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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

2. Conducting Research in Burj al-Shamali

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One of the central problems for researchers attempting to gain systematic insight into the processes of identity formation [is] an epistemological problem – identity is ultimately an internal construct and not open to ‘empirical’ investigation.

- Elbedour et al., 1997: 221

1This ePaper focuses on changing patterns of social identification among Palestinian refugee children and young people of the fourth refugee generation. Following the approach of Peteet (2005), in this ePaper the individuals born in Palestine are referred to as the first refugee generation, the Generation of Palestine or the Generation of the Catastrophe (Jiil al-Falastiin/ Jiil an-Nakbah). They are followed by the second refugee generation that Peteet (2005) refers to as the Generation of the Revolution (Jiil ath-Thawrat) and the third refugee generation, the Generation of the War (Jiil al-Harb). In the same vein, individuals born between 1990 and 2012 are referred to here as the fourth refugee generation, which is a very young one including mainly children and adolescents. The argument of this ePaper is based on the assumption that childhood and adolescence are social rather than biological constructs, an assumption which is by now quite well established in Social Anthropology and Sociology (Boyden and de Berry, 2005).

2Burj al-Shamali’s dwellers refer to children up to 12-14 years of age as atfal or awlaad. The latter term also means “boys”. A boy is called either tifl (child) or walad (boy)/ awlaad (boys) until the age of 12-14. After having reached their mid teens they are called shabb (sg.)/ shabab (pl.) until they get married and become men who are called rajul (man), rijaal (men). The term ash-shabb can also be loosely translated as “youth” and it includes young men and young women, but never an exclusively female group. The camp dwellers call girls up to the age of 12-15 either tifl (child) or bint (girl)/ banaat (girls). In many conversations, people tend to call young women banaat until they get married. Others called them sabaiyya, a term that clearly marks the unmarried status of a young woman, until she enters womanhood through marriage. After marriage women are referred to as ‘imra’a (woman)/ niswaan (women). This ePaper uses the Burj al-Shamali inhabitants’ way of naming and classifying young Palestinians according to gender, age and legal status. Consequently, in the following analysis I will borrow Chatty and Hundt’s (2005) terminology, and refer to camp dwellers under the age of 13 as children (boys and girls), and to individuals between 13-22 years of age as young people, young men and young women. Chatty and Hundt (2005) do not, however, draw the line between children and young people at the age of 13, as they do not explicitly determine which age groups would fall under “children” and which under “young people”. Here the age of 13 is taken as a fixed turning point between children and young people only as an analytical simplification: in reality there is, of course, no clear cut distinction between the age groups. However, this age seems to coincide with a changing worldview among the young Palestinians in Burj al-Shamali. I decided on using the term “young people” rather than anthropological concepts such as “adolescent” or “youth”. This is because this study does not focus on how a certain age impacts social identification, but rather how the socioeconomic and political environment influences the social identification of a certain generation. It is not among the goals of this ePaper to find out how concepts of childhood and youth are socially constructed in the refugee camp.

3This ePaper is the result of a five-month socialisation in the summer of 2010 in Burj al-Shamali and its society, through participation in and introduction to various social activities in the camp. I worked as a kindergarten teacher at Beit Atfal Assomoud (a nationalist Non Govermental Organisation (NGO) and child welfare institution) and taught English to secondary students at Beit Atfal Assomoud and Al-Hola (also a nationalist NGO). I also gave sport and nutrition classes to women at these two institutions. This was also the time in which I established a close relationship with my host family and other camp dwellers who so welcomingly adopted me and gave me a chance to actively take part in their social life. This way I was integrated into the rhythms of family life, performing all the tasks my now-married host sister would have conducted if she were still living at her parents’ home. I did not miss one wedding, birth or hospital visit of “our” relatives and I was a welcomed and frequent guest at their homes. I also befriended my colleagues at work, my students and my host brother’s friends; this gave me a lot of space to move between different families and age groups. Thanks to all of these social activities, I soon learned the colloquial Arabic that facilitated my socialisation in the camp. And even though always remaining an outsider, I was hardly ever treated as such. Nevertheless, the fact that I was a Western woman smoothed the progress of my research in many ways: as a woman I was able to enter houses without any social constraints, so I could actively take part in the life of families and I could gossip and chit chat with the women of the camp. On the other hand, my status as a Western woman also opened the doors to socialising with men - mainly my host brother’s friends or male members of the extended family. Young men treated me as one of them rather than as a “woman”, which allowed me to discuss politics and taboo topics with them. My status as part of Abo Wassim’s family gave me the chance to move freely in the camp, and the family’s connections gave me access to important informants.

4I returned to Burj al-Shamali one year later in the summer of 2011 in order to conduct intensive field research for three months. I stayed in the same social environment and set up the sport and English classes again. I also took part in the summer activities of Beit Atfal Assomoud by joining the children and young people on a four-day scout camping trip to the mountains. The camp dwellers of Burj al-Shamali were all very open to talk to me and happy to take part in focus group discussions and gatherings. I was warmly received in every house I went to, and children and young people were also quite talkative, especially given the chance to hear their own recorded voices played back to them. Whatever questions I had, there was always someone to assist me. I have never before experienced so much goodwill in a community towards a stranger. The conclusions of this ePaper are to a great extent drawn on participant observations and ethnographic descriptions of the camp and the society. I also conducted six focus group discussions with young people over 20 years of age (two all-male groups, two all-female groups and two groups with a mix of males and females), had semi-structured interviews with parents (mostly mothers) and with three imams of the camp. I conducted further discussions with eight employees of the various social institutions operating in the camp, two nursery school teachers of Beit Atfal Assomoud, one United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) school teacher, a political official of Hamas, the head of the student office of Fatah, two former members of the popular committee and the country delegate of UNRWA, Salvatore Lombardo. Moreover, I carried out five semi-structured interviews with young people under 18 years of age, and eight semi-structured interviews with children between 5 and 12 years of age. This ePaper also draws on the evaluations in a questionnaire answered by young people of Beit Atfal Assomoud with 245 participating children and young people between 5 and 18 years of age on the streets of the camp. Additionally, its conclusions are based on the analysis of 20 Facebook profiles of young people (10 male, 10 female) from Burj al-Shamali between 14 and 25 years of age. I analysed them according to three variables: “liked pages”, “uploaded pictures” and “posts on the personal timeline”. I also used the analysis of 30 drawings of children (15 boys, 15 girls) between 4 and 13 years of age. The children were given a very broad task, namely to “draw their dreams”. The children were drawing in the street or the backyards of their houses (it is important to note that while they were drawing, there were neither parents nor teachers present to monitor or otherwise influence their ideas). For my conclusions I have also used my detailed collection and study of graffiti and posters on the camp walls. Besides this empirical evidence, this ePaper also builds on an extensive body of literature.

5A broad range of methods were applied in order to get a holistic perspective on the issue of social identification, and indeed each method has led to quite different conclusions that were not contradictory but complementary. Even though I was interested in finding out about issues of identity and identification, I did not discuss the topic of identity (hawiyyat) with the camp dwellers as such, or in such direct terms; in interviews and discussions I never asked: “What is your identity?” or “Who do you identify with?”. Indeed, I have not used the term hawiyyat at all. Such blunt attempts to find out about the camp dwellers’ identity would turn out to be rather fruitless because the standard answer one receives to such questions in the camp is, without exception, “Palestinian” or “Palestine”. In fact, it would be an absolute taboo to give another answer to these questions, and I would have had to deal with individuals who felt offended because I had questioned their Palestinian identity. I will elaborate later on why the Palestinians so decidedly insist on their Palestinianness.

6I have been very cautious to keep my informants anonymous – a promise that I gave to everyone who participated in my research. Therefore, quotes are referenced only with the gender and age of the person speaking. This is also the reason why neither transcripts of interviews, questionnaires or drawings, nor the detailed analysis of the Facebook profiles are included in the appendix. I have, however, included relatively long passages (written in italics) that are abstracts from field notes or word-by-word transcriptions of interviews and focus group discussions. These have been included throughout the ePaper in order to give the reader a “real” impression of the lived reality of the fourth refugee generation in Burj al-Shamali.

7My research was facilitated by two research assistants: The first, Maryam Abdallah, who is the UNRWA primary school teacher who helped me to access people for interviews, to evaluate the questionnaire and to transcribe some of the interviews. My other research assistant was Rayan Dahwish, an 11-year-old girl who lives in Burj al-Shamali. Rayan helped me to access children for interviews, conducted some of the drawing sessions and photographed the camp walls for the graffiti analysis. She helped me to understand what rocks the children’s boats the most, and what dreams and aspirations one may dare to have growing up in a refugee camp.


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