Niall Sargent travelled to the West Bank, and the refugee camp of Balata, where he examined the impact of drastic funding cuts by America to UNRWA, the UN-agency that works as a quasi-government in the camp, and provides vital social services for millions of Palestinian refugees. Here, he reflects on his trip.
Any experience in the West Bank, even if just for a few days, offers a profound learning experience.
I have had the pleasure of two incredibly challenging yet rewarding experiences in the Palestinian region over the past two years.
Last year for The Irish Times, I covered the impact that climate change is having on the olive harvest, an economic lifeline and a cultural root to 100,000 families who depend on the symbolic tree first planted over 3,000 years ago.
Staying at a compact, yet beautiful permaculture farm in a small village close to Nablus – the second city of the West Bank – I was lucky to spend a few weeks helping to strip fruit in the olive groves during the culturally significant October harvest.
Despite the very poor harvest, I happily toiled away for hours stripping away the tender round fruit as my gracious host regaled me with stories of his village and his peoples’ rich history, the work punctuated with delicious traditional meals under the shade of the olive branches.
Last year’s trip was also my first experience with Balata – the largest of the West Bank’s 19 refugee camps, set up for Palestinians displaced from Jaffa after the 1948 war with Israel – that is located at the urban edge of Nablus.
Although in the region to cover climate issues, my interest was piqued by the decision of Donald Trump just one month before my visit to suddenly and drastically cut funding to UNRWA, the UN-agency that works as a quasi-government in the camps, providing vital social services for millions of Palestinian refugees.
I set about researching the conditions for residents in Balata, who, even before the Trump cuts, faced a long list of problems such as high unemployment rates, low income, poor infrastructure, and overburdened health clinics, as well as growing levels of violence and gang activity – quite uncommon in the West Bank where petty crime is low to non-existent.
Overcrowding is another major issue, with some streets so narrow that I needed to hold my backpack by my side to avoid getting stuck. No photograph can truly capture the claustrophobic streets that separate many of the camp apartments that holds 30,000 people in an area only twice the size of our Temple Bar.
During this first visit, I spoke off-the-record with teachers, social workers and doctors – bar the top dogs, UNRWA staff are not allowed to officially speak with media – who outlined the immediate impact of the cuts on short-term jobs for refugees and cuts to other services that left staff stretched.
I was nearly pushed over by a mighty wave of school girls who wanted their photos taken once I produced my camera collection at the girls’ school in the camp, and shared tea with countless kind residents who feared that these very same girls who smiled so eagerly for my lens might lose the opportunity to a decent education as cuts inevitably led to a drop in teacher numbers and resources.
I knew that this story of hardship caused by an arrogant decision made half way across the globe was one that I wanted to tell, and returning earlier this year, I gained a greater insight into the problems suffered by the Balata residents in the year since the Trump cuts, as well as learning more about their longing to return to their true homesteads, the camp’s history and association with both Intifadas, and also about the hospitality of its inhabitants.
No news story can truly describe the warmth of people in the camp, with countless invitations for tea as is common practice in the region. In times where kindness and beauty seem scarce in the world, I found it blooming in this isolated corner of the world in the face of adversity and the countless hardships imposed on refugees living in Balata.
And the struggle goes on notwithstanding the best efforts of doctors, teachers, and community workers in the camp as UNRWA, despite its best efforts, continues to struggle to raise enough funds to ensure than services keep up with the needs of the people.
While I was able to come back home from my first trip to the West Bank with fresh fragrant olive oil and kilos of sugary dates, this recent experience left a bittersweet taste upon my return to Ireland – a longing to return to learn more from the community that I found in Balata, together with a sharp sense of guilt of being able to freely leave the camp and the West Bank, something that most Palestinians will never experience, as the backdrop of the conflict clouds any vision of a life beyond the camp walls.