Thursday, December 03, 2020

“We are our own country”: Daily life in Balata refugee camp

By F.T Hupsel - July 16, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [refugee camps]

Early afternoon, as the sun shines on top of the narrow alley streets, children play football and smile loudly. There seems to be no concern on their minds -  but the bullet holes on the walls and martyrs pictures hanging all around them tell a different story. This is life in Balata Refugee Camp.

The camp was founded in 1950 by the United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, two years after the Nakba, or catastrophe, in response to the birth of the state of Israel and the creation of the refugee crisis that saw 750,000 Palestinians exiled from their homes.



Originally designed to provide temporary housing for 5,000 refugees in a 0.1 square miles, today it is home to 31,000 inhabitants, making it the largest refugee camp by population density in the West Bank, located near the city of Nablus. 

With its ever-increasing population, Balata’s physical space has not expanded in proportion to its population growth. Overcrowding and poor infrastructure are widely present; many streets have become narrow alleys with barely enough space for people to walk around. 

Health care, education and security among other public services are also critically insufficient.



Fighting back

Despite the major challenges facing residents, Balata camp is known for its strong civil society. 

During the both Intifadas, Balata was considered a centre of resistance. Many leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militia directly linked to the Fatah political party, operated from the camp.

According to an Electronic Intifada report, more than 12,000 Balata residents were imprisoned by Israel, with 400 still incarcerated. Many among them have been sentenced to 100 years or more in jail.

Also, with the Palestinian Fatah faction split by rivalries, conflicts between Palestinian security forces and armed groups have become more common inside the camp. 


Children reunited for the national interactive event at the Awda school summer camp in Balata.


Israeli and Palestinian forces often raid the camp, looking for wanted suspects and illegal weapons. The sound of gunfire can regularly be heard into the night and early morning, when raids are usually carried out.

A young man told Palestine Monitor under anonymity, that by suffering pressure from both sides, it’s hard to have any kind of hope.

“There is a statement that is famous here in Balata, that says that we are our own country, in this life, just feels like everyone is against us,” he said.

“This is how our community survives, we fight back because without resistance or having those guns here, they would do whatever they wanted to us,” he added, hiding a grim smile that depicted a mixture of pride and frustration.


Marks of their daily struggle, bullet holes on walls is commonly seen around the camp.


Balata refugee camp has developed a long-lasting sense of neglect between residents, who claim that the PA has abandoned their responsibilities towards them.

In 2015, Palestinian security forces spokesperson, General al-Damiri, told Middle East Eye that “the problems in Balata camp are UNRWA’s responsibility. The camp is under the jurisdiction of UNRWA, it’s not under the law of the municipality.”




Children of hope

The youth of the camp have been deeply affected by the camps history and current living conditions. Approximately 40 per cent of the camp’s residents are children under 15 years of age, UNRWA report.

The children’s exposure to violence and lack of opportunities reflects on every aspect of their development. 


UNRWA runs two girls’ schools and two boys’ schools in Balata camp, serving a total of 2,500 students.




Because of the recent cuts in U.S. aid to UNRWA, classes have been forced to condense and half the staff have been dispensed. Today, every class has a minimum of 50 students for one teacher, packed into small classrooms. 

The Director of the Awda, one of UNRWA boy schools in Balata, Omar Mahmoud Nasrallah, told Palestine Monitor that due to the current situation, often three students have to share a desk and studying materials.  

“We try our best, they need this, the camp needs this but it’s a lot of pressure, for the students and the teachers. It’s very hard to keep the children determined and focused,” Nasrallah said. 

During the summer school break, they hold the summer camps to keep the children active and busy. They also hold national interactive day events, when inspiring Palestinian visitors to come to promote joy and hope to the kids.


Mahmoud Abu Warda, a successful footballer in Palestine originally from Nablus, takes photos with the children in one of the national interactive events.




Besides the UNRWA schools, Yafa Cultural Centre is one of the few places left for Palestinian children from Balata refugee camp to cope with the violence and hardships they witness on a daily basis. 

Yafa employee and Balata lifelong resident, Maryam Mustafa, told Palestine Monitor that the community centre provides activities for around 1,000 children in the camp. 

The centre was established in 1996 by an initiative by the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights to empower and assist the younger generations of the camp.

They provide the children with a cultural escape, a place for social activities where they offer classes in choir singing, instrumental programs, scout, traditional dance, theatre, arts, animation, recycling, creative writing, math, English and several others fields.

“All the kids are between 5-17 years-old. To participate, they just need to come, see which activities they would like to be in and follow the schedule. There are hundreds of participants for every activity,” Mustafa said.


Balata child poses in front of the bullet-marked wall.




Another crucial function of the centre is the Yafa’s mental health unit, where they offer psycho-social counselling for children who have developed chronic and deeper psychological problems.

“Many of the children here have suffered a lot and witnessed things they shouldn’t have, it’s very hard for them and sometimes they cannot cope with it as they develop traumas and daily anxieties,” Mustafa said. Now, their future is uncertain as the centre is at risk of closing.

The German Corporation for International Cooperation, GIZ, which has been funding Yafa has announced it can no longer support the centre. It’s prevented by German law to support any project for more than nine years.

Maryam said they are looking for potential future donors but without much hope, and that they will at least try to maintain the Yafa’s mental health unit. Otherwise, Maryam explained, the children won’t be able to find help anywhere else.


Children wait and play at the entrance of Yafa Cultural Center.

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