Outside of my apartment is a small, crowded neighborhood called Qaddura. Mostly refugees live here. It’s not officially recognized as a refugee camp by the United Nations – which means it doesn’t receive direct financial support from the organization – but it still feels like one.
The streets are narrow and the walls of buildings are covered in graffiti. There are paintings of machine guns and flags.
Nationalist slogans have been spray painted in Arabic and English. “Free Palestine,” someone has scrawled in Arabic and “All forms of resistance are patriotism.”
There are around 4,500 residents here and 500 families. Almost half of the people who live here are under 18 and the unemployment rate is at 80%. This is a relatively small refugee camp — nothing compared to the other crowded, sprawling West Bank camps of Balata, Tulkarem, Jenin or Dheisheh.
Like most of the refugee camps in the West Bank, Qaddura was formed in following the establishment of Israel. Refugees came here in 1951, from the nearby camp of al-Amari, which was at that time already crowded and overflowing. The neighborhood took its name from Yousef Qaddura, the man who served as Ramallah’s mayor in the forties.
Refugees were uprooted from their homes, villages and cities. Some people took their belongings with them, others didn’t, thinking they would be gone for a week or a month, but could come home after the fighting had died down.
They were never allowed back.
Today, one wall in Qaddura has been dedicated to the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The real place is miles away, in Jerusalem, but this illustrated version is the closest that residents here might get. The Dome been carefully painted on the wall in bright colors. The sky is set in a perpetual sunrise, lit up in purple, orange and yellow. Yassir Arafat is painted to the left, wearing a khaffiyeh, looking down from the sky. His head looks huge in the picture, as if appearing out of the clouds.
The streets feel busy here, all times of the day; there are two falafel sellers, a hardware store and a handful of street peddlers, selling sweatshirts and shoes out of wooden carts. Young boys sit on the curb or chase each other through the alleyways. When I walk through they call out to me, in English or Arabic. They yell swears and laugh. The younger ones sometimes throw rocks at my feet and quickly duck away.
Children from refugee camps — other, middle-class Palestinians will say — have no manners. They are bad kids. They don’t know how to shake hands and say thank you.
Some of the kids in the refugee camp speak English very well. They shake hands, too. One young man explains to me a mural that was painted on the corner of his building. It’s a cluster of portraits of men, set in front of a huge, blazing sun.
“These are men who died for our country,” Abdul points at the mural. He speaks English with a New York accent; he spent a few years there. “They’re all shuhada – martyrs – who Israel killed. One of them was even a foreigner, an Italian, who was killed by soldiers.”
Abdul is talking about the Italian journalist Raffaele Ciriello, who was killed on this corner, while reporting here during the Second Intifada.
I learn that this mural was painted with assistance from an international group of artists — called the Breaking the Silence Mural and Arts Project — who traveled to the West Bank and Gaza to facilitate community art projects like this.
They asked the community what kind of public art piece they would like to see. Community members wanted portraits of Qaddura’s local martyrs, of whom there were many.
I ask Abdul what it’s like to be back in Palestine, after spending time in the US. It’s good, he says. “I’m, you know, re-connecting with my culture. It was hard at first, to adjust. But it’s nice. It’s important for my parents that I don’t loose my culture, my religion.”
In New York, his parents worried he was becoming too American. They didn’t want him to forget what it meant to be Palestinian, that he has roots here. “Our family is from near Jerusalem originally,” Abdul tells me. “But after ’48, we were forced out.” This may have been generations ago, but it’s an important part of his family’s story, he says.
After Abdul finishes high school, he hopes he can go to the US and study in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Ramallah feels small, he admits, a bit claustrophobic. You don’t have big open streets like New York, he laughs. Abdul shakes my hand and waves goodbye. He has to study, he says, but he hopes to see me again.
Pallets of fruits and vegetables are dropped off nearby, by trucks coming from Jerusalem, bearing Hebrew lettering. Young boys unload the produce – potatoes, oranges, onions – and wheel them in shopping carts to the central market.
Nearby, they’re burning trash. Flames lick the side of the neighborhood dumpster and clouds of acrid smoke billow into the air.
Another wall painting is tucked in a nearby alleyway — another monument to exile and yearning. Here, crowds of Palestinians are painted. They’re marching through a pastoral landscape. They wear kaffieyehs and carry banners and flags. They’re bound for Jerusalem, facing another illustration of the Dome of the Rock, painted in bright yellow colors.