The big story PIC­TURES OF HOPE

Pales­tinian teens ex­plore their iden­tity through pho­tog­ra­phy In 1948, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans were forcibly re­moved from their homes and herded into makeshift camps to pave way for a new Is­raeli state. To this day they re­main refugees, forb

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The teenage kids loi­ter aim­lessly un­der the mid­day sun, lean­ing lethar­gi­cally against the graf­fi­tied walls, their eyes fol­low­ing the de­flated red ball be­ing kicked through the rub­ble-strewn street. Hap­haz­ard build­ings seem to grow like weeds in this for­got­ten labyrinth, where tat­tered laun­dry hangs list­lessly be­tween its nar­row streets, and aban­doned rub­ble creeps end­lessly be­tween shut­tered door­ways. Rust­ing metal rods strewn across walk­ways lie dan­ger­ously close to the bare-legged chil­dren, whose in­no­cent laugh­ter as they play be­lies their refugee sta­tus.

Al Amari camp on the out­skirts of Ra­mal­lah in the oc­cu­pied Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory of the West Bank, cov­ers less than one square kilo­me­tre, yet ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­port by the UNRWA (United Na­tions Re­lief and Works Agency for Pales­tine Refugees in the Near East), is home to 10,500 refugees. The el­dest res­i­dents have in­hab­ited this di­lap­i­dated slum since the Red Cross opened it in 1948 fol­low­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael.

All re­mem­ber with clar­ity be­ing forced from their homes, tak­ing what few be­long­ings they could carry un­der the mis­guided be­lief that they would leave within a week or a month… yet 65 years later none have been al­lowed to re­turn. Trapped in­side the camp with no money to leave or land to go to, they are even dis­crim­i­nated against by non-refugee com­pa­tri­ots.

Like all camps for Pales­tini­ans, Al Amari is over­crowded and un­der­funded while also suf­fer­ing from chron­i­cally poor in­fra­struc­ture. There is noth­ing to do within its guarded con­fines where for the 27 per cent of un­em­ployed in­hab­i­tants the days painfully linger into weeks, months, years and even­tu­ally decades. For the near 50 per cent liv­ing in ab­ject poverty, it’s a daily strug­gle just

for sur­vival. The chil­dren play­ing foot­ball on the garbage-filled streets and gut­ter­less walk­ways are part of the 40 per cent of Al Amari res­i­dents un­der the age of 14. There is lit­tle for the young to do and only two schools are in op­er­a­tion to serve their ed­u­ca­tional needs. The girls’ school can ac­com­mo­date just 970 pupils and is con­se­quently forced to run on a shift ba­sis while the boys’ isn’t much bet­ter, ed­u­cat­ing just 1,250.

When these chil­dren are not at school, or for those who don’t at­tend at all, there is lit­tle to choose from for recre­ational pur­poses. The camp holds only one mea­gre play­ground lo­cated in an un­der­funded char­i­ta­ble chil­dren’s cen­tre, and a basketball field pro­vided by the lo­cal youth cen­tre. There is no room for a park here where 70 per cent of the land is al­ready cov­ered in ver­ti­cally ris­ing build­ings, and with no more room to ex­pand, the in­creas­ing num­ber of in­hab­i­tants can only build up­wards.

In­di­vid­u­als mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Within such a ne­glected and hap­haz­ard en­vi­ron­ment peo­ple have no choice, no means and no an­swers; all they have are walls, check­points, cur­fews and spo­radic demon­stra­tions. The con­di­tions for the young are in­suf­fer­able and there is much con­cern for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions forced to spend their child­hood within its con­fines.

Yet there are in­di­vid­u­als who are shin­ing a light of hope into these clus­tered dark­ened al­ley­ways. UAE-based mother of three Hanan Deb­wa­nia al­ways knew she wanted to help. “I was born in Cal­i­for­nia in the US, how­ever, my back­ground is Pales­tinian,” she says. “My grand­par­ents came from a small vil­lage called Deir Deb­wan next to the city of Ra­mal­lah. I lived in Pales­tine for a few years when I was young and wit­nessed the first in­tifada [up­ris­ing] and saw how kids were vic­tims and how oc­cu­pa­tion and in­jus­tice played a role in vic­tim­is­ing the young.

“In col­lege I took Mid­dle Eastern Stud­ies where I learned more about the re­gion and the con­flict and I have al­ways felt that it was so un­fair for the chil­dren.”

Vol­un­teer­ing for char­i­ties in the UAE over the past decade al­lowed Hanan to meet Saleh Za­her Saleh, di­rec­tor of theMo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum Hu­man­i­tar­ian and Char­ity Es­tab­lish­ment, and with their fi­nan­cial sup­port she was able to start up three Deb­wa­nia sum­mer schools for chil­dren across Ra­mal­lah City.

Among the three sites, Hanan’s big­gest fo­cus is Al Amari, a camp she says has the largest is­sues and the most need. Here, for the past seven years, she has worked along­side 80 chil­dren for the sum­mer, de­vel­op­ing their sense of iden­tity and con­fi­dence through cre­ative classes such as mu­sic, sports and arts car­ried out in a rented school out­side the camp’s gated walls. Some of the chil­dren came on board the project at just 11 years old and are still at­tend­ing now at 17.

The project takes place in July out­side the camp in a lo­cal school; here Hanan pays a nom­i­nal rent for the use of four class­rooms and a sports ground. The kids at­tend vol­un­tar­ily from 9am to 3pm, six days a week for a fort­night. They are di­vided into five groups who take classes through­out the day. As Hanan says, “It’s about try­ing to im­prove their lives by telling them they de­serve an ed­u­ca­tion, they de­serve hob­bies and they de­serve hope.”

In­tro­duc­ing a pas­sion for pho­tos

This year Hanan de­cided it was time to in­tro­duce a new self-funded work­shop over the sum­mer; some­thing she her­self was highly pas­sion­ate about and could see was be­com­ing as pop­u­lar with the kids: pho­tog­ra­phy. She had re­cently grad­u­ated from the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi and could see that the Al Amari young were just as keen to have a cam­era in their hands as she was. “Ev­ery time I went to the camps I took my equip­ment and the kids al­ways wanted to see the pic­tures and bor­row my cam­era. It dawned on me that they de­served to have the chance to take pho­to­graphs too”

So Hanan made a con­certed de­ci­sion to pur­chase enough dig­i­tal cam­eras to run a sum­mer pho­tog­ra­phy work­shop. To raise the money needed she de­cided to run a gallery at the Writ­ers Union in Abu Dhabi where she sold her own pic­tures taken on an­nual char­ity trips to Pales­tine.

Her ex­pe­ri­ences cap­tured in pho­to­graphs and short films were so pop­u­lar that the pro­ceeds were enough to pur­chase the re­quired dig­i­tal cam­eras for 30 refugee camp teenagers. A donor also pro­vided her with an­other 10 dig­i­tal cam­eras and, armed with all 40, she set out for Al Amari this sum­mer to con­duct the one-week work­shop.

There she en­coun­tered the daunt­ing task of select­ing who could be in­volved. With so many kids ea­ger to par­tic­i­pate and have the op­por­tu­nity to use the kind of tech­nol­ogy they could never af­ford, she de­cided only those be­tween the ages of 13 and 18 could take part. Hanan says the de­ci­sion was tough. “It was heart­break­ing. I was limited be­cause of the cam­eras so we in­sisted on the age bar­rier but then 12-year-olds would come and plead say­ing ‘I’ll be 13 in a few months’. It was so sad to see their dis­ap­pointed lit­tle faces but we just had to be strict.”

