by Yukie Saruta
Jaffa is located next to Tel Aviv, one of the most famous sightseeing cities in Israel. It is next to the Mediterranean Sea, and people can enjoy the beautiful view, lots of Israeli comes here for sightseeing as well. At a glance, nobody finds any dark shadow in this place. However, if you know people who cannot live there, the impression toward the city may be changed.
People who cannot live in Jaffa are packed into a small place. If they start a quarrel among couples, neighbors come and start mediating among them. They know what their neighbors ate yesterday. This is an ironic joke about the refugee camp.
Their Life in the Camp
In Nablus, there is a refugee camp called “Balata Refugee Camp”. The scale is 1square km, however, over 25,000 people live in there. They started the temporary life since 1948, and they still continue living there because of both their poverty and identity as people who lived in Yafa.
In the beginning, their residences were just tents. A few years later, the UN (UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) constructed a house for them but the height of the house was around 1.5m, and it was uncomfortable. They started expanding the space of the residence, by adding another floor above or by digging below the floor.
Along the street, lots of children are running around, and they welcomed me and followed me asking “How are you?” or “What’s your name?” They go to the school which was also built by the UN. However it is too small for 8000 children to learn there. Due to the limited amount of rooms to study in, girls have classes in the morning, and boys have classes in the afternoon. There are only 30 teachers, and they take care of all the students.
When they feel bad or become sick, they go to a small clinic which is also built by the UN. Only two doctors are there, and it opens from 8 am to 2pm, 6 hours in a day.
Hope for return or loss of identity: Meaning of “Yafa” for them
Whenever I asked refugees if they want to go back their home, everybody replied to me “Of course.” However, this way of questioning has never revealed any concrete idea about what they expect for the future. It’s been over 65 years since the Nakba happened and they moved to Nablus. The refugee’s situation became more complicated because the number of people who experienced life in Yafa has decreased, while the number of people whose grandparents moved from Yafa and they themselves born in the camp is increasing.
I asked 5 girls in the camp to paint an “Image of Yafa”, in order to know how they understand Yafa and how the image is close to the current Jaffa. They are all aged 5.
Most of girls drew trees with oranges, flowers, things they like (balloons, cats, heart marks), people, houses, and the mosque. Interestingly, only one person drew the sea. Even one of the girls drew a mother with two children who shed tears because they lost their houses and starved.
Apparently, their images of Yafa are vague. Still, most of them express their positive feeling toward Yafa by painting things they like, or pictures with bright colors.
After working with the girls, I interviewed a 37 year old man named Abdullah Kharoub, who born in the camp and whose father lived in Yafa and moved to the camp. He has never seen the view of current Jaffa, however, he knew that his father came from Salama village which is located 10-15 km from Yafa. There still exist three mini streets called “Salama Street”. Even though his house is still there, the village itself disappeared and became an industrial area.
He told me that he is not sure if he will go back to Jaffa even if he gets the right to return. It is because he spends all his life in Nablus, and the possibility to go back to Jaffa is 50% for him. And he also estimated that 30-50% of 2nd generation of the refugees may choose to stay around Nablus even if they get a right to return. “But we want the choice of where to live.” That’s partly why they strongly insist on the right of return. It does not always mean “Every refugee will go directly back to their home city if they get the right to return.”
He added some explanations about the generation gap between the 1st generation and 3rd generation. According to him, most of girls drew trees and flowers because their environment does not allow them to see trees or flowers in the camp. They could not paint the sea because they’ve never seen it, and even sometimes they do not know there is a sea near Jaffa. On the other hand, they see Yafa as a hope, the way they positively see Yafa is caused by the frustration they have toward the current life in the Camp.
Regarding the refugees who experienced the life in Yafa and moved to the camp, their situation is quite severe. They didn’t want to accept the reality that Jaffa has changed, and what they wish is to go back to the “Yafa” which is still in their mind. Some of them face the loss of memory, one day he wakes up and forgets everything about the conflict and the life in the refugee camp, and he misunderstands that he still lives in “Yafa”. Even he tries to get out of the camp and go back his home.
Co-living with Jews: Applying a Renewed Image of “Yafa”
If they go back to Jaffa in the future, they cannot avoid living with Jews. He told me that it is possible to live with Jews peacefully, because they lived together before the declaration of independence of Israel. If refugees go back to Jaffa, they won’t break down anything which is already existed in current Jaffa. What they want from the city is a place where they can live as normal citizens.
However, one thing should be pointed out. Those who live in Jaffa today identify the city as being full of Israeli citizens. If refugees go back to Jaffa, their image of Jaffa’s identity will be changed dramatically even if they try co-living with other citizens. They will have to give up their current image of Jaffa’s identity and will have to renew their image of it.
Let’s say, you live in a city for a long time. One day, some communities decided to move to your city, and their culture or religion will be mixed up with your current city. Even if they have understandable reasons for the move, you cannot avoid thinking that why it has changed.
I can’t say anything about how things should be, because I am just an outsider. At least, I strongly hope that the solution for this problem includes every stakeholder’s perspective as much as possible, and “the right of return” is discussed without isolating any of the images of Jaffa and Yafa.