Meet Handala. He is a Palestinian refugee who represents the sadness and hardships endured by the Palestinian who longs for a homeland with justice and human rights. Although created in the 1970’s by Naji Al-Ali, the Handala figure can be seen on t shirts and painted on walls throughout Palestine.
Balata Refugee Camp, one of the largest in the West Bank, is located in the southeastern section of Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, directly across the street from the religious shrine known as the ancient Jacob’s Well. It exists in stark contrast to the elaborate cathedral and lush green gardens, well tended by a staff. In Balata camp there is almost no green to be seen, mostly just gray cement.
Approximately 800,000 Palestinians were kicked out of their homes in 1948, when Israel declared itself a nation, in possession of the native Palestinians’ land and homes. At first the Palestinians were determined and hopeful of return to their homelands but after a few years some accepted the United Nations (UN) offer of refugee camps. Balata is one of these UN camps.
Mustafa Farah, the tour guide and translator at Balata, explained some of the history to MPT members today. Originally, the one square kilometer was home to 4-5,000 refugees, living in tents, with 2-4 public bathrooms. Over the years the UN built very small cement block houses in place of the tents and the population has grown to 25-26,000 inhabitants. The houses are built with adjoining walls; the streets are very narrow passageways. A very large person is not able to pass through them. As the families have grown they have expanded their homes up, adding more stories, as they have nowhere to go horizontally. They must stay within the space of their original tent. Mustafa showed us one the “uninhabitable” houses originally built by the UN, and yes, there is a family living in it.
The great-grandchildren of the original residents are now growing up in the Balata camp. These generations of refugees have experienced all manner of horrors of the Occupation, e.g., killings, incarceration, closed schools, demolished houses, and curfews preventing people from getting to medical care, school, and work. Some of these conditions have improved since the end of the second Intifada, “We are able to breathe,” stated Mustafa. But these Palestinians are still plagued by serious issues of overcrowding, unemployment, lack of educational, medical and social resources.