Education and youth services on the brink in the West Bank
Young people in Balata refugee camp grow up trapped in cycles of poverty and violence
Palestinian schoolchildren in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Funding cuts have left UNRWA on the brink of postponing the start of the school year on several occasions. Photograph: Niall Sargent
St Photini’s Church, flanked by lush olive trees and ranks of overflowing potted plants, sits as a subtle centre of solitude along the traffic-clogged road into Nablus, the second city of the West Bank.
Its inner sanctum offers up a more important delight as the home to Jacob’s Well, an ancient watering hole important in the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian faiths – Jesus is said to have accepted water from the Samaritan woman here.
Despite abrupt brushes with violence, including the brutal murder of the church’s custodian in 1979, the biblical sanctuary is a bastion of tranquillity, standing in stark contrast to the whirring and shearing of the auto-repair garage just metres away.
The ambiance of the church also deviates sharply from the rough and tumble streets of Balata refugee camp just across the road.
Balata, the largest of the West Bank’s 19 refugee camps set up for Palestinians displaced after the 1948 war with Israel, is also arguably the most violent. It is a centre of resistance typified by streets strewn with crumpling posters of martyrs lost.
Children are victims of violence within the camp, caught in the crossfire between camp gunmen and Palestinian security forces
Bullet-scarred concrete walls – the result of clashes during both intifadas – pockmark the camp’s narrow streets where apartment blocks measure inches, not feet, apart.
While the camp’s population has expanded to absorb two additional generations of refugees over the decades, its boundaries cannot expand. Today, nearly 30,000 people live in an area just twice the size of Dublin’s Temple Bar.
The streets in some sections are so narrow that Israeli troops created above-ground tunnels during the second intifada, knocking through apartment walls to move between buildings.
This intense living, including clashes between gunmen and distrusted Palestinian security forces and frequent incursions from Israeli military, has left the camp’s underprivileged and marginalised population embittered and all too accustomed to violence.
And it is the camp’s large youth population – almost 60 per cent of Balata residents are under 25 – who particularly feel the brunt, according to Gwyn Lewis, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) field operation in the West Bank.
The agency provides vital social services such as health, waste collection and education for millions of Palestinian refugees across 58 camps in the West Bank, Gaza, the Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, where it acts as a de facto government.
In 2018, Israeli forces carried out an average of two security operations per day in West Bank refugee camps, Lewis says, leaving children traumatised by widespread, frequent, and indiscriminate use of tear gas in the camp’s densely populated streets.
Children are also victims of violence within the camp itself, caught in the crossfire between camp gunmen and Palestinian security forces. Lewis says there are also issues of violence among some rival families in Balata, as well as higher than average rates of domestic and gender-based violence.
This has the knock-on impact of creating violent tendencies among children who “come with a lot of baggage”. In addition, Lewis says, the camp’s poor law-and-order reputation limits job prospects for many, feeding into “the cycle of poverty” and problems that many face.
While many residents argue that the media overblows the level of violence within the camp, Sadya Khateeb says there are many problems facing the camp’s youth. The main issue, the mother of seven says, is that children have no playgrounds, sports pitches or even gardens to expend their energy within the crowded confines of the camp.
The small but increasing levels of violence, she says, is linked to a minority of young people whose actions burst out from the stress and social problems associated with living in a refugee camp. “So this is the easier way [to spend their energy] – to kill each other,” says Khateeb.
“If we can find them more places and more activities, then the situation will be better,” she adds. Yafa Cultural Centre, where Khateeb’s husband Rahed works, is one example of where the camp’s teenagers can cut loose, one of the few options left to escape their tough surroundings.
Founded in the mid-1990s, the main drive of the cultural space, according to Abdullah Kharoub, a project manager at the camp, is to change the perspective of children and show them that another life exists outside of Balata.
Born and raised in the camp, Kharoub left in the early 2000s for Russia where he earned a Master’s degree in international law before returning in 2012 to the “very difficult” situation in the camp.
“You can’t have this place, with this number of people, with this bad situation, with this pressure politically and economically, and ask [the youth] to live in peace and not to fight, not to do harm to anyone.
“This is the normal result of Balata, this is the normal result of any kind of marginalised areas where people are living in bad conditions and it’s crowded,” Kharoub says, adding that the fact that the West Bank is under occupation compounds the problem.
