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Journey From A Palestinian Refugee Camp to America
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posted on » Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Author hopes his personal account of life as an exiled Palestinian will help drum up global support for fellow refugees.   ALICIA DE HALDEVANG reports...
LIKE many other Palestinians, Jamal Krayem Kanj was born and raised in a Lebanese refugee camp after his parents fled their home in 1948 with his elder brother Ghazi.

However, life in the Nahr El Bared refugee camp, located 10 miles north of Tripoli, was never easy.

Mr Kanj and his five siblings attended a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school and grew up as outsiders, never truly being accepted into the Lebanese society.

But Mr Kanj was among the lucky ones who escaped the camps, first emigrating to Baghdad to complete his high school education and then to the US to attend university in San Diego.

His parents remained in Nahr El Bared until the Red Cross rescued them in 2007 after their home was completely destroyed by the Lebanese army.

Now Mr Kanj is hoping his personal account of growing up as a refugee will drum up more support for those still struggling with day-to-day life in the camps.

He has collected his remarkable experiences together in a book called Children of Catastrophe: Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America, which he will be signing on Sunday at the Shaikh Ibrahim Centre, Muharraq.

"When I tried to make a historical and academic argument about the Palestinian refugees, people shut themselves off because they didn't want to listen to something that stood against their own system of belief," he said.

"It was only when I added my personal experiences that people listened more because it's my own history and they couldn't question it.

"In no time most of them switched sides to be sympathetic towards the Palestinians, because they saw it in a different context and were able to overcome the subliminal indoctrination they had heard all their lives."

Children of Catastrophe combines the academic with on-the-ground facts, history with personal emotions and with this Mr Kanj hopes to reach a more mainstream audience.

"I hope that by reading my account of the situation, people will learn history without realising it, without the intellectual and academic heavy argument.

"By putting my story down on paper I am trying to meet the people I've never had the chance to meet, and to bring it down to an easier level of understanding and acceptance."

The issue of refugees who settled in surrounding Arab countries in the aftermath of Israel's creation in 1948 is the book's primary topic.

"I believe that the most critical issue in the peace negotiations next to that of Jerusalem is the refugees and establishing whether they have the right to return home," said Mr Kanj.

"These issues should be at the fore of the discussions between the two sides and not pushed back to be dealt with later. The way the Israeli government is behaving is out of the picture.

"As the son of a Palestinian refugee I cannot believe that my father and mother, and generations before them who were born in Palestine, cannot have the right to go back to their homes when an American Jew from Brooklyn - or anywhere in the world - can come and 'return' after 3,000 years.

"I myself have an American passport, but that does not take away my right to return home."

Children of Catastrophe concentrates on daily life in Nahr El Bared camp, particularly the way people supported themselves without financial aid from the host country.

Mr Kanj brings the camp and its inhabitants to the forefront and stresses that not enough is exposed in the media, or even in history books about such camps.

"Eleven camps exist today in Lebanon, which are self-governed without financial support from the host country," he said.

"Seventy trades are banned to Palestinian refugees, but 60 per cent of them were employed inside the camps.

"Yet even if he was born in Lebanon, a Palestinian refugee cannot become a doctor or engineer on Lebanese soil.

"Some trades have been opened, such as electricians and plumbers, but Palestinians are not allowed to start independent businesses like a taxi service."

A failure to reach a conclusive and concrete peace agreement would have a detrimental affect on such refugee camps and without greater international attention, the plight of the refugees could worsen, warns Mr Kanj.

"In theory, the camps could survive - especially due to expatriate refugees who offer financial support to those left behind," he said.

"However, a very critical part of the economic survival of the camps was UNRWA, which employed teachers, medical clinics and sanitation workers.

"If the peace process concluded without any direction for refugees, the UN will have to pull out and therefore the camps' survival would be threatened without international responsibility."

Much more awareness of these camps is crucial to helping refugees and safeguarding their future, says Mr Kanj.

"Not enough people know about the camps, some don't even know of their existence," he said.

"The camps are always mentioned when there is trouble, such as people being killed or homes being destroyed.

"After the destruction of Nahr El Bared in 2007, no-one ever looked into what happened to the 40,000 people when 6,000 homes were destroyed.

"The problem is that we don't connect the news to the individuals directly affected and in my book I try to connect what it means to have 6,000 homes destroyed.

"Where are those 40,000 people now? What happened to them?

"If you concentrate on the past only, it becomes an abstract that people talk about like history, the Crusades or the Middle Ages for example.

"By connecting it to today and the reasons, then it starts to make sense."

Nahr El Bared was destroyed by Lebanese forces in the aftermath of a clash between the Lebanese Army and a local radical Islamist group Fatah Al Islam.

Fatah Al Islam used the camp as a base for its activities and tried to recruit young men living in the camp to join their cause.

"People need to be acquainted with personal experiences and be able to connect to them without experiencing them in person," said Mr Kanj.

"This way, the peace process would have a meaning to someone in Texas, the UK or Australia.

"Fundamentally, the settlements being destroyed are people's homes, not just concrete buildings that can be replaced or forgotten about.

"It is important to iterate that the negotiations mean more than just a convoluted peace process, made by one side with all the power, which is supported by the US and the West.

"In this way when individuals have a deeper understanding and connection, they can try to enforce more pressure on their own governments to take action."

The implication of the peace process ultimately has an effect on the whole world and every individual, said Mr Kanj.

"It is not a case of an event happening miles away, in a different continent so therefore won't affect you," he said.

"The outcome could have a knock-on effect on global economics, oil relations and global supply and demand.

"The main point is the terror that's originating from hatred and this sensation of helplessness that is the most dangerous emotion.

"Through our own actions of not doing or saying enough, we are creating a generation of helpless people who are willing to do anything today in the hope that something positive will come from it tomorrow.

"Thirty years ago, no-one had heard of suicide bombers and when you create an unstable situation, you create an unstable supply of knowledge and goods between countries.

"Personally I believe that the US and European attitude towards Israel, the almost begging attitude directed at Israel instead of enforcing measures, is the best fuel for recruiting future suicide bombers.

"The Israeli government uses intellectual terror to terrorise people with their "anti-Semitic" slogan.

"Anybody who speaks against Israeli politics is labelled anti-Semitic, but their criticisms have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or Arabs or Jews, but everything to do with the politics of the Israeli government.

"The US, which is the major supplier of financial and military aid to Israel, is unable to convince the Israeli government to postpone or delay the building of illegal settlements for 90 days with massive financial rewards and military incentives.

"How can a Palestinian refugee have any glimpse of hope from the peace process when the biggest influence on Israel is unable to enforce cohesive behaviour and Israeli compliance with international law?

"Until this happens, peace is not going to happen at least in the foreseeable future."

Sunday will be the third book signing of Children of Catastrophe and follows similar events in San Diego, US, in July and Beirut last month.