Children of Catastrophe – Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. Jamal Krayem Kanj. Garnet Publishing, Reading, UK. 2010.
Children of Catastrophe is a work of courage, love – of family, friends, and country – persistence, grief, sorrow, joy, anger, bravery, fear, and frustration. In short, it encompasses all the emotions that not only are part of life, but a large part of life for a child born and raised in a refugee camp. Nahr el Bared refugee camp was established in 1949 after the nakba in Palestine. Set near the northern border of Lebanon with Syria, the camp existed, grew, and to a degree, thrived and prospered until it was destroyed by the Lebanese army in 2007.
Nakba and ethnic cleansing
The first sections of Jamal Kanj’s story outline very quickly the events of the nakba, with references to the even longer history of Zionism going back to 1896 and a declaration from Theodore Herzl concerning the endeavor “to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country.”
Demographics has always been a problem for the Jewish state and give the lie to the democratic claim of the Jewish state. Jamal quotes Joseph Weitz, the head of the Jewish National Fund in 1940, saying, “Not one village must be left, not one tribe. The transfer must be directed at Iraq, Syria, and even Transjordan.” Ben Gurion, from whom comments about peaceful coexistence can be found, nevertheless felt and understood the problem created by a resident Arab population, indicating that the UN partition plan “does not provide a stable base for a Jewish state….There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%.”
Jamal ends his introduction with notes concerning the life of ‘survivors’: “the refugees have indefatigably remained part of a nation, without the state.” This becomes a heavily ironic comment in comparison with the declared and possibly mythological exile of the Jewish people over two thousand years. This is perhaps the underlying theme to the work: that the Palestinians “have remained part of an enduring nation in exile. The dispossession and the challenge to survive have become their very identity and a key component of what it means to be a Palestinian.”
Life in the camp was “deprivation by circumstance” yet that deprivation was tempered by the idea that “it is not possible to lack what you have never experienced.” Protected as best as possible from life’s hardships by his parents, the family lived “a relatively normal life.” For Jamal, this was all too true, as his early life centered on life in the camp, and “life was normalized by what we had and not by what was lacking.” Higher education and a skilled trade became goals for the children of the camp.
Daily life consisted of fetching water for washing and cooking on a daily basis from a communal water tap. Firewood was important, gathered from local farmers’ fields and hedges from around the camp, or from the beaches of the Mediterranean where the camp was located. Bread making was another daily requirement. These activities, done mainly by Jamal’s mother, were also one of the main sources of news and gossip in the camp.
Jamal describes his personal economy, digging up sand and aggregate from the beaches for construction, selling scrap metals and rendered animal bones for fertilizer products. Farm labor on nearby Lebanese farms provided another source of funds. Fishing with rod and line, later supplanted by dynamite, provided food and funds.
Never accepted as citizens, the refugees were extremely limited with any economic or personal contact with Lebanese society, although as time passed, not only did the refugee camp become somewhat self-supporting and innovative in both a technical and business sense, it also interacted more and more with the countryside and villages around it.
Education and activism
As Jamal approached the teen years, political awareness and revolutionary ideas developed. As political and resistance activities increased in the camp, so did Israeli incursions, from land and sea. The general rule was followed in that “It was…very common for Israelis to shell civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately and disproportionally under the specious pretext of self-defense.”
Part of this was the delayed fused munitions that exploded well after the raids ended, when people had gathered at the scene of the attack to give assistance; another part was the cluster bombs that left hundreds of unexploded ordinances lying around that Jamal and his friends helped round up (now there’s an everyday ‘normalized’ activity that most of us have never experienced!)
In spite of the obstacles thrown up by being in a country that did not give citizenship to the refugees, Jamal persevered with his education. For the most part of his high school years, civil war disrupted camp life physically and economically. It also disrupted the activities of the educational institutes he needed to attend in Lebanon.
The combination of determination, perseverance, and good timing led Jamal to Baghdad in order to obtain his high school diploma. His reaction to Baghdad was very positive, as “One cannot live in Baghdad and not acquire fond memories of the place….At the time, the Iraqi government was also looking toward the future, as the zealously promoted education, self-reliance, industrialization and manufacturing. Learning was becoming an important pillar in Iraqi society.”
From there, he left for the United States where he earned an engineering degree (1983) and later an MBA in Global Management (2001). His story does not cover this period, but returns to a later visit to Gaza and the West Bank under UN auspices. After describing a near fatal accident while visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, his passage aided by his UN credentials, Jamal ends his story with an account of the destruction of the Nahr el Bared refugee camp.
Return to Nahr el Bared
Several plausible reasons are provided for the destruction of the camp. First, the “disappearance of another Palestinian camp is one less political hurdle in the complicated peace process,” in which the Arab governments tend to call for a “Just solution” rather than a right of return. Israel is suspected of playing a part in the camps destruction – no surprise with that – through their spy networks and military provisions. Another aspect mentioned is the demographic balance as “Lebanon’s democracy is held together by a thin thread balancing arrangements across the sectarian divide.”
The camp’s successful economy also played a part in its demise, as its proximity to Syria and the Mediterranean “helped create a relatively strong and vibrant economy,” part of which involved smuggling contraband goods, even though that money generally went to large Lebanese traders. The camp competed successfully with Tripoli and surrounding communities as costs were lower, labor costs were lower, and as the government did not recognize the camp residents as citizens, there were no taxes collected.
The final summation is directly stated: “Arab governments and the international community, and even the Palestinian Authority, provided a cover for the destruction of thousands of homes under the pretext of fighting “Muslim fundamentalists.”
The destruction of the camp deepened Jamal’s understanding of what the earlier generations had suffered, what all of Palestine had suffered during the nakba. He was “able to fathom the secret of the older generation’s eternal connection to Palestine, a nation that continued to exist only in their historical memories.”
Jamal Kanj’s story evokes all the emotions experienced through life’s trials, enhanced and exaggerated by it being experienced within a refugee camp that remained under continual stress from external forces. The book is well written and does not dwell on the deprivations, but instead emphasizes the successes of life within the camp, successes against many seemingly overwhelming odds. From that success, the success of survival and more, the Palestinian identity will remain strong within its own community. Children of Catastrophe explains that identity and brings it to life in a straight forward manner, for those beyond the borders of the community, to the larger community of global humanitarian awareness.