“There are drugs and shootings [in the camp] so we can just support the children to have something new in their brain,” he says, listing a variety of activities including theatre, music, dance, language classes, fine art and visual media, as well as psychological support.
The centre offers some respite, Kharoub says, providing an opportunity for youngsters to explore their creative side and even just to gather together and watch movies.
For a lucky few, there is even a chance to see what life is like outside of the West Bank. Last autumn, 10 students spent time in Stockholm as part of an exchange programme where they worked on a media project to show their Swedish hosts what daily life is like in Balata.
Kharoub says he is proud of these projects but that such successes are tough to come by due to the economic and geopolitical situation in the West Bank. “Somehow we succeed but it’s been difficult because we don’t have enough capacity,” he says.
Steep funding cuts at UNRWA following the US decision to cut ties with the agency last year has led to cuts in teacher numbers and school resources that is having a knock-on effect on Yafa’s work.
The decision by the US – traditionally the agency’s largest benefactor – to withhold $300 million (€270 million) in funding last year, on top of more historic funding issues, left the agency with a $446 million budgetary hole to fill. The US cut contributions to zero in 2019.
While not tied to UNRWA, Yafa plays a key role in student mentorship and psychological support, as well as organising physical activities such as football tournaments at the boys’ school in the camp.
“Our volunteers will go to the schools to cover gaps so our volunteers are all the time under pressure,” Kharoub says. If UNRWA stopped providing services overnight, Yafa is “not ready to take more responsibility”, he says.
Education-related problems mainly stem from the fact that the agency has to deal with a declining budget at the same time as student numbers in the camps are rising – 530,000 pupils enrolled this year, for example, compared to 493,500 just five years earlier.
UNRWA is still struggling to piece together enough to cover its expenses for the remainder of the year
Much like in 2015 when UNRWA was on the brink of postponing the start of the school year, there was real fear that students would have nowhere to go this September.
The agency managed to ensure the school year went ahead, Lewis says, but some tough choices were made to keep programmes running, including the decision not to replace some retiring teachers.
“We have more children in the classroom now than we did two years ago as we have less teachers,” Lewis says. “It’s put additional pressure on the core services, but we have managed to keep everything going.”
“If we had to stop our programmes, at the end of the summer we would have 500,000 children no longer able to go to school across the region – 50 per cent of whom are girls,” she says. “The instability that would create would be hugely problematic.”
Even with an unfortunate level of overcrowding, mother of five Samar Amireh says it is critical that UNRWA-run schools in Balata remain open as they are “essential” to life in the camp.
“For refugees here living in the camp it is very difficult for them to send their kids to other schools because they have to pay for transportation and it is also very expensive for them to enrol their kids in private schools,” she says.
“Salaries hardly cover their needs and expenses in their daily lives,” making it difficult for parents to ensure a proper education for their children, she says.
“Imagine if UNRWA cancelled or terminated the educational services within its schools in the West Bank, how the situation would be,” Amireh stresses. “Where will the children go? They will be in the streets.”
Khateeb, herself a teacher in a public school close to Nablus, agrees, adding that while the level of education is high among Palestinians, wages are not. She supplements her teaching role by working extra hours sewing into the night – “not to make a good life but only to cover ourselves” and to try and ensure that her children get a good education.
“I want my children to study in private school but I can’t because of the financial situation. I hope in the future their children can live in a better way, not in Balata,” she says.
Amireh offers less room for optimism on the horizon. “As a mother, I am feeling very sad and disappointed and I don’t feel that something will change for the best,” she says.
“There is nothing showing that something will change for the better, every day we have something bad happening... There is nothing positive that we think will happen. I don’t see a future.”
While an international funding drive last year helped to paper over most of its funding cracks, UNRWA is still struggling to piece together enough to cover its expenses for the remainder of the year.
Matters were made worse with an ongoing investigation into internal mismanagement leading to the resignation of the agency’s chief in November. The Trump administration is sharpening its knife, and has already called for the agency to be dissolved.
According to Kharoub, however, the US president would more easily achieve his goal by helping to solve the political crisis and ending the refugee issue itself. “Finish it. We will be happy to have an end to these 70 years of suffering and struggling in these camps because it’s not any more a place where people can live and where children can grow up.”
Maybe then could they enjoy the quiet life just across the road, but a way out is difficult for Balata residents to see. The backdrop of cuts to services and the ongoing conflict clouds any vision of a better life beyond the camp walls.
This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund