That day, I expected to see sights that would reside with me for a while, but little did I know that they would continue to haunt me every day since. Stepping out of the taxi cab and onto the gravel road, I walked towards the notorious Huwwara checkpoint near Nablus in the northern West Bank. To my left, I passed throngs of people waiting in lines barely inching along in the blistering summer heat, awaiting the apathetic wave of an Israeli soldier’s hand to be let through. Caged like animals in a zoo, they waited, and waited, and waited some more. Whether or not they would be let through, well, that was subject to the jurisdiction of indifferent, bored soldiers, texting on their phones, idly passing the time away.
Past the checkpoint, I walked a very short distance before I was startled by a roaring behind me, that of an armored military vehicle rumbling. Standing there transfixed, I watched the monstrous contraption swiftly take a detour to the right and roll on down the path. I stood there for a minute in sheer disbelief and awe, watching until it was nothing more than a small dot in the distance. Before I could formulate a thought or muster a word, a woman along with her children, carrying bags of groceries, came up behind me. “Aadi, aadi … it’s normal, normal,” she said, “but don’t worry, they don’t cause trouble. They just patrol the area.” By whose definition was it normal to have such intruders patrolling an area? Less than an hour into my trip, I was already having trouble digesting what I had seen.
After parting ways with my new acquaintances, I found a taxi willing to take me to the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. I could tell he was a bit curious as to why I chose to go there, of all places. However, I didn’t have to think twice. When it came to Palestinian tragedies, Nablus has received more than its fair share. Balata was just another reminder of the tragedies no one ever hears about. I figured I needed to hear about it. For me, ignorance was just no longer bliss.
I arrived to what looked to be no more than an alley. I had been to a few camps prior to Balata, but none were as gray and sad. None were as forgotten and displaced. None were as heartbreaking. As I walked through crooked, narrow passages separating small, rundown buildings jammed together, I couldn’t help but feel claustrophobic. The space was barely wide enough for me to pass through, yet this is what nearly 22,000 people called home on a daily basis. Looking down, I saw pools and streams of sewage flowing along the uneven ground, but when I looked around, no one seemed to notice them, no one avoided them. They seemed to blend right in with the dire existence they had come to view as acceptable — a sight that would have made any outsider wince and bolt, had become an ordinary manifestation, the status quo. How can it ever be conceived as “normal” to have contaminated water and human waste running along the streets they walk on every day? How is it “normal” to find one child after another suffering from renal failure or leukemia due to living in such a contaminated, inhumane environment?
I suppose what shocked me the most was the astonishing incidence of children suffering from diseases that could have otherwise been treatable under different conditions. I was fortunate enough to meet a man named Fadi, my guide through the camp for the day. Fadi had been born and raised in there and referred to those in the camp as his family. He pointed to one house after another, recounting all the children who were unable to receive dialysis or those with leukemia, unable to get proper treatment. Here, liter soda bottles are used to store needles and gloves are a scarce commodity. If they need treatment outside the camp, Palestinians are forced to beg for documents and paperwork just to get to one checkpoint, and have to endure hours of interrogation and humiliation in order to pass to yet another checkpoint to get to another one, and the cycle goes on and on and on, until finally they stop and decide the fight is no longer worth it.
As morbid as it sounds, people here are literally dying to live. If this isn’t ethnic cleansing, I don’t know what is. Fadi had lost his older brother to heart disease a few years earlier and had taken over as provider for his brother’s family. He told me that he had always believed it wasn’t his brother’s heart problems that killed him, but rather the heartache endured after years of humiliating, distressing trips to receive decent treatment. “I think he had given up the will to live near the end and stopped going for treatment,” he told me with a shrug.
I spent the day with children who showed me how to make slingshots out of rubber bands and sticks and stones they had collected to pass the time. There were no iPods here, no video games or other forms of escapism. These children, like their parents, spend most of their lives in this camp. Yet, despite all the dismal conditions, they find ways to create happiness from something so small. Humility struck me deep at the core that day. I was welcomed with arms wide open by people who had very little to give, but who ended up giving me lessons that are priceless. I left them with the promise that I would be back and that I would never forget them, and that is a promise I intend to keep.
What struck me the most was the sheer resilience I witnessed flourishing that day in the camp. From grief, sorrow and desperate conditions, at the very least, the people created joy. From their thoughts, they created a path and life to live by. What gives me peace of mind is reassurance that as long as they live, they’ll continue to sing in the streets when the end-of-term grades are announced or when a new baby is born in the camp. I know their resilience will guide them for as long as they can. I never once heard them complain about their predicament, because they had learned that they would not be returned to land through through complaints.
Oftentimes, when it comes to Palestine, hope seems dismally frail, a trivial thing to hold onto in the midst of the mounting broad scope of injustice and ethnic cleansing. However, it is the one thing that cannot be cleansed away. In the midst of tragedy, injustice and human rights violations, it is what keeps those in the camps alive and what keeps those of us in exile conscious. Despite all its misery, this occupation has been a catalyst for change, real change, unlike that of flowery political rhetoric in the United States, which bankrolls Israel’s occupation. Indeed, the saddest atrocity would be sinking into apathy or accepting the cards that Palestine has been dealt. Palestine reinvents itself every day, bringing in new lives of resistance, new lives to replenish enduring hope, new lives to fight the injustice.
With the recent US presidential election over and the impending foreign policy strategies developing and yet to come, I find myself replaying the story of those forgotten in the camps, the story never seen on syndicated news sources, the story I had to see with my own eyes, yet still have trouble comprehending. Above all else, I relay this story of awareness for those who are unaware, for those who believe justice should not be exclusive to some and restricted to others, but rather a universal right to which all are entitled. With the US electing its forty-fourth president, the cynic in me wonders what that entails for the foreign policy that has devalued the lives of countless Palestinians, whose voices have been silenced and unheard by the ones who unjustly determine their fate. I can’t help but speculate what that means for the innocent in Palestine who remain subjugated, suffering at the hands of oppression and indifference. I remind myself to be realistic, to keep in mind that Palestine will not become free overnight, but my hope is that those who learn Palestine’s story will help bring further awareness and question what we have long taken for granted. At the end of the day, these are all first steps we can take to bring justice to a people who have been treated with anything but. The day we begin to make a difference or create real change is the day we break the hardened, indifferent silences.
Dina Elmuti is a senior at the University of Illinois, majoring in Molecular Biology. She hopes to go to medical school and then practice in Palestine.