By Margaux MacColl
Night time brings chaos to the al-Am’ari refugee camp.
Almost every night, Israeli security forces storm beneath the white, key-emblazoned arch, guns in hand. They navigate the cramped alleys and enter Palestinian homes, sometimes by force. There have been reports of soldiers waking families by gunpoint.
When a man is taken to Israeli prison, the women of al-Am’ari gather in his absence.
“If one of the sons is arrested, all the mothers will go to sit with her. She will be crying. We sit to comfort her,” Im Nidal said. “If one of their sons is being released, we will go and have a party. We continue to visit her just to comfort her.”
Two-year-old Nidal was forced out of her family’s village near Jaffa in 1948. She has lived in al-Am’ari ever since, raising her many sons in the camp. At least five of her sons have been to Israeli jail.
Although it’s one of the smallest camps in the West Bank with about 6,100 refugees, the population has more than doubled since its establishment in 1949. The boundaries of the camp cannot change, so the homes continue to grow shakily upward as the residents continue to have large families.
When the men in the camp are arrested, there is a vacuum within these households, and the community as a whole, that needs to be filled.
Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively on the Palestinian movement, said that conflict can “sometimes leave a space for women when the men begin, in some ways, disappearing from the scene.”
“If the father’s no longer there,” she said. “Then the mother is the ‘head’ of the household. Economically, socially, emotionally and so forth.”
Nidal’s granddaughter, Rema, is a perfect example of a Palestinian woman growing beyond traditional roles. She’s currently enrolled at Al-Quds Open University in Jordan studying business management.
“Many have come to ask for Rema’s hand to get married,” Rema’s father, Emad Katriya, said. He rejects the men for now, telling them that “it’s very important that my daughter continues her education.”
In fact, all of the Nidal’s granddaughters are getting an education. While the girls in the camp are typically married off in their teenage years, there is a growing trend to educate their daughters before marriage. This serves as form of security. If something goes wrong, the daughter is still able to find a job.
Rema has used her classes to good use, starting a business where the al-Am’ari women make small purses to sell to visitors of the camp. The proceeds go to widows to help them sustain themselves financially.
All of this— Rema’s business, Nidal comforting women as their husbands go to prison— are crucial to keeping the community of al-Am’ari intact. They are crucial to creating a liveable life within unimaginable circumstances.
Pearlman said that women’s roles in resisting the occupation are often “overlooked because they’re less visible.”
“But if you think of protest widely, and especially when protest becomes so widespread– becomes not just events on the street, but an entire system of life, of people rebelling,” Pearlman said. “Women as members of societies, as backbones of families and as part of the economy, are vital in that.”
She described women’s act of surviving as “a different kind of protest.”
Walking through the al-Am’ari camp, there is photo of a man in a suit hanging on the wall. It is a memorial for a man who was shot by Israeli security forces; he is wearing a suit because he was killed a month before his wedding.
His fiance lives on in the camp, alongside thousands of other women in the same struggle, the same ceaseless protest against an occupation that started before some of them were born. Their survival, their women’s clubs, their sewing and embroidery, their strain to keep their families unified, could be considered a protest in itself. It is a protest they did not choose; it is a protest they are forced to live.
When asked if she would like to return to her village near Jaffa, Nidal sighed.
“I wish, I wish, I wish.”