By Ramzy Baroud
22 Sept 2018
Maintaining one's dignity while living a
dismal existence in a refugee camp is not an easy feat
My parents fought hard to spare us the
daily humiliations that come with living in Nuseirat - Gaza's largest refugee camp.
But when I turned six, and joined the UNRWA-run Nuseirat Elementary School for
Boys, there was no escape.
Not only was I a refugee on official United
Nations papers, but in practice as well, just like all my peers.
To be a Palestinian refugee means living
perpetually in limbo - unable to reclaim what has been lost, the beloved
homeland, and unable to fashion an alternative future and a life of freedom,
justice and dignity.
How are we to reconstruct our identity that
has been shattered by decades of exile when our powerful tormentors have linked
our own existence and repatriation to their very demise? Per Israel's logic,
our mere demand for the implementation of the internationally sanctioned right
of return is equivalent to a call for "genocide".
According to that same faulty logic, the
fact that my people live and multiply is a "demographic threat" to
Israel. When Israel and its friends around the world, argue that my people are
"invented", not only are they aiming to annihilate our collective
identity, but they are also justifying in their own minds the continued killing
and maiming of Palestinians, unhindered by any moral or ethical consideration.
I grew up in Gaza resisting this Israeli
effort to erase us, Palestinians. "Ramzy Mohammed Baroud: A Palestinian
Refugee," was stamped on every piece of paper that I acquired since the
day I opened my eyes.
With an ever-increasing number of refugees
in an ever-shrinking space in Gaza, our communal language was dominated by a
vocabulary that four generations of refugees are painfully familiar with:
murderous soldiers, fences, warplanes, a constant feeling of hovering death,
hunger, military curfews, resistance, martyrs and, UNRWA.
Always UNRWA. The United Nations Relief and
Works Agency for Palestinian refugees had accompanied our journey of exile from
the very start. Only months following the Nakba - the catastrophic destruction
of the Palestinian homeland and the exile of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians
in 1948 - UNRWA became synonymous with our exodus and our ongoing odyssey.
Much can be said about the circumstances
behind the creation of UNRWA by the United Nations General Assembly in December
1949; about its operations, efficiency and the effectiveness of its work, which
attempts to cover the needs of five million refugees.
But for me, my family and most
Palestinians, UNRWA was not a relief or charity organisation per se. Being
registered as a refugee with UNRWA provided us with a temporary identity that
allowed us to navigate 70 years of exile, roaming without a home or even a
roadmap for our return to what was, for a thousand years and more, our
historical Palestinian homeland.
It was as if the stamp of
"refugee" on every certificate we possessed - birth, death and
everything else in between - was a compass, pointing back to the places we came
from; to my destroyed village of Beit Daras and not to the Nuseirat refugee
camp; not to Jabaliya, Shati', Yarmouk or Ein El-Hilweh, but to the 600 towns
and villages that were destroyed during the Zionist assault on Palestine.
The existence of these villages may have
been erased, as a whole new country was established upon their ruins, but the
Palestinian refugees remained - subsisted, resisted and plotted their return
home. The UNRWA refugee status was the international recognition of our rights.
Frankly, none of this mattered to me at the
age of six. I stood in line like all the other kids at school; chanted whatever
morning routine slogans we were told to chant; took my place behind the
worn-out desk that bore the marks of generations of refugee children scratching
their names and references to past wars and tragedies; and did everything that
I needed to do to be a good UNRWA kid.
And in first grade, when the first winter
rainstorm came, I also learned how to reposition my desk to dodge the water
dripping from the ceiling. Every roof of every UNRWA classroom I have ever been
in was dripping when it rained.
In fact, one of my fondest memories from
school was, when in third grade, our classroom flooded and our history, Arabic
and math teacher, Mohamed Diab, asked us to sit on top of our desks as he
continued the lesson. We shivered in our shabby UNRWA-supplied jackets, worn by
many others before us. We huddled together with excitement as the water covered
the floor of the classroom and as Mr Diab went on with his stories of past Arab
grandeur from Palestine to al-Andalus.
It was at that UNRWA school that I painted
my first Palestinian flag and experienced my very first Israeli army raid. As
students, blinded by tear gas and smoke, ran in different directions, not
knowing how to reach the main gate to escape, I remember the sixth graders
going back in to rescue younger children. It was there and then that I saw what
Palestinian courage means.
Mass flag drawing was a ritual that
happened in the first week of each year. It was not a practice officially
sanctioned by UNRWA, as the Israeli military administration of Gaza detained
children, heavily fined parents and shut down schools for what they deemed to
be an illicit act. Waving or even possessing a Palestinian flag was a criminal
offence in Gaza. We did it anyway.
