only allowed to wander these alleyways with a guide. To some people here, there is no distinction between foreigners; if you’re not Palestinian, you’re Israeli, and that can cause trouble.
But as we wandered Balata camp, we saw no signs of hostility whatsoever. In fact, we mostly saw children: tons of them, running through the alleys, riding their bikes down the main street, playing soccer in the few open spaces. They ran up to us and yelled in English, “Hi! How are you! What is your name!” I don’t think they could understand a word of our response, but they giggled like mad when they realized they were successful in making themselves understood to foreigners.
At the next camp, Askar, we met the director of an arts center, who invited us in for black ginger tea. After introducing himself and discussing the volunteer projects with us, he steered the conversation towards Palestine. “What do you think of this country?” he asked us.
“It’s nice,” one volunteer said.
“Everyone is so hospitable.”
He listened and nodded. Then he leaned back into his chair and said, “I don’t like it here. I don’t like the situation. But I don’t want to leave. Palestine is mine but it’s not mine. We have this land, but we don’t have Gaza, we don’t have Haifa or Jerusalem, we don’t have freedom. We have to claim it, even if we don’t really have it.”
He told us then of some of the horrors happening in Gaza. One man was found stumbling in the streets with a bag full of meat. It was his son. He had been “shredded” by a brand new type of Israeli missile. They pack tiny shards of metal tight around an explosive and send it over into overcrowded Gaza. When it hits, the missile explodes and the fragments rip through the flesh of anyone within an 80 m radius. I’ve heard kinder descriptions of hell. I don’t think anything I ever read in a book will measure up to the atrocities committed by really human beings.
The rest of the evening was much lighter. We did a little shopping for dinner: three huge eggplants for one shekel, mangoes for two, tomatoes and mint and onions for four. That’s, like, two and a half US dollars in total. The broke college student in me almost cried.
With these ingredients, we made a really delicious pasta with some fruit on the side, and three English teachers from Project Hope joined us for dinner. One is from Toronto, the other Montreal, and the last is from London. That makes three Canadians so far, one Londoner, one Italian, and me. More volunteers are set to arrive tomorrow.