This is Part II of a two-part article about Palestinian refugees.  To read Part I, please click here.

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As I mentioned at the end of Part I, there was one question that kept nagging at me as we toured the Askar and Balata refugee camps.  Why don’t the people just leave?

To get the answer, my guides Khalil and Abed introduced me to Mahmoud Subuh, director of international relations for the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata.

Mahmoud Subuh in his office.

As we sat in Mahmoud’s small office, I began asking him some of the questions that had me puzzled.  “Why don’t people just leave Balata?” I asked.

One of the reasons people don’t move, he told me, is that they simply can’t.  With high unemployment and pervasive poverty, they just don’t have the resources to pick up and start their life over somewhere else.

 

Nablus is a big city. Why don’t the people of Askar and Balata just move?

But there is another, more philosophical reason that people don’t choose to move.  “A person’s identity as a refugee,” he told me, “means that they belong to another place.”

The moment they leave Balata and become citizens of, say, the city of Nablus, they cease to be refugees.  And if they are no longer refugees, they no longer “belong” to Jaffa.

A pile of junk on the edge of Askar refugee camp.

With a new home in which to put down roots, these families lose much of the power in their argument that they have a right (or a need) to return to their former homes.  The moment they develop any sense of permanence somewhere else, they will essentially be giving up… admitting that a return to their homes will never be possible.

If these families ever want to return to their ancestral land, in other words, they must remain forever as refugees.

A Central Issue

This is why Khalil says that he is from Jaffa. This is why Abed will not leave the camp. Even though neither they nor their parents have ever seen the city, they still consider Jaffa home.

Khalil showing me a small graveyard in Askar camp.

As I learned all of this, I began to see why Palestinian refugees are such a central issue to the peace negotiations.  They are a large and influential group of people willing to suffer much if it means getting what they believe they deserve.

Many Palestinian leaders demand that all refugees be allowed to return to their ancestral homes and be given Israeli citizenship immediately, but most Israelis don’t consider this an option.  With so many Muslim and Christian refugees flooding into the country, Israel would cease to be a Jewish nation.

On the other hand, if a two-state solution is reached and Palestinian refugees are not allowed to return to their homes, they will see it as a great injustice, something that could lead to more violence and terrorism originating from within the camps (more on that in my next article).

It is a sticky situation with no easy answer and it will continue to be at the core of every peace negotiation going forward.

Uplifted

Strangely, however, I didn’t leave Askar and Balata feeling that all was lost.  I came expecting to find only bitterness, but walked away feeling a bit uplifted.

What will life be like for the next generation of Palestinian refugees?

You see, I met person after person who seemed to harbor hope, not hatred, in their hearts.  Sure, people were upset with their situation.  People were frustrated.  And of course there will always be those who use violence and terror to be heard.

But the response of most of the refugees I met was not resignation, but resolve.  Despite the obstacles in their path, these refugees are working hard to make life better for themselves and their neighbors.

I met teachers, patiently giving children an education.  I met social workers, caring for special needs kids.  I met shop owners, making the best with the little that they have.  And I met quite a few students, pursuing a college education that their parents could never have dreamed of.

All of them hold in their hearts the hope that they can one day return to the city they call home.

———-

It will be people like Khalil, using his camera and pen to tell the story of his people, who will lay the foundation stones for a new and peaceful Palestine. It will be people like Abed, proudly holding on to the legacy of his ancestors, who will one day lead the Palestinian people.

Will Khalil and Abed ever return to Jaffa?  I honestly do not know.  But there is one thing of which I am certain:

For the people of Askar and Balata, there will be a brighter tomorrow…

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Next Steps
    • If you want to learn more about the plight of Palestinian refugees, I strongly encourage you to pick up the book Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour. It is a fantastic account of hope and reconciliation in the midst of horrible circumstances.
    • Sign up for Musalaha’s newsletter to hear amazing stories of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
    • Please pray for Palestinian refugees around the world. No matter which way the peace negotiations go over the next few years, they will have a tough time as the ones caught in the middle.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    May 3rd, 2011 at 7:48 am  

    Very difficult to wrap my head around this one. There are things you look at and say…”how can that be ?”… this is one of those things.

    I suspect each “side” of the debate has a completely different and equally passionate answer to that question, and the debate goes on.

    I look at the faces of the children in these articles and ask myself is this the generation that will find Peace, or will another generation simply leave this hard to understand story as is.

    It is clear that violent conflict will not make this better but worse. It also would seem by history’s track record that top down solutions are not likely to have any long term traction. Bottom up, person to person, one on one reconciliation might just have a chance at forming a new relational foundation on which a solution will emerge.

    We can pray that with each trip offered by Musalaha God will lay down a brick in the road to intimate reconciliation, the Peace that lasts will not likely be one that is mandated, but one that is born from the hearts and minds of the people, one by one.

  2. Amy Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    May 3rd, 2011 at 8:42 am  

    I’ve no business commenting on politics or governments or hearts of people I don’t remotely understand. But in the wake of the tsunami of Osama Bin Laden news, your articles from Palestine give me hope. Because I’m one of those people who struggled watching people “party” in response to Bin Laden’s death. Don’t get me wrong–dude got what was coming to him. But only Jesus can fix what’s wrong with all of it. Not a DNA-confirmed death. Not a perfectly executed attack. Not any amount of “intelligence” information.

    Only Christ.

    Only His disciples: weilding swords of light and truth–not against human flesh but against unseen powers and principalities; loving one person at a time into intimate reconciliation, like Jim says, above; and reaching our hands toward another human’s heart and loving them into an intimate relationship with Him.

    Thanks, Barry, for following the Holy Spirit onto a pathway for us to make inroads where others only find roadblocks. Blessings and traveling mercies to you!

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