Baraa Awda, 28, was born in the Deheisheh refugee camp*, near Bethlehem, one of the most impoverished and overcrowded camps. She tells her story in this camp and talks about what it means to be a perpetual refugee:
I no longer live in the camp. Yet I belong to it. I consider myself an “internal refugee.” The camp was supposed to be a temporary stage imposed on us until we establish our final homeland, Palestine.
Internal refugees have a particular status; we live on part of the Palestinian land, but we can’t choose to live anywhere else on it. We live in a place that has become a “host community” according to UNRWA. Even the Palestinian Authority has become a host community for internal refugees.
As Palestinian refugees living in our country and homeland, we are considered different in the eyes of others. Many envy me and believe that we have stability, that we do not face the effects of the Israeli occupation on a daily basis like our people in Gaza and the West Bank.
The refugee remains a refugee wherever they are. Our suffering, stories and daily lives connect us: dancing the Palestinian dabke at weddings, our parents recalling images from their past, reliving the pre-Nakba memories, and listening to the Mawtini anthem with tears welling up in our eyes.
The suffering is the same. The infrastructure in these camps may be better than in the camps in Lebanon – where all services are poor and where there is shirking of responsibilities – but we are still refugees our your future is the same: we are untrustworthy and, of course, we are the last person who can get a job, because our employment is not a priority. I studied marketing at Bethlehem University, and I am still looking for work—I do not have the option where I want to begin with.
For many Palestinians, identity is associated with the extent of suffering. Those who suffer more are entitled to claim to be more Paletinian than others, and this in our case. We lose part of our Palestinian identity in their eyes.
When you are born a refugee, you understand right away that this house is not your home, that the land is not yours, making you a temporary resident. It is difficult for those who do not live in a camp, to understand the culture of those who do; a group of people who share the same concerns and dreams, and are connected by one common destiny; a group that does not have a house to live in or a land to be buried in. They only inherit the memories and the keys of the homes they dream of. The people of the camp live both temporary and permanent lives. Hope is what keeps them going.
I always aspire to return to Assoufla**, my ancestors’ village in the district of Jerusalem, where the trees and the family heritage remain. I visited it once; our enemy allows us to visit our village only during traditional festivities. They destroyed everything in Assoufla and turned it into a natural reserve. During my visit, I saw what my grandmother had talked to me about: The huge olive tree, the walnut tree and the “Assoufla Spring.”
My grandmother told me how they had driven her out of her home and how she fled with the other residents to the mountains. They lived for a whole year in the mountains of Bethlehem in the nearest place to where they were certain they would return. They were told they would stay in tents for only ten days until the situation improved. “The day I was forced to leave my village, I did not bring along much with me. I thought it would be temporarily,” she kept telling me. But her village was burned down and its residents found refuge in what became the Dheisheh camp, the nearest camp to Assoufla, from where they were dispersed.
In the camp, in addition to the water and electricity problems we face, we live under occupation, suffering the daily harassment at the Israeli checkpoints, at the entrances and exits. This is in addition to the continuous unrest, the arrest of women and children, and the restrictions on the movement of young men and women.
We are part of a whole refugee community that is scattered. Wherever we are, we bear the memories of our fathers and grandfathers and the pictures of their/our villages; their dreams becoming ours. We differ only in that we, as young people, have a little more energy. Our strength is in our connection and in focusing on our similarities wherever we are, and our ability to establish groups with a clear vision that perhaps may lead us in the future to achieve the unity of the Palestinian people and the restoration of our homeland.