1 refugee camp, 20 kids, 11 villages, 8 of which are only remnants, or not even that. These are the stats of the Birthright Replugged trip that I helped run a few weeks ago. I’m not sure where to even begin to explain the significance of this trip.
The kids are all under the age of 16 and from the Jenin Refugee camp. The city of Jenin is in fact mostly the camp, housing refugees from the ’48 Nakba. The camp is massive, and was majorly destroyed in 2002 when Israeli forces besieged the city, entirely leveled flat huge areas, killed more than 50 people, and left more than 4,000 homeless (again). Temporary tents were set up to house victims after the siege, in the same exact place as the original tents of the camp from 1948.
Many of these children have never left the camp, and for some, sadly, it will have been the only time. When they turn 16, they will get a huwiyya, an id card, and will be subject to the travel restrictions on Palestinians, which means that they will not be able to travel into ’48 Palestine, and that their travel around the West Bank will be seriously restricted, and at times cut off at the whim of the Israeli military administration. This particular group of kids are all involved in the activities of the Freedom Theatre, and their families all come from 11 villages in the north of 1948 Palestine.
So why are these called “villages of origin?” Well, first of all, these villages continue to be identity markers for these children. They all know their villages of origin, often know so many stories of those villages, and in some cases, still carry the nuanced dialects of different areas. Their families often still have the keys or the land deeds to the original houses fled from in ’48. The elders know the land like it is their own bodies, and can tell you how many meters from the house was the well, how many steps to take to get from this tree to that.
But the children? They are 3rd generation refugees, and most of them don’t know any world besides their camps. The camps, once an amassment of UN tents, are now cities, albeit rough ones made of concrete houses tightly packed together. Some of the children have been displaced in their lives too, due to home demolitions, a favoured tactic of the Israeli forces to address “security issues” which can range from collective punishment for the family (or neighbours) of a resistance fighter, to making way for settlers or army roads to accompany the apartheid wall. But these kids do not “know” their villages of origin in ’48, they have never seen them, and as I said before, most of them are amongst the more than 400 villages destroyed in ’48. So what does it mean to take kids “back” to their villages? Indeed, the rhetoric of origins and return is loaded since Zionism has used that language to talk about Jewish “return” to its “origins.”
first trip to the sea
The Replugged trip has various goals and aims. One is to just help the kids get out of the camp, to see other settings, to visit the sea, to sleep a night without the sounds of Israeli incursions. Since the adults of the camp are prohibited from traveling, this is one thing that internationals can help with. But the main goal is to creatively work towards the right of return, as it will not come just through political negotiations (this may be the last step, if it is ever possible), but through maintaining connections, and freeing those connections from the confines of the memory in the camp, to allow for the children to start developing their own dynamic relationships to their grandparents memory, and to envision what the right of return means to them, what it will look like taking into consideration the facts on the ground.
It was nothing short of appalling to be on the bus with them and to arrive to their villages, of which they may have a clear picture in their mind, and then to find that it is a dog pound, a garbage dump, a military base, a JNF forest, or a Jewish only settlement. I witnessed such heartbreaking confusion when we rolled into a modern kibbutz with swimming pools and palm trees and the kids asked, is this our village? Are these our houses? Will they be our houses again one day? In another case, in the infamous town of Ayn Hawd, where the original Palestinian houses were taken over and “maintained” by Israeli artists, while some of the refugees settled only meters away on a hill, where they can see their houses and occupiers. One of our kids from Jenin went to her grandfather’s house, now occupied by a shirtless artist who told her unthinkingly that she can come back (to visit) anytime, and another child retorted “actually she will turn 16 next year, and will be prohibited from leaving the West Bank.” This exchange is typical of a liberal Israeli attitude towards Palestinian refugees, i.e. at our convenience you can visit, so long as you are otherwise caged into your ghetto.
So how can we follow up from such a trip? The kids are working on an exhibition with the photos they took on the trip, which will debut in Jenin and then travel to the U.S. to get their stories out. Outside of Palestine, we can support Palestinians working towards the right of return. This is one of the three conditions agreed upon by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in their call for the international community to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions on Israel. And for the kids? They now have a new collection of images and a new set of difficult questions to guide them in their quest for return, and they
Asma drums on the site of her village of origin, destroyed in 1948