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This is Jabalia refugee camp

This is Jabalia refugee camp.

by Samah Saleh

Yes, I am proud to say I live in this tiny space. Though tiny, Jabalia is the largest of the Gaza Strip’s eight refugee camps and its 1.4 square kilometers are populated by roughly 108 thousand people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in Gaza and the world.

It is another typical day; walking for about four minutes to get a taxi to Jala’a then to the university. Narrow alleys and pathways, some less than one meter wide, run between the shelters making my walk between the densely-packed homes somewhat interesting. It starts with a two-meter wide alley then turns to the left, right, left and finally right where I get to choose between a one or a three-meter wide alleys to reach the street!

I guarantee you that I, like any other Jabalian resident, am an expert in those pathways! No wonder. As a child, playing hide and seek, unintentionally you memorize them, after all, these alleys are the only playground you will ever know !, and with no one day passing without mom saying: ” on your way home from school, use the alleys and stay away from cars ”, you, being a good child admiring mom, come up with your own road map to home sweet home, brilliant genius you are! Moreover, when it rains while you are walking with your little sister and no umbrella, knowing these alleys flashes to you the spots to use as a shelter, the little ones count on you. Oh, memories!

My walk has more to tell about Jabalia. I go on walking for two more minutes. As always, keeping myself busy, I practice the strange habit of reading everything that’s written on walls! Yup, you heard me ! The camp has no blank walls; walls speak for themselves and for the people. Being stuffed with all kinds of meanings and attitudes and continuously changing, you sense the people’s tendency to share; joy, grieve, sympathy, anger, resistance and even promotion. Examples: (Long Live the revolution), (Happy Adha Eid), (Welcome home pilgrims, Hajj and Hajja), (We aim for Paradise, Victory is ours), (Congrats Hassan on marriage! ), (Let’s play ! Summer Games 2010, UNRWA ! ) .. etc.

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It’s now 07:30 and the streets are alive with seemingly endless activity, waves of students going to 37 schools in this little Jabalia, 13 of which running double shifts. The camp is so alive that the streets are already packed with people, cars and carts selling falafel, bread known as ka’ak, tea for taxi drivers and even accessories. And shops, whether it is a bookshop, a bakery, a shawerma restaurant or a store selling gowns and wedding dresses, all open doors before 08:00 a.m.

Jablaia, Jabalia . It’s story began when 35,000 refugees of those who had fled from villages in southern Palestine during Nakba established the camp. Refugees were at first provided with tents, which UNRWA later replaced with cement block shelters, with asbestos roofs and now the camp has a more urban character than ever.

The identity of the refugee is so present. If you have a 10-minute walk in the camp asking the children here and there about the original villages they come from, you’ll get the answers in a blink of an eye - Majdal, Brair, Ne’lia, Beit Daras, Hlaigat, Kokaba, Joura, Hamama… And “Awda”, the arab word for the return to the occupied lands, is all over Jabalia; Awda mosque, Awda pharmacy, Awda Hospital and more.

Sometimes, I can’t help finding it surprisingly overwhelming how younger generations still hold on to memories they did not live, how they urge to the land they have not seen or walked on, how we fight for the holy right of return to a beautiful Palestine that, in our young minds, is no more than a painting created by the tales of our grandmas, the traditional Palestinian costumes of our moms, the poems of Mahmoud Darwish and the rhymes old women sing as a groom comes to take his pride.

The first Palestinian Intifada, a major event in Palestinian modern history, started in Jabalia Camp in December 1987. My parents got married a year later and I was born in 1989, and belonging to this generation that lived the first and second Intifadas, I never have enough of listening to the stories of the Jabalians challenging the Israeli soldiers; teenage girls throwing stones, repels fooling soldiers, holding weddings under siege and surviving brutal Israeli attacks with honor not humiliation. It charges me with much pride and determination.

Living, the future and opportunities are perhaps concepts people other than Palestinians take for granted, but for Gaza’s inhabitants, Jabalians included, these ideals are in seemingly short supply. Yet no matter how many bombs explode, how many bullets fly or how many martyrs fall, the story is about survival. Despite all the statistics and extreme numbers documented and reported, it is most simply put, a land of hope and contradictions.


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