The Balata Effect
Imagine, if you will, walking home from school through an alley constructed with grey concrete walls so narrow that they brush your shoulders on either side. Under your feet, compacted dirt littered with trash. Above, walls so steep that any suggestion of daylight has disappeared. With each building you pass, loud snatches of conversation emerge. You cannot see what lies around the next shadowy corner. Once at home, you try to sleep in a room with fifteen relatives and when you wake, you prepare for your day in a room with those same fifteen family members. This is the reality of the TYO children living in Balata refugee camp. Balata camp, established in 1950, is the largest camp (population-wise) in Palestine with an estimated 23,000 - 30,000 residents living in 2.5 square meter spaces. Many of our children live within the boundaries of Balata camp and those who don’t hail from similar environments in the El Ain, and Askar camps.
I had the opportunity to visit Balata camp several weeks after beginning my internship with Core Child Program. Before walking through Balata, I had been prepped on the dismal and anxiety-ridden living situations that many of our youngest TYO beneficiaries experience in the camps. No amount of time in the classroom, no scholarly article and no news report could have prepared me for what I saw and heard within the camp walls.
I saw a boy of 10 years old smoking a cigarette. I saw areas of dark allies that had been cut away in order to remove the deceased from homes hidden deep inside the maze of concrete. I was hit by a small rock hurled by a preschool-aged child. A child who could have easily been a part of my Core AM English class, had he the supportive network necessary to seek out and enroll him in the TYO Core Child Program. I heard very personal conversations leaking from open windows and doorways, and very quickly realized that privacy is a foreign concept to those living in Balata. I saw children milling about everywhere, in dark alleys and on main streets, toddling through the camp with no supervision and no support.
Every day, the Core Child program at TYO provides a safe space for hundreds of children to explore, play, learn and grow. A space that encourages free expression, non-violence and self-confidence. A space where children are momentarily released from the anxiety enveloping Balata and other refugee camps and allowed to just be “kids”. For these children, TYO is a building that permits them to whisper and be heard or yell and be encouraged. A place where they can have second and even third servings of lunch and an unlimited supply of water when they are thirsty. A place where they can learn English, master communication skills and collaborate on group projects with other children their age, hailing from similar living situations in El Ain or Askar camps.
Having spent even a small amount of time in Balata camp taught me more about our Core Child Program beneficiaries than I ever could have learned from a book. I look at our children here at TYO with a new level of admiration and respect. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to spend my days with the Core Child Program. Each morning I see those tiny, smiling faces march through my door, I am recharged with a purpose and a commitment to the TYO mission.
Jessica is a Fall 2013 intern at TYO in Nablus