Sometimes, in the first few days of school,
a massive blue truck would pull into our school welcomed by the shrill
excitement of hundreds of children. Within hours each pupil would be handed
several used books, two new notebooks, a set of pencils, an empty art book and
Those fortunate enough to possess the
green, red and black crayons would share them with the rest as we all rushed to
draw as many Palestinian flags as possible.
Israeli soldiers always anticipated our
collective rebellious act and waited for us like vultures in the streets. Many
UNRWA kids were handcuffed and hauled to the army "tents" - a massive
Israeli army encampment separating Nuseirat from the Buraij refugee camp - many
crying for their parents and beseeching God for mercy.
I once threw my bag in a thorny bush to
escape the wrath of the Israeli soldiers. Retrieving it felt like being poked
by a hundred needles all at once.
The Israelis also terrorised us with their
constant raids on UNRWA schools. Thousands of children and youth were killed
and wounded that way, most notably during the First Palestinian Intifada of
1987. Our protests often started at UNRWA schools and it was in these same
schools we also met to console one another over the wounding and martyrdom of
No, the Israeli war didn't target UNRWA as
a UN body, but as an organisation that allowed us to maintain our identity as
refugees with inalienable rights, demanding justice and repatriation to our
homes. UNRWA fed in us the hope that one day we will shed what was meant to be
a temporary identity in favour of our true identity, going back to being us
again, a Palestinian people, an ancient nation that predates Israel by
It is largely because of these experiences
that UNRWA is an essential part of my identity as a Palestinian refugee. This
intrinsic relationship is not predicated on the services that UNRWA provides or
fails to provide, but rather on the political and legal principles its
existence is based on.
When I entered the UNRWA school, I also got
my first food card. I rarely used it at the "tu'meh" (literary
meaning "feeding") - UNRWA's feeding centre in our refugee camp. Even
at a very young age, I loathed that experience. I hardly cared for that single
slice of dried bread, half an egg and half an apple. Standing in that long line
of impoverished children at the tu'meh - a place that reeked with the stench of
a thousand boiled eggs - was hardly ever a pleasant experience.
A few weeks later, I secretly gave my UNRWA
food card to another poor classmate, a Bedouin boy by the name of Hamdan, whose
family didn't qualify for refugee status. That was not a virtuous act on my
part; UNRWA's food was simply awful.
Yet, despite its leaky school roofs and
stale bread, UNRWA was and remains essential and irreplaceable. As far as
Israel is concerned, the refugees were meant to be "undefined" - in
fact, that was exact term written in my Israel-issued laissez-passer in the
space for nationality. The founders of Israel envisioned a future where
Palestinian refugees would eventually fade away, disappearing into the larger
population of the Middle East. Seventy years on, the Israelis are still
entertaining that same illusion.
Now, with the help of the anti-Palestinian
US administration of Donald Trump, they are orchestrating even more sinister
campaigns to make Palestinian refugees vanish through the destruction of UNRWA
and the redefining of the refugee status of millions of Palestinians. By
denying UNRWA urgently needed funds, Washington wants to enforce a new reality,
one in which neither human rights, nor international law or morality are of any
What would become of Palestinian refugees
seems to be of no importance to Trump, his son-in-law and adviser, Jared
Kushner and other US officials. The Americans are now insolently watching,
hoping that their callous strategy will finally bring Palestinians to their
knees so that they will ultimately submit to the Israeli government's dictates.
The Israelis want the Palestinians to give
up their right of return in order to get "peace". The joint
Israeli-American "vision" for the Palestinians basically means the
imposition of apartheid. My people will never accept this.
The latest US-Israeli folly will prove
futile. In the past, successive US administrations have done everything in
their power to support Israel and to punish the supposedly intransigent
Palestinians. The right of return, however, remained the driving force behind
Palestinian resistance, as the Great March of Return demonstrated in Gaza
earlier this year.
All the money in Washington's coffers will
not reverse what is now a deeply embedded belief in the hearts and minds of
millions of refugees throughout Palestine, the Middle East and the world.
Many years after joining the UNRWA
education system, I still identify with that UNRWA kid that I was. Sometimes, I
wonder what has befallen my old desk in my first UNRWA classroom. Has it
collapsed under the weight of the years of use and successive wars?
If it is still standing, I truly hope that
my doodles are still there. I carved a map of historical Palestine, encircled
it with a ring of flowers and wrote under it: Ramzy Baroud. Palestine. Freedom.
Justice. Resistance. Raed Muanis. Raed was a friend of mine, a neighbour and
another UNRWA kid, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers who spotted him
running with a small Palestinian flag.
The views expressed in this article are
the author's own