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
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