“Everything in Duheishah is beautiful,” my landlord’s son, Abdullah, tells me as we wind our way through the maze of alleyways that make up the densely populated Ad-Duheishah Refugee Camp. “The girls are beautiful, the streets are beautiful, the houses are beautiful”. While I’m not sure I could describe the entire Camp as beautiful, it certainly has some charming parts and the feel of the place is gently reminiscent of a quaint Arabic ‘old city’, such as you would find in Jerusalem or Bethlehem proper.
Duheishah Camp is one of the biggest in Palestine (fourth largest in the West Bank), and it is still growing. My landlord’s son takes us to the peak of the hill on which the Camp is situated, once the border of this camp. Today, dwellings spill over this summit onto the West-facing side of the hill and almost into the neighbouring village of Artas. These newer houses have taken the liberty of using the space afforded to them and are as grand as any top-of-the range new build that you see popping up all over Palestine – ornately decorated three-storey houses surrounded by front gardens with ballustraded staircases leading up to a front door bordered by royal blue tiles.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. The refugee camps were originally set up by the UN (now administered by UNRWA) to cope with Palestinians who left their homes during the fighting of 1948. Established in 1949, Duheishah was designed as a temporary refuge for 3400 Palestinians. These first inhabitants lived in tents, but as their stay continued to extend they built houses and eventually the infrastructure of a town was developed, all of which continues to be administered by UNRWA. Today it is home to over 15,000.
Families in the camps are often on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum but whilst poverty does exist here, there is not a massive difference between living inside the camps and outside. Except the pre-pubescent kids who play on the streets and who, when there are no adults around, harass passing foreigners who dare to stray into the Camp. The feel of the place is a little like a mid-level British council estate and the tax-breaks that Camp dwellers get are comparable to social housing: walking through the streets, I don’t fear for my life, but I do feel a little threatened by the cheeky 8-year-old who tried to set fire to my shopping bag with his lighter.
Within Palestinian society there is much prejudice against those from the camps and they are often the brunt of jokes. In the northern city of Nablus, where the camps encroach well into the city, this is particularly acute and my Nablusi friend, Aboud, blames the rough childhood that the kids get: lack of space, money and facilities forces children to play on the streets. The street culture becomes their education, especially where the Basic UN schools fail because the poor-quality but well-meaning teachers give high marks in your exams if he knows your family, as was the case for Abdullah. However, despite this disadvantage compared to his non-Camp peers, Abdullah is better than the average: after his studies he managed to get a job; he is a fireman.
The importance of family in Palestinian society, however, will mean it is unlikely that the upwardly mobile son will move away from Duheishah. In fact, since he is the oldest son, the chances are high that he will move into the flat I am currently occupying once he marries. Or, if he can afford it, he will build a new house on the opposite slope. And thus Duheishah grows and grows. As does the number of refugees, as the status is bestowed upon all descendants of the 1948 and 1967 refugees. And so UNRWA’s budget grows which increases the Palestinian Authorities reliance on the organisation and undermines the State’s independence. Not that Abdullah cares or even thinks of these things. As long as he has a job and his family have a home and good health, he will be happy.