“The best of the camp was the sense of community. The worst was the feeling of being a refugee. Being a refugee makes you feel less than others.”
My name is Ziad Abbas, I am 51 and was born in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. My parents escaped Palestine during the war in 1948 and ended up in the camp. As Dad passed away when I was very young, my mother was the one who raised me. After 40 years in the camp, I ended up in Oakland, near San Francisco.
During my childhood, the borders of the camp were the end of my World. We lived in a UN unit of 9m2. I went to the UNWRA School and finished my undergraduate degree in journalism to start working for a local newspaper. In 1994, I joined the Alternative Information Center, a human rights organization that focused on protecting the interests of children in the camp.
At the Center, everything we did was based on the right of return. During the Oslo agreements, the Palestinian leadership had given up the right of return and we perceived that as a major threat for the youngsters who were growing up in the refugee camps. It deprived them from any perspective.
My mother talked often about her village. She always repeated the same nice stories, the same warm memories. That is how I built an image of how her village must have looked like, it was the place I dreamed about. Her history was my future. For this reason, we started a program to show the kids in the camp the villages of their parents. It was about giving them dignity and a perspective. The program worked well for many years.
What is the camp for you?
It is everything. You have to imagine that as a child, there is nothing but the camp. That is where the World ends. I love it and I hate it. It made me the person that I am.
The camp implies waiting. You wait in line for food. You wait for the UN to distribute new shoes. Every morning when you wake up, you stand in line to go to the toilet. You wait to shower. The camp is about dependency. It is where your shoulders grow heavy. There is no room with a view, both literally as conceptually. It is easy to become angry in the camp, not only with the occupation but also with your parents. How did they end up here?
“The camp is about borders. You are different if you live there. Even the Palestinians who live outside of the camp think you are lesser for it. You end up fighting the occupation and the reality of the camp.”
Sometimes, when I entered the room, the adults would stop talking. Then I knew they were talking about the horrors of the Naqba. Of their fear, shame and pain.
But of course, there is more. I learned a lot. I learned about the Israelis from the liberal Jews who volunteered in the Center. I learned from international aid workers. I learned from journalists and camera crews.
The camp is also a place of deep friendships and warm family relations.
What I remember most is the sense of confinement. Most of my colleagues at the Center left in the evening. I had to stay. The camp is about borders. You are different if you live there. Even the Palestinians who live outside of the camp think you are lesser for it. You end up fighting the occupation and the reality of the camp.
What made you leave?
First of all, the generation that we coached was at an age that they could assume leadership. It was important that they did. I wanted to make room for them.
There was another reason. In the camp, one lives by the mercy of international aid. Such dependency is not healthy in the long run. I wanted to work for the people in the camp in a different way. Charity is not the same as solidarity. In an environment of solidarity, both parties have their freedom. From the perspective of the people in the camp, the UN support programs are essential to survive but they come with a set of rules and expectations. In the end, even the charity started to feel confining. That is another reason why I left.
The third reason is my mother’s focus on finishing my education. As a young man, I wanted to make a difference and stopped studying early. As I grew older, the idea to finish my studies grew on me. In 2007, I could start a graduate program in social justice in Vermont. After that, I moved to the Bay area and started working at Middle East Alliance, a small NGO in Oakland that works with Middle East partners on grassroots initiatives. Leaving the camp was not easy for me but I landed well.
Did you travel back since 2008?
I have not. Traveling is not easy if you are Palestinian. If I can avoid crossing borders or checkpoints, I will. My life in the US has given me more freedom than I ever experienced but I am still hesitant to travel.
What work do you do at Middle East Alliance?
We send medical aid to different places in the Middle East: Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq. I organize the logistics of support packages that can be worth more than a million dollars. Our programs make a difference. We focus on children: that is important to me. And we work with local grassroots initiatives in a true partnership. Let me share some examples. We helped to create water purification systems at 69 schools in Gaza. On the West Bank, we support children who have house arrest with legal and psychological aid. Local partners organize education at their homes. In Lebanon, we set up a school infrastructure for 285 children for whom their was no place at an UNWRA school…
It is not always easy though. Our support for grassroots initiatives is not the mainstream approach in the US: we have chosen a crooked path. On a personal level: my work permit is limited in time. As I have a family, that is difficult to deal with.
Can you share some of your Memories of Palestine?
My mother used to talk about her village with her friends. They repeated these stories in the finest details (smiles). How they collected water from the spring, how the walk was difficult, how they used to sing while climbing the hill. That is how I built up my own memories of her village. At 36, I was able to visit it for the first time and I must admit that my imagination did beat reality (smiles).
In the camp, fruit was rare and expensive. My mother would only buy it for me when I was sick. As a child, I imagined her village to be a place with banana trees (Ziads favorite fruit, smiles).
“It was rare to see my mother and her brothers laugh in the camp. But when they spoke about the weddings in the village, they did. When my mother married, she was driven on a camel to the village of my father. Her family walked with her and so did I, many years later.”
These memories were always a mix of happiness and regret. My mother was crying often. I was not supposed to listen when the adults spoke of what happened in 1948. All these things just made me curious for what was outside the camp.
My father passed away when I was very young. He was a Palestinian medicine man, a traveler who spoke many languages. In the meantime, I have heard several stories from people that he helped.
For the bigger part of my life, I longed to live in a normal family. My father passed away, my oldest brother lived in exile and supported us financially. He was my hero. My other brother was an activist: if was not in jail, he was hiding somewhere. We never had a family meal with all of us around the table.
“In 1967, the Israeli army invaded our house at night. They were looking for my brother. I was a kid back then and I woke up with a flashlight in my face. I could only see the boots of the soldier in front of me. I remember that I started screaming. It was a hysterical scream that did not end: it scared everybody in the room. People in the camp talked about it for a long time.”
I have nightmares. As a journalist, I worked in film crews. We filmed so many dead bodies and were surrounded by death. One day, I filmed the German doctor who worked in the camp. His body was in pieces after a bomb attack. At that age, I could not imagine to grow old myself. I thought I would be dead by 40. I am 51 now, I have 11 extra years on my belt. Fortunately, there is now a psychiatrist in San Francisco who helps me with these memories.
Maybe life in Palestine will be become more peaceful. Maybe the day comes that some kind of justice is done. On that day, I may be able to forgive. But I will never forget.
Since I am in the US, I have two guilty pleasures: I can shower without restrictions and I can drive hundreds of miles without crossing a checkpoint. Taking a long shower brings memories back. Driving for hours keeps the memories away.
Let me end this with a good memory. The camp did leave me many, I may have left you with the wrong impression. As I said, I loved the camp and I hated it. In 1981, there was a big demonstration. On such moments, mothers worry for their children who are throwing stones. I recognized a mother who was looking for her children. My mother always tried to keep me out of trouble as well. A few hours later, when the situation had escalated, I saw her again. She was carrying stones and said: “If all my children are here, I have to be here as well.”
The best of the camp was the solidarity and the sense of community. The worst was the feeling of being a refugee. Being a refugee makes you feel less than others.
“I cannot go back. The Israeli occupation has such an impact on our lives. It determines what i will not remember.”