Kalandia camp is one of 59 Palestinian refugee camps run by the UN. My family has called this ‘home’ since 1948 when they were expelled from their village, Allar.
I just returned from a short visit to Kalandia Camp where I survived 18 years of my early life. The Palestinian camps have come to represent the painful Palestinian Nakba, The Catastrophe.
Some 59 refugee camps were established by the United Nations’ UNRWA to house about 720,000 Palestinians who were expelled from their native villages and towns in what is now known as Israel. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are home to twenty-eight camps, while the rest exist in neighboring Arab countries.
Total US aid to the Palestinians is minuscule, especially if compared to that which Israel receives. For example, the US annually give five hundred and twenty-eight dollars per capita to Israelis and three dollars per capita to the Palestinians.
United Nations official information shows that Kalandia’s original residents came from 52 villages in the Lydd, Ramleh, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Hebron areas. Like other West Bank camps, it was established on land the UNRWA leased from the government of Jordan, which had acquired the West Bank in 1948.
Kalandia camp was established in 1949 on 0.21 square miles of land, about seven miles north of Jerusalem. It was given this name because it sits next to an old Palestinian village by the name of Qalandia. With a population of over 10,500 registered refugees and close to 5,000 non-registered residents, it may be the most congested place on earth-well before Manila and Cairo.
Kalandia Camp would become the ‘temporary” home for my parents and their extended families for the last six decades. My parents, God bless them, did not watch any TV, and they did not believe in birth control. They would bring to life some sixteen children, eight of whom are alive while seven died of infancy and child malnutrition diseases. In 1967, an Israeli soldier shot one sibling to death at the young age of nine. The body of Abdelkarim was never returned to my parents. The loss of their oldest son was a devastating blow to my parents. My mother still tearfully and so fondly recounts his short life and sudden death.
Yet, it is where my fondest memories still exist. It is where I went to school, sometimes barefooted, and it is where I played games that today’s kids would never recognize. My love for writing was nurtured here due to my English teacher, Sami Attallah. We played soccer here in an old and deserted quarry. Just outside my parents’ home, I ventured with friends to hunt for birds, which would make a tasty dinner. Moreover, it is the place where I made toy cars from steel wires- a passion that would stay with me for life. To own a bike would remain a deferred dream until I arrived on the shores of America, however.
My parents along with some 15 families from their native village, Allar, settled in a section of the camp that is still their main domicile. Allar is now known as Matta and is inhabited by Yemeni Jews.
The Israeli Harâel and Etzioni brigades destroyed Allar, my ancestral village in Palestine in October 1948. It has been renamed Matta and it is occupied by Yemeni Jews. Only the one-room school remains. Its 450 inhabitants were forced to flee and they are now scattered throughout the world.
Little of the village remains except for the one-room school and some stone foundations. The rest of the village’s four clans settled in other refugees camps in the West Bank and Jordan. Their offspring can be found in many parts of the world.
Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967, unilaterally annexed the camp area as part of Greater Jerusalem. As such, it placed the camp outside the area of the West Bank it may return to Palestinian sovereignty. While Kalandia camp remains under total Israeli military control today, Israel does not provide any infrastructure services to the camp. Moreover, it has prevented the Palestinian Authority from providing the much needed municipal services. It is worth noting that the UNRWA does not administer the camps, only its own installations and programs. That task is left to “popular committees,” a loosely structured group appointed by the Palestinian Authority to run the civil affairs of the camp. The shelters lack ventilation. Trees, which were once abundant, are now a rarity. And narrow roads with potholes the size of a WV bug are impassable even with four-wheel drive jeeps. But pedestrians, cars, and the occasional ill-fed donkey dare these challenges almost unnoticeable.
The camp has evolved to provide a permanent housing site for its residents. The United Nations has severely reduced its services to the residents. The camp is now more of a shantytown. Gone are the tents and one-room stone homes with leaky tin roofs. It is congested, dirty, without a recognized municipal authority, and as such, it is totally disorganized. Here you need no building permits and no construction standards are observed. Now a perplexing compilation of multilevel concrete homes choking off the narrow and dilapidated roads with open sewers. Nevertheless, kids and there are lots of kids, play soccer, ride bicycles while navigating their ways around old cars that refuse to die.
Against all odds, the camp is a success story of determination and perseverance. The phenomenal growth of the camp is a reflection of the resident’s exponential growth and their limited ability to move out. In any given homestead, you may encounter two or more generations of refugees. But in spite of all obstacles, the camp is a place where many champions have left their marks whether as martyrs resisting the occupation or as famous doctors, lawyers, professors, artists and community leaders.
Most ‘homes’ are connected to public water and electricity infrastructure. The camp leaders decided in 1970 to contract for electrical and water connections and at their expense introduced the first ever utility hookup in a refugee camp. Since about 1987, the first Palestinian intifada, the majority of camp residents no longer pay for their water and electric usage. Israel, which controls the generation of electricity in the West Bank, deducts its dues from the taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the 1994 Oslo Accords. Service interruption is severe, especially during the cold winter months when power may not be restored for days.
The UN runs the four schools in the camp covering pre-K through seventh grade. UN’s estimates that 42% of the camp’s population is under 14 years of age. One vocational training school has graduated thousands of Palestinians who formed the backbone of skilled workers who helped build the Arab Gulf States. Palestinians have always viewed education as their economic and political salvation. They often boast that they have the highest percentage of Ph.D. holders of all the Arab countries.
Almost one in five residents is unemployed. But no one is hungry either. An extensive network of religious and social networks coupled with strong family ties provides a sustainable safety net for the less fortunate. Foreign remittance has traditionally constituted a significant portion of income for refugees.
The Israeli military has total control over the ‘security’ of the camp especially now that it abuts the infamous Kalandia Checkpoint separating the West Bank from Israel’s self-designated Greater Jerusalem. Frequent clashes with soldiers interrupt the slow and inhumane treatment of Palestinians trying to reach Jerusalem, which is off-limits to most Palestinians. The arrests of Palestinians are a normal routine here, where Israeli military jeeps under the cover of night enter the camp looking for suspects. The calmness of the night is often violated by the sounds of bullets announcing the military actions. My parents’ homestead has seen its fair share of such invasions.
Kalandia camp is a world eyesore but once you look with your heart instead of your eyes, wonders abound and human determination becomes manifestly evident. Here you will find no trace of Weltschmerz. In a strikingly oxymoronic fashion, the camp is an oasis of hope. Whatever anyone thinks, it defined my childhood world- memories of which are impossible to erase.
Dr. Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs. reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org