My birthday in Jabalya refugee camp

Children play at the Jabalya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, 29 November 2005. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

I spent my 25th birthday in Jabalya, Gaza’s biggest refugee camp. I have known Jamal, a taxi driver in Gaza, for almost two years. I could only protest so many times at his neglecting to host me in his home. In spite of the pleas of his children, whom I had met on a number of occasions outside his home, I realized today why he never did. I have often entered the homes of refugees while distributing food across the Gaza Strip and yet what struck me that day was the familiarity of Jamal sitting by my side against the unfamiliarity of his home.

Entering through the main door I had to duck under a torn cloth that veiled this private space from the world beyond. As I stood up straight and saw the entire house in the blink of an eye, a sensation came over me much like having caught sight of something one was not meant to see; the sudden exposure could not be undone. There before me was the living room, courtyard and dining room all in one, covered by open skies. Beyond this area were three broken, worn doors. The furthest to the left lead to a small kitchen, the inside of which was out of sight from where I stood. Next was a small bathroom, made fully of cement except for a number of rows of tiles pasted to one of the walls thus aesthetically differentiating it from the other two rooms. The last room served as a bedroom for seven of the nine children, in which, Jamal’s wife explained to me, “they all sleep on top of each other.” The parents and the two youngest boys sleep in a separate room to near the entrance.

In the courtyard four cracked broken plastic chairs served as the living room furniture. I was quickly offered one of these while the children that entered throughout my visit would be seated on a knee, the floor, or a stone nearby while the eldest present child would occupy the one remaining chair after Jamal, his wife and I had been seated. Hamza, Jamal’s favorite boy, five and a half years old, was the first to great me. He was the most interactive, the most confident and yet the most shy of the nine children. Only Abdullah was younger and he came in crying after learning that Hamza had greeted the guest before he had gotten a chance to do so. After sitting on my lap and being the first to receive the gift of a pen his tears were quickly forgotten.

Two pairs of eyes peered in at me through a hole in the wall connecting the Badawi’s home to their relatives next door. Jamal and his brother had divided their father’s house once they were married in order for the two families to enjoy some privacy from each other. Zaher, the oldest, whom Jamal regularly called a donkey for his lack of desire to study or learn supposedly anything, quickly blocked the hole up with a sweatshirt, solving the problem for the time being. Abdullah appeared wearing a homemade birthday hat that read “F, happy birth to you,” written by Maysa, the oldest girl and certainly the brightest of Jamal’s children. Maysa was third in her class and loved to read. She wanted to become a doctor if her grades were good enough, but in accordance to custom Jamal had a hard time considering sending her to university away from her family outside of Gaza. Family, after all, was home. Zaher was playing games on my mobile phone that I didn’t even realize were there.

Outside a commotion had started and people were yelling at each other. At first Jamal was unmoved, but suddenly picked up his phone and rushed outside upon hearing Zaher’s announcement that it was the neighbors fighting over the electricity lines that were being repaired. The Badawis lived just along the boundary between the Jabalya refugee camp and the Beit Lahya projects. Electricity is cut daily for 12 hours alternating with the neighborhood across the street and it had been found out recently that some of the homes in the Beit Lahya projects had drawn illegal cables enabling them to have daily 24 hour access to electricity, thereby diminishing the electricity levels on Jamal’s block. In his absence Jamal’s wife informed me how “undemocratic” her husband was and how often they had wanted to host me but Jamal just never invited me. Furthermore, she so desperately wanted to repair their home but Jamal would not save the money to do so. UNRWA had promised to repair the house many months ago but claimed to be delayed in light of the Beit Hanoun incursion. Jamal walked in triumphantly announcing he had called the police. Before I left, Zaher, who seemed to have the street smarts of his father, mentioned nonchalantly that the police had never come.

Lunch was served, a plate of avocado dip and a tomato dish along with delicious homemade bread and a bowl of olives. It was amazing how something so tasty could come of the tiny kitchen just beyond my sight. As soon as lunch was finished sweet tea with local spices was served then came the birthday cake. Candles were lit and after the family made a good attempt at singing happy birthday in English they switched to Arabic.

Mohamed, Habib and Bilal had returned from school just before the cake was served. With huge smiles they entered one at a time, greeted me and then were reminded by their mother to wish me another hundred years of life. Next came the coffee and the dance performances. An argument went on for a while over which song to play and who was actually going to dance for us. From the start Hamza declined the offer, but when Mohamed was given the task, Hamza became jealous and sent his older brother away crying. Soon enough the music was playing and both Mohamed and then Hamza showed us their belly dancing moves. Everyone else sat in a makeshift circle and clapped along.

Philip Rizk is an Egyptian-German who moved to Ramallah in February 2004 where he volunteered with Relief International’s Gandhi Project. Since August 2004 he has been living in Gaza working as a consultant for development projects and writing. Philip runs a blog: