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Living in Limbo

In Palestine’s refugee camps, families hang on for their children’s future

by Diane Handal

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“I want my children to live in peace, to get what they want, to practice their rights, to have a stable life, to do whatever they want and to have the opportunity to do it,” says 43- year-old Nidal Al-Azzeh, a resident of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Aida is one of 58 such camps in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria housing Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), worldwide there are more than four million refugees registered with the United Nations, one third of whom live in these camps. Built in 1950, Aida is currently home to more than 4,700 refugees.

At the camp’s entrance stands a massive steel gate designed to look like a keyhole. A 33-foot- long steel key is mounted on top of the gate. On the key, the words “Not for Sale” in English and Arabic have been painted in red. For the refugees, the key has deep meaning. When families fled their homes in 1948, most locked their doors and took their keys with them, believing they would return to their homes days or weeks later. They could not fathom that they, much less their children and grandchildren, would spend the rest of their lives as refugees.

The camp itself is little more than a cramped cluster of cinder-block houses with few windows. The grounds lack proper streets; narrow alleyways weave the complex together. Graffiti adorn the concrete walls and wires hover above the ramshackle structures. No greenery of any sort — no trees, grass or flowers — seems to grow in the camp. Without yards, patios or playgrounds, children play in the alleys, amid cracked cement, potholes and garbage.

Mr. Al-Azzeh, his wife, Afaf, and four children — boys Miras and Rowayd, and girls Layan 
and Athal — live in one of the camp’s gray structures. A slight man with a dark mustache and graying temples, Mr. Al-Azzeh is no stranger to the psychological trauma characteristic of life in the occupied West Bank.

As a teenager, he spent a total of four years in an Israeli prison. In 1983, at the age of 14, Israeli authorities arrested him and five friends for waving a flag at a demonstration. He was sentenced to and served two years behind bars. Then in 1987, during the first intifada, Israeli soldiers stopped him on his way home from school. They found his name on a list and sent him back to prison.

Upon release, Mr. Al-Azzeh returned to high school on his father’s insistence. Older than the other students, he graduated at the age of 21. He went on to study law at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Shortly after, the Open Society Institute awarded him a scholarship to Columbia University Law School in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in 2006. He now teaches international human rights law at his alma mater.

For Mr. Al-Azzeh, life as a refugee is degrading. “We are dependent on international agencies, and while we need this, it’s not a solution for life. It may solve temporary problems but it doesn’t give the refugee a feeling of equality to others.”

Despite his and his wife’s loving attention, they have been unable to insulate their children from the hardships of life in the camp.

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Tags: Children Palestine Poor/Poverty Refugee Camps Occupation