The idea be­hind the week-long project was to see through the eyes of these chil­dren, and dis­cover how they en­vis­aged their lives, their his­tory, and their iden­tity. As a means to fo­cus the project, how­ever, Hanan de­cided to give the chil­dren themes such as Friend­ship, Hope, The Fu­ture and Trust, and some were

‘All refugee kids know the name of their vil­lage… Even if they have never been to the vil­lage they can tell you sto­ries and make you feel as if they grew up there’

given the chance to make small video clips about ei­ther Nakba or tra­di­tional Pales­tinian food. Nakba, trans­lated in Ara­bic as “Day of the Catas­tro­phe”, is Is­rael’s In­de­pen­dence Day and for Pales­tini­ans it marks the day in 1948 when an es­ti­mated 700,000 Pales­tini­ans were forcibly re­moved from their homes to make way for an Is­raeli state.

All the older res­i­dents of Al Amari re­mem­ber the event clearly and it came as no sur­prise to Hanan that the ma­jor­ity of the chil­dren chose this heart­felt theme.

“The refugees have a sin­cere tie to their vil­lages, cities and homes. All refugee kids know the name of their vil­lage; they grow up hear­ing sto­ries from grand­par­ents about their home and land. Even if they have never been to the vil­lage they can tell you sto­ries and make you feel as if they grew up there.”

Find­ing a new per­spec­tive

The teenagers who were se­lected for the course took their equip­ment and vis­ited the older gen­er­a­tions, their grand­par­ents and neigh­bours. They filmed and pho­tographed them as they rem­i­nisced about their homes, the day they were forced to flee and their fad­ing hopes.

Hanan says she was over­come by some of the im­ages, raw re­flec­tions of the com­mu­nity and how the teens feel about their refugee sta­tus. “I’m not a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher but I take my cam­era ev­ery­where with me and I would never have thought of tak­ing the pic­tures they did. Like an el­derly woman cry­ing and some­one wip­ing her tears. Hav­ing seen their courage to take these pho­tos, I would now, too… in a way they have taught me.”

At the end of the suc­cess­ful week-long project the par­tic­i­pants were able to keep the cam­eras and have re­mained so en­thu­si­as­tic they have cre­ated a Face­book page, Al Amari Pho­tog­ra­phy, to con­tinue their work.

Next year Hanan hopes to have raised enough money to al­low 50 chil­dren to join the project. She says it is all too clear why it is be­com­ing so pop­u­lar. “It was so hard be­cause the other kids would come and watch the pho­tog­ra­phy par­tic­i­pants be­cause those chil­dren are re­leased out of the camp; they can get into buses to go and visit mu­se­ums; they can go on field trips to take pic­tures; they go to lo­cal vil­lages and pho­to­graph lo­cal pro­duce, they’re hav­ing fun.”

This month Hanan is hop­ing to dis­play one se­lected im­age from ev­ery child in lo­cal UAE gal­leries. The 40-im­age project will con­tain in­for­ma­tion on ev­ery child be­low his or her cho­sen pho­to­graph, in­clud­ing where their fam­i­lies orig­i­nally came from. All the money made from the prints will be given straight back to the Pales­tinian child pho­tog­ra­pher in Al Amari camp. Even if they’re not sold Hanan says it is rais­ing aware­ness of their cause, show­ing peo­ple that these Pales­tinian chil­dren are smart and tal­ented and as she proudly says, it will “give them hope and say, Look you made it”.

Through the eyes of teen pho­tog­ra­phers: (above) an el­derly lady who re­mem­bers her home be­fore the Day of Nakba, (clock­wise from right), a lit­tle boy in the camp; an el­derly res­i­dent still has the key to her house in Jaffa; and stu­dents take pho­tos for the work­shop

Hanan with the chil­dren from this years’ pho­tog­ra­phy work­shop (top) and the wall sur­round­ing the Al Al Amari camp

This photo of a man walk­ing down the al­ley­ways of Al Ameri camp, is an­other ex­am­ple of the refugee teens’ views on life

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