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Feature: ‘We Are Orphans Here’

That correspondent had never stepped foot in the camp. I hadn’t expected to either, until I was invited on an extensive tour of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and was asked to choose a subject to write about, for a book to be published next year. With no previous experience in the region, and little knowledge, I gravitated instinctually to Shuafat camp. From my own time there, the sustaining image is shimmering white. The kids, dressed in white. The buildings, a baked tone of dusty, smoke-stained white. The minarets, all white. And there was the 1972 Volkswagen Beetle in gleaming white, meticulously restored. It was on the shop floor of a garage run by Baha’s friend Adel. A classic-car enthusiast and owner myself, I wanted to talk to Adel about the car. He showed me his garage, his compressor, his lift. Like the escalator in the mall, these were things you would never expect to find in a place without services.

We sat, and Adel made coffee. He and Baha told me about the troubles with the drug Mr. Nice Guy. They said every family has an addict among its children and sometimes among the older people as well. A third of the population is strung out on it, they said. It makes people crazy, Adel and Baha agreed. Is there a link, I asked, between Mr. Nice Guy and the kids who decide, essentially, to end it all by running at an Israeli soldier with a knife? They each concurred that there was. Two years earlier, Baha said, by way of contrast, there was a man from the Shuafat camp who did a deadly car ramming. The Israelis came and blew up his house. He was older, Baha said, and out of work and he decided that he was finally ready to lose everything. With the kids, Baha said, it’s different. It’s an act of impulsive courage. The drug helps enormously with that.

Adel kept making reference to his 9-year-old daughter, who is physically disabled and cannot attend school. I asked to meet her or Adel asked if I wanted to meet her. Either way we ended up in Adel’s large apartment, and his daughter Mira was wheeled out to the living room. Mira was burned over most of her body and is missing part of one arm and a kneecap. Her face and scalp are disfigured. A school bus filled with children from the Shuafat camp were on a trip to Ramallah when their bus collided with a truck on wet roads. The bus overturned and burst into flames. Five children and a teacher burned to death. Dozens were injured. Emergency services were delayed by confusion over who had jurisdiction. As a result, Mira and other children had to be taken in the cars of bystanders to the closest hospital. The accident took place between the Adam settlement and Qalandiya checkpoints, in what is called Area C of the West Bank, which is entirely under Israeli control. The likelihood of something like this occurring was well known. Later, a report from Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group, established that the tragedy resulted from the multiple challenges of living beyond the separation barrier. Roads were substandard. There were too many children on the bus, the children had no access to education in their own communities and there was no oversight.

“When the accident happened, we didn’t know how to cope with it,” Baha told me. Someone got up on a loading dock in the camp and called out the names of the dead. Afterward, Baha and Adel cried all the time. They felt that the lives of Shuafat’s children were disposable. They decided to start their own volunteer emergency team, through WhatsApp, and it has 80 members, who are trained in first aid and in special skills they are ready to employ at a moment’s notice. They are saving up to purchase their own Shuafat camp ambulance, whose volunteer drivers will be trained medical professionals, like Baha’s wife, Hiba, who is a nurse.

Baha, I noticed, seemed more optimistic about their emergency team, and about the future, than Adel did. At one point, Adel, who has a shattered and frantic but loving, warm energy, turned to me and said, “We are orphans here.”

Mira, who had been transferred from her wheelchair to the couch, sat and fidgeted. She understood no English but was forced to quietly pretend she was listening. I kept smiling at her, and she smiled back. I was desperate to give her something, to promise something. It’s very difficult to see a child who has suffered so tremendously. It’s basically unbearable. I should give her the ring I was wearing, I thought. But then I saw that it would never fit her fingers, which were very swollen and large, despite her young age; her development, after the fire, was thwarted because her bones could not properly grow. I’ll give her my earrings, was my next idea, and then I realized that her ears had been burned off in the fire. I felt obscene. I sat and smiled as if my oversize teeth could beam a protective fiction over this poor child, blind us both to the truth, that no shallow gesture or petty generosity would make any lasting difference, and that her life was going to be difficult.

The travel agency in the Shuafat mall is called Hope. There is a toy store in the mall called the Happy Child. The children I met were all Baha’s kids, part of his group, on his team, drafting off his energy, which was relentlessly upbeat.

I have to recreate, with all the precision I can manage, to remember what I am able to about Baha. I see Baha in his pink polo shirt, tall and handsome, but with a soft belly that somehow reinforces his integrity, makes him imperfectly, perfectly human. Baha singing “Bella Ciao” in well-keyed Italian, a language he learned at 19, on the trip that changed his life, working with Vento di Terra, a community-development and human rights group based in Italy. Later, I sent a video of Baha singing to various Italian friends, leftists who were thrilled that a guy in a Palestinian refugee camp knew the words to “Bella Ciao.”

Baha’s friends and relatives all hugging me and cheek-kissing me, the women bringing out boxes that contained their hand-embroidered wedding dresses, insisting I try on each dress, whose colors and designs specified where they were from: one in black with white stitching, from Ramallah. Cream with red, Jerusalem. In each case we took a photo, laughing, me in each dress, with the woman it belonged to on my arm.

Everyone imploring me to come back, and to bring Remy, my 8-year-old, and I was sure that I would come back, and bring Remy, because I had fallen in love with these people.

And in the background of the hugs and kisses, in almost every home where we spent time, the TV playing the Islamic channel, Palestine Al-Yawm, a relentless montage of blood, smoke, fire and kaffiyeh-wrapped fighters with M-16s.

The constant hospitality. Coffee, tea, mint lemonade, ice water, all the drinks I politely accepted. Drank and then sloshed along, past faded wheat-pasted posters of jihadist martyrs.

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