Amira is a 30-year-old Palestinian woman, struggling to raise her three children in Shuafat Refugee Camp. Amira grapples with fear, feelings of vulnerability, and isolation from her family in Amman. But her biggest concern is teaching her children to love.
The robbery was the proverbial straw that broke Amira’s back.
Two weeks ago, Amira, her husband, and three children discovered their house in Shuafat Refugee Camp had been broken into. The money that Amira and her husband, Munir, had set aside for a family vacation to Jordan—where Amira’s parents and three brothers live—was gone. Jewelry that had sentimental value was gone.
Even though Shuafat is inside Jerusalem municipal boundaries, and even though Amira and Munir pay taxes to the city, they didn’t bother calling the police. When Munir and two of his brothers were assaulted in the past and they called for an ambulance, they were told that neither would venture past the massive checkpoint that separates Shuafat from the rest of Jerusalem.
“Our Christian neighbors took us to the checkpoint in their cars [and] the police and ambulance were there,” Amira recalls.
It’s not just the money and the jewelry that upset Amira. It’s that the police won’t come; it’s that she feels insecure in Shuafat—cast aside, uncared for. It’s the checkpoint. It’s the lack of municipal services like garbage pick-up.
As we walk towards Amira and Munir’s house, deep in the camp, she points at the litter on the sidewalks and the trickle of sewage flowing in the street. “The camp is looking even worse,” she comments.
The air is smoky. I recognize the acrid smell as burning trash.
Munir’s parents are Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war. They lived in the Old City for some time before they ended up in Shuafat.
We arrive at the family compound that Munir’s parents have made in the years since. Amira and Munir live in one house. Munir’s brother, who is married to Amira’s sister, live in an attached house with their three children and, in the third house, is another brother, his wife, and their children.
Tucked away from the street, the compound is something of a sanctuary. The walkway is clean and lined with plants. Amira sighs happily as she points out her nana (mint) and sage. The tension drops of out her shoulders for a moment.
“It’s nice,” she says. “We don’t have much green in the camp.”
As we step inside, Amira thanks for me coming. She knows it’s out of my way. We were supposed to meet somewhere else, next to the place she teaches Arabic on Mondays. But she’s missed a lot of classes since the robbery.
We take food from the kitchen and I notice a child’s drawing of the iconic symbol of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement—a boy with his back turned towards the viewer. Amira says that one of her nieces did it.
We sit at a dark wood dining table in the salon and Amira unwinds her beige hijab. I compliment Amira’s dark brown hair, which I’ve never seen before. She thanks me, gives me a sad smile, and apologizes for her bad mood.
I’ve come to visit Amira and to interview her, as well. But I say that we don’t have to do the interview today.
She insists, “Walla, talking makes me feel better.”
We chat over lunch and then start the interview, beginning with Amira’s relationship with her mom, Sabah, whom I visited recently in Amman.
Sabah visited Jerusalem in 1999 for Amira’s sister’s wedding and then in 2000 for Amira’s wedding. During the twelve years that Amira has lived in Shuafat Refugee Camp, her mother has made multiple requests to come visit. All but three visa requests have been denied by the Israelis. In the past month, I’ve managed to find out why.
The Ministry of Interior admitted to me that Israel has no security claim against Amira’s mother, who is now in her early 50s. The MOI suggested I talk to the Israeli consulate in Amman, which told me that Sabah’s visa requests were rejected due to criteria set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No, they would not tell me what those criteria were. I needed to talk to the MFA.
So, I got in touch with Yigal Palmor at the MFA, who said he needed to talk to the Israeli consulate in Amman. “No, no, I already talked to them,” I said, feeling like the whole thing was Kafka-esque. I forwarded Palmor the lengthy email exchange I had with the consulate in Amman.
Nonetheless, the answer came from the consulate in Amman, via the MFA. Apparently, Palmor told me, the consulate had some concerns about Sabah’s “migration intentions.” Sabah is a 50-something woman with a husband, three sons, and multiple grandchildren in Amman.
The three visas that were approved were for two weeks each. Even though Sabah has two children in East Jerusalem, she received less time than a random tourist coming to Israel would get. Most tourists get three month visas, issued on the border.
Between Amira and her sister, Sabah has missed the births of seven grandchildren. She was granted a visa when Amira’s niece died, however, in 2001.
Amira’s relationship with her mother takes place mostly on the phone.
Amira reflects on all the moments in her life her mother has missed: “I don’t think there is anything more difficult than [giving birth]. I really wanted [my mother] there next to me. I didn’t want anyone there except her. But [she] missed it, three times, and I really needed help.”
In Arabic, Amira adds, “This is the world, here.”
She continues in English, “I would like to meet the person who keeps rejecting my mother. I want him to see her face…”
Amira calls the rejected visa requests, “random,” and says that it’s the state’s attempt “to show that they [can] control everyone, even people’s lives, their own private lives.”
