Coping with life in a refugee camp

The cost of living behind the separation wall

It’s Friday night in Aida refugee camp in the West Bank, and the grey-walled, fluorescent lit basement has come to life. Children and teens play a game of cat and mouse under a rainbow-colored parachute, then race through a course of bright plastic hoops on the ground. Later they chase each other trying to pop the balloons tied to ankles of their friends. At the end of the evening, everyone kneels on either side of a roll of paper the length of the room to paint.

It’s a fun evening for the kids of course, capped off with cookies and juice boxes to take home. But watching the children play is also a helpful tool for staff at the East Jerusalem YMCA. It’s a chance to see how children are dealing with the intensity of life in a refugee camp.

Fun and games at refugee camp in Palestine

An MCC partner in Palestine arranges social activities for children living in Aida refugee camp. The activities help counselors spot children who aren't coping well, so they can get them help.

To an outsider, at first glance Aida camp appears to be just like any other town in the West Bank, filled with multi-story buildings and paved roads. Founded in 1950, it has taken on a sense of permanence. Families living there were displaced in 1948 after what’s known as The War of Independence in Israel, and the Nakba (Catastrophe) for Palestinians. More than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in villages across what is now Israel. Though it’s been almost 70 years, most still long for the right to return home. Even children and parents who have lived their entire lives in a refugee camp want to return to a home they may have never seen. (Learn more about Palestinian refugees.) 

Living in Aida camp comes with practical challenges. There is no health care center. Residents have access to water only every other week, filling up black, roof-top water tanks and rationing their use to make it last. There’s no sewer system.1

And of course, there’s the looming concrete wall. The separation barrier built by Israel. In some places it runs along the green line between Israel and the West Bank, but in many places (including around Aida camp), the wall cuts deeply into the Palestinian West Bank. Aida camp is close to two Israeli settlements and the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which means residents are surrounded by constant military presence.

The separation barrier and military watch tower as seen from inside Aida camp.MCC photo/Emily Loewen

“All the time soldiers just observe the camp, within minutes you will find them inside the camp,” says Anton Jaraysah, a project supervisor with the YMCA of East Jerusalem, an MCC partner. Tension between Aida residents and Israeli soldiers often run high. There are frequent clashes and arrests. “Every day there is a home incursion,” says Jaraysah. “[Israeli soldiers] are throwing tear gas during the night into the houses, going to arrest young people because they believe those young people are politically active.”

Being detained or questioned by the military can be traumatic for anyone, but the effects are more significant for young children. And watching a father or brother arrested from your home can have the same effect. “Imagine that there is a 10- or 12-year-old kid who is there sleeping peacefully and he just open his eyes or her eyes and find that there is a soldier with a mask,” says Jaraysah. (Read a Q&A with an MCC representative and trauma counselor to learn more).

MCC photo/Emily Loewen

Those experiences affect children in many ways. Some wet the bed at night, others might stop going to school or have trouble focusing in class. Some take their anger out on their friends or family, or worse, they act out towards the army and put themselves at risk of being detained.

That’s where the YMCA comes in. They approach the issue of detention from all sides, both in Aida camp and around the West Bank. They provide counseling and vocational training for youth who have been detained. (Read Jarrah’s story of being arrested and detained at 15.) Counselors organize mother’s groups for women whose children have been arrested and detained. And after a military clash or an arrest, the YMCA organizes social activities for younger children in the area. The activities help counselors spot children who aren’t coping well and get them help. 

MCC photo/Emily Loewen

While kids play, counselors watch for signs of trauma, says Jaraysah. For example, some children may be overly aggressive or withdrawn during team activities. Others might be overly controlling. And some draw images of soldiers or guns, or use only darker colors. All the children get a fun evening, and those who show signs of trauma can be referred to other programs to get counseling.

While the YMCA helps children process their trauma, the solution doesn’t lie in counseling alone. While military control and clashes continue, and while refugees wait for a safe home of their own, the trauma will continue, too. The right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland is recognized by the United Nations and the state of Israel, but the government has still not honored it. (Learn more about Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return.)

For now, living behind the separation wall, next to military checkpoints, is the reality for the refugees in Aida camp. Children will continue to watch the arrests of their fathers, brothers and friends. They will keep waking up in the middle of the night to find soldiers in their home. They will need counseling. “As long as the occupation is there, it’s important to keep such an important program,” says Jaraysah. 


1. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees  

This story is part of A Cry for Home, which offers stories, videos and fact sheets from MCC on Palestine and Israel. Learn more about A Cry for Home.