The control—in the form of permits and checkpoints—is real. Amira’s father is from Hebron so Amira holds a green West Bank identification card. Because she is married to an East Jerusalemite and works in Jerusalem, Amira has a permit to enter. She can move about Israel freely, more or less. Only Eilat is off to limits to her.
Amira’s oldest, a 10-year-old girl with red hair, goes to school on the other side of the separation barrier. The child must go through the massive checkpoint every day. Amira is worried about her daughter. The girl seems angry, Amira observes, and she is gaining weight.
Because the school she attends is funded by the state, Amira’s daughter and classmates will not mark the nakba today. Will they discuss it at home?
“She’s too young and she experiences a lot everyday at the checkpoint,” Amira says, adding that she will explain things about 1948 and 1967 and the occupation as the issues arise.
“I don’t want her to generalize or to have [preconceived] ideas about the yahud [Jew]… First she has to learn to love, that comes before anything else.”
As for Amira’s personal thoughts about the nakba, she feels that the conditions in Shuafat are designed to push Palestinians out. She thinks that limiting family visits is also an attempt to put pressure on the Palestinians, to encourage them to emigrate. The nakba, Amira says, is ongoing.
“We are humiliated every day, we are consumed every day, we are exhausted every day… it’s not because we work, no, it’s because something is consuming us from inside. You don’t feel like a human anymore. It’s like, why am I supposed to show my bag what’s inside my bag three times a day or four times a day? It’s like there is no privacy, my life is not mine…
“I don’t want to give anymore of myself.”
Amira feels that there is no “value for my dignity and for my time.” The 45 minutes she spends at the checkpoint every morning leaves her stressed all day. And the time adds up, she says,
“You calculate 45 minutes by 7 by [52 weeks a year] or [45 minutes] by 365 [days a year]. Keep calculating. My time is consumed. I’m stressed all the time and worried all the time.”
When she leaves the house, she worries she forgot her ID. If she misplaces her purse, even for a moment, she panics, thinking she might have lost her ID.
“I don’t want to leave my house, I’m getting depressed. Not only me—my children are sick. They are violent. Most of the children in Shuafat camp, you see them fighting rather than playing. And where to play? There’s no space to play.
“They steal. They shout, they hit, they yell, they beat, they slap. They don’t have any other way to express themselves. My children are violent. They are verbally violent and they use their hands as well. They yell and then they cry because they can’t control it. They feel guilty, they feel bad, they say, ‘Oh, it’s my fault [for acting out].’ No it’s not your fault that you were born here in this area, in this particular area.”
People sometimes ask Amira why she and her family don’t move to another area of East Jerusalem, like Beit Hanina, Beit Safafa, or the Shuafat neighborhood (which is not part of the refugee camp).
She and her husband don’t make enough money to move, Amira says, “not even in my dreams.” Her husband has a degree in accounting but has been unable to find a job in his field. He works at a hotel.
“We are a simple family and we have worked hard to make this house. I’m not leaving my house to rent another house.”
But you’re looking for work in Australia?
“I want to leave, yes, I want the best for my children, I don’t want them to grow up in such a situation, in these bad circumstances. I want to raise them in a good way, to love people. In this place, they will end up hating people. They will never learn how to love, how to give, how to forgive.
“When [my siblings and I] were at their age, we learned how to pick up the rubbish and put it in cans. In Amman, we learned how to respect old people, we learned how to get up and let an old woman or old man sit, we learned how to greet [people], how to love.
Amira opens her hand, and traces two parallel lines on her palm. “I’m comparing my daughter’s life to my life. The teachers come to school depressed and reflect this towards the students…this environment is sick, I’m not letting my children live in a sick environment.”
Even if this means that Munir and the kids will lose their Jerusalem IDs? Even is this means giving up Palestine?
“I think one person can make a difference and they are three, my children. One person can make a difference but if they stay here, they will absorb what the culture imposes upon them, what the political situation opposes upon them.”
Amira feels that change is only going to come from the outside. Or from people who have lived outside and immigrate or come back. Or from people who, somehow, manage to put themselves outside of the mainstream conversations about Israel and Palestine.
Amira adds that moments like the one we’re sharing also give her hope.
Some people would say that our friendship is normalization.
“At least when I’m talking to [someone] like you, I become optimistic because the Israelis have people like you. I become proud. I think oh my god, there are good people, you cannot feel how comforting it is and how happy I feel to see people like you… this is the only thing that makes me feel good.
“You are my neighbor, you are my friend. Am I going to deny this? Am I going to lie? You are a part of this place; you’re a part of this land.
“[Palestinians] can judge me and say whatever they want,” Amira says, “But, from my point of view, [the nakba] happened and I don’t want a nakba to happen again.”
For Amira, who believes in a one-state solution, that means an end to the separation and an end to the checkpoints. It means getting municipal services in Shuafat Refugee Camp. It means that the state, whatever its name, would let her mother visit. It also means learning to accept and embrace a Jewish presence in the land.
“We have to love and respect each other,” she says. “This is my idea.”