Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: Children as extreme defence against the disintegration of family and community

Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: Children as extreme defence against the disintegration of family and community, Volume: 7 Issue: 2 Year: 2010 . Guido Veronese, Mahmud Said, Marco Castiglioni



This paper aims to explore practices that create serious risks to the physical and

psychological health of Palestinian children. The typical stories of three children interviewed

at Jenin refugee camp are subjected to content analysis. This analysis also extends to the

micro and macro social developmental context of these children (which they share with the

entire child population of the camp). Key themes emerging from the analysis include the

need to “redeem” grandparents and parents (depressed, preoccupied, without hope),

intolerance of imprisonment and being coerced into confined spaces (which are invaded on a

daily basis), the need for space to play in, the acceleration, through violence, towards

adulthood. The motivations leading to dangerous practices and risk and protective factors are


Keywords: Palestinian children- Refugee Camp – military violence- risk behaviours

1 Dpt. of Human Sciences, University of Milano-Bicocca.

2 Dpt. of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca.

3 Dpt. of Human Sciences, University of Milano-Bicocca.

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:



This article examines aspects of the developmental context of Palestinian children at the

Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, based on ethnographic and qualitative analysis of

personal stories collected in the field (Barber, 2008a; Beck, 2005). We specifically focus on

a high risk behaviour typical of these children: “playing” at chasing the Israeli armoured

military vehicles present every day on the streets of the camp (Graham, 2003).

The debate between psychiatric and socio-ecological theoretical approaches provides a range

of views on the psychological well-being of children growing up in contexts of war and

political violence (Barber & Schluterman, 2008; Sagi-Schwartz, Seginer & Abdeen, 2008).

The psychiatric literature emphasizes the pathological functioning of the child population in

violent social contexts. Numerous studies describe children and adolescents growing up in

such contexts as aggressive and impulsive (Barber & Schluterman, 2008; Sibai, Tohme,

Beydoun, Kanaan & Sibai, 2008; Quota, Punamäki, Miller & El-Serraj, 2008; Tremblay,

2000; Fantuzzo, Boruch, Beriama & Atkins, 1997; Bandura, 1973) and find that high-risk

and aggressive behaviours are correlated with physical and mental health risk (Baker, 2008;

Hill, 2002; Garbarino & Kostelny, 1996; Millstein, Irwin & Adler, 1992). Other studies

carried out in contexts of poverty and war, link trauma-related disorders with learning

disabilities (McNamara, Vervaeke & Villoughby, 2008; Finzi-Dottan, Dekela, Lavic &

Su'alid, 2006; Levendosky, Huth-Bocks, Semel & Shapiro, 2002; Armsworth & Holaday,


Similar findings have been reported for the Palestinian population, subjected to continuous

military violence from 2000 (Al Aqsa Intifada) to date (Khamis, 2008; Quota, Punamäki &

El-Sarraj, 2008; Thabet, Tawahina, El-Serraj, Vostanis, 2008; Lavi & Solomon, 2005). A

study carried out in the West Bank showed that children are particularly prone to

psychopathological disorders: in 2000, 42% of the child population had been diagnosed with

psychological ailments (Zakrison, Shanen, Mortaja & Hamel, 2004). The most common

psychiatric diagnoses include emotional-behavioural disorders, trauma-related disorders

(such as moderate to severe post-traumatic stress syndrome) and learning disabilities (Arafat

& Boothby, 2004; Miller, El-Masri, Allodi & Quota, 1999; Zakrison, Shanen, Mortaja &

Hamel, 2004). These findings portray Palestinian children as severely affected by their life

context, destined to react to violence with violence (Quota, Punamäki, Miller & El-Serraj,

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


2008; Punamäki, 2008; Thabet et al., 2008; Khamis, 2006a; Quota, Punamäki & El-Serraj,


Within this perspective, the family is viewed as a risk or protective factor in the development

of psychopathology in children and youths (Quota, Punamäki & El-Sarraj, 2008; Aisenberg

& Herrenkohl, 2008; Hasanović, Sinanović, Selimbašić, Pajević & Avdibegović, 2006;

Barber, 1999). The family regulates high-risk and violent behaviours in children: the more

the family is unable to respond to the uncertainties of the context (violence, poverty, lack of

security etc.), the greater the physical and mental health risk for the children (Ramin, Wick,

Halileh, Hassan-Bitar, Watt & Khawaja, 2009; Punamäki, 2008; Jablonska & Lindberg,

2007). The family promotes resilience in the child when it copes successfully with worries

and objectively uncertain life conditions, and supports the child in dealing with trauma and

deprivation (Ungar, 2008). Parental concern for children can have contrasting outcomes,

depending on the type of support provided: parental use of force and punishment can lead to

negative adjustment in children, whereas protective and loving parental care promotes

positive adjustment and deployment of creative cognitive resources (Quota, Punamäki,

Miller & El-Serraj, 2008; Punamäki, 2008).

Although it takes learning contexts into account, the literature on the role of the family in

maintaining or resolving psychological distress focuses mainly on the malfunctioning of the

child, postulating a strong correlation between conditions in the family and the development

of psychopathology (Quota, Punamäki & El- Sarraj, 2008; Kiser & Black, 2005).

In contrast, the socio-ecological approach sees emotional, behavioural and psychological

reactions to political violence as a complex phenomenon, in which dynamic political,

cultural, social and economic forces play an increasingly important role (Barber, 2008b;

Boothby, Strang & Wessels, 2006). The effects of trauma on the individual child are

examined within the broader developmental context: behaviours that would be classified as

maladaptive in other settings, may be adaptive in specific ways in a context of military

violence. For example according to Belsky (2008), depressive reactions can be adaptive in a

context where no safe escape routes are available, insofar as depression may desensitize the

individual to enemy attack. Similarly, anxiety may stimulate the flight response in dangerous

situations. Finally, aggressive behaviours may be functional strategies for self-defence or

attack, especially where flight is not an option. However, the complex functioning of

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


children in war situations is not yet sufficiently well understood to allow definitive

interpretations to be made in this sense.

Socio-ecological theorists also claim that the extent to which the social context makes sense

of political violence (by explaining the facts, the causes and indeed the legitimacy of the

conflict), is critical in determining how well children and youth adapt to it. Active

participation in the struggle against an identified enemy provides youth with instruments for

coping with trauma and favours positive social and psychological adjustment (Barber,

2008c; Punamäki, Quota & El-Serraj, 2001).

Our hypothesis is that within the socio-ecological perspective, the phenomenon of chasing

armoured cars may be redefined within a broader meaning system so that it makes sense.

Psychiatric science traditionally relegates this behaviour to the sphere of pathology and

social maladjustment, consequently assigning the Jenin refugee camp children to the passive

role of victims, with the label of chronic patients (Belsky, 2008).

Jenin refugee camp

The Jenin camp was originally built in 1953 on an area of 373 dunums (approximately one

square kilometre). Jenin is about 20 kilometres from Nazareth: a first check-point must be

passed through to enter the West Bank; a second check-point - Sabah el Kher, “good

morning” in Arabic – gives access to the city of Jenin. A long avenue leads to the refugee

camp. The camp has developed in a disorderly fashion, is densely populated and almost

entirely lacking in services and facilities. According to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and

Works Agency), the population of the refugee camp is around 16,000 (UNRWA, 2008), with

95% of the population having refugee status (Giacaman, Johnson, 2002). Most of these are

families expelled from the Haifa region (currently located in Israel), when the state of Israel

was founded in 1948 (Pappe, 2006). 47% of the population live below the poverty threshold.

Only 25% of adults have employment. 42.3% of the population is under the age of 15.

Literacy and school attendance rates are about 33% for women, and 21% for men, over the

age of 12 (Giacaman, Johnson, 2002).

In April 2002 during the operation Defensive Shield conducted by the IDF (Israeli Defence

Forces), 40,000 sq.m. of the camp were demolished. 52 people were killed in the operation,

half of whom were civilians (Graham, 2003). Reconstruction of the camp has recently been

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


completed, but the closing off of the camp and military occupation have increased the level

of fear and uncertainty. Every evening at 17.00, the army moves in from the first check point

and occupies the camp, which remains under curfew until 6.00 a.m. Frequently the troops

stay in the camp during the day, imposing impromptu day-time curfews. Anybody going to

work outside of the camp needs to obtain a daily permit from the army.

The intervention

In this context, in the period 2000 to 2006, a team – made up of Palestinian psychologists

and psychiatrists and European volunteers, in collaboration with the non-governmental

organization Médicins du Monde – carried out an emergency programme at the Jenin refugee

camp. The crisis intervention involved around 600 children and 70 families. The therapeutic

protocol consisted of three steps:

I. in vivo exposure of the traumatized children at the scene of the disaster, with the

participation of the family;

II. a home-based family intervention with the children present;

III. individual trauma therapy, offered to all family members (not necessarily only

the child exposed to the traumatic event) displaying symptoms of extreme and

cumulative trauma at the end of the live exposure phase.

Differently from a cognitive-behavioural approach to trauma, the in vivo exposure phase

included elements from a narrative framework as well as techniques from systemic family

therapy aimed at involving the families of the child victims (Veronese & Said, 2009).

Research has shown that live exposure, which generally consists of reliving the traumatic

experience moment by moment in the presence of a health care professional, has a cathartic

effect on the victim (Foa & Cahil, 2002). In addition, numerous studies conducted within a

narrative perspective, both in clinical and social psychology contexts, have reported that the

reconstruction of meaning (making sense) through story-telling is effective in preventing and

controlling post-traumatic and grief effects and contributes significantly to individual and

collective well-being (Barber, 2008c; Neimeyer, 2006).

Within this project, in November 2006, an intervention was carried out with a class of

children at the Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association) primary school, shortly after

a 9 year old pupil had been killed in an offensive by the Israeli army. (In that year, during the

war between Israel and the Lebanon, the Israeli Defence Forces had intensified attacks in the

Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza), causing numerous casualties among the civilian

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


population and demolishing many homes.) The class was made up of 35 children between

the ages of 6 and 12 (mean age 10.8 ; SD 2.4 ).

35 individual interviews were conducted with the classmates of the child who had been


During these interviews the children were asked to recount the most recent traumatic event

that they had witnessed or experienced directly. The interview opened with the following

question: “Please, would you like to tell me about the last time you saw someone being

treated violently, or were yourself violently treated, by the soldiers?”. These preliminary

interviews with the children were preparatory to the full-blown narrative exposure to the

trauma (Veronese & Said, 2009).

The interviews lasted between 45 and 60 minutes, and were conducted in the local language

by a bilingual researcher and therapist, a native Arabic speaker with an excellent command

of English.


The interviews were both clinical and research tools, and were co-authored by researcher and

participants in the course of a dialogue about the traumatic experience (Braun & Clarke,

2006; Arvay, 2003).

3 of the 35 interviews were selected for in-depth analysis in this paper, and contain stories

that are representative of experiences common to almost all the children in the class. The

majority of the children in this class, as indeed the majority of children in the entire Jenin

refugee camp, have witnessed episodes of military violence or undergone trauma.

The following criteria were used to select the 3 stories: a) the children interviewed had

experienced severe trauma recently (between 3 and 6 months prior to the interview); b) the

children had been directly involved in one or more episodes of military violence and had not

only witnessed them; c) the children claimed to belong to groups that chase Israeli armoured

cars; d) the children’s families and the children themselves provided informed consent.

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:



The narratives were subjected to thematic content analysis following Boyatzis (1998)4. In

line with constructionist paradigms focusing on sociocultural contexts and on structural

conditions, the interviews were analyzed using an inductive approach. “Inductive analysis is

[…] a process of coding the data without trying to fit it into a pre-existing coding frame, or

the researcher’s analytic preconceptions. In this sense this form of thematic analysis is datadriven”

(Braun, Clarke, 2006: 83). The method involved the identification of core thematic

nuclei within the narratives, and the classification of these themes into structured categories

via an interjudge agreement process. The children’s narratives were audio taped, transcribed

in Arabic, and translated into English by a bilingual researcher (who had been present from

the outset of the research process) for subsequent analysis. The procedure broke down into

the following steps: a) one researcher carried out an open coding analysis of the participants’

narratives to facilitate the emergence of critical themes; b) the themes were coded and

organized into structured categories; c) the narratives and categories were discussed and

agreed, by rater-judges (Boyatzis, 1998).

Three stories 5

Ziad is twelve and he presents severe learning disabilities: he is dyslexic and dysgraphic. His family

is very poor. His father, a laborer, works some days a year thanks to an UNWRA support programme.

Ziad is the oldest of four children. Ziad and his friend and classmate, Nasser (see below), have been

through an extremely traumatic experience: they were both involved in the explosion of a mine on the

land in front of Ziad’s house. Ziad and Nasser belong to the gangs of children who prefer to chase

armoured cars instead of going to school. On the day of the tragedy, Ziad was out with Nasser and

with his younger brother, Alif, without his parents’ permission.

Nasser, Ziad’s friend, is twelve. He is attending the final year of primary school but his academic

performance is extremely poor. He has been diagnosed as suffering from a learning disability. Nasser

and Ziad and their friends often played under an iron shelter on a piece of land near Ziad’s house.

Nasser had moved away some metres to the right when suddenly he heard a terrible bang. All three

children were thrown into the air, as Nasser said “towards the sky”.

4 The method was adapted to meet the demands of the context which did not permit systematic data collection.

5 All the children’s names, works of parents and indications of the places are invented to preserve anonymity

and safety of children.

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


Metqual is twelve and he is in the sixth class of primary school. He lives with his parents and five

siblings. His father is a street vendor, selling kebabs outside the city hospital. Metqual has a very

strong personality, he is a leader within his group although he is also recognised by his teachers as a

good student, sociable and respectful of authority. His academic performance is excellent. While

running after a jeep and jumping onto it, a bullet passed right through his thigh, tearing the muscle

and leaving quite a sizeable hole.

Narrative analysis

Three categories emerge from the narratives: individual, family and community. These

dimensions are closely interconnected.

Table 1 lists the key thematic nuclei grouped into macro-categories.

Table 1: Themes emerging from the Jenin refugee camp narratives, at individual, familial

and community levels

Levels emerging from the narratives Narrative Themes

Individual Feeling of imprisonment and physical


Lack of positive stimuli

Stigma of psychiatric diagnoses

Feelings of fear, anger and impotence

Need to emulate heroes

Need for approval of peer group

Need for play in order to externalise trauma

Family Trigenerational inherited anger

Depression and learned impotence

Loss of hope for the future

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


Fear for safety of children

Feeling of humiliation and impotence

Deconstruction of male power

Emergent strength of female figures

Community Exaltation of the combatant as an epic hero

Refugee camp as non-place unlawfully taken

from the Palestinian people

Refugee camp as a violated motherhouse

Refugee camp as a symbol of tragedy


Refugee camp as a symbol of the right of

return (haqq al- ’awda)

Deconstruction of social institutions

(e.g. schools)

Individual Level

The core themes emerging at the individual level of analysis may be summarized as follows:

feelings of imprisonment and lack of space; reactions to negative stimuli such as exposure to

military violence; reactions to psychiatric diagnoses; dominant reactive emotions (fear and

impotence on the one hand, anger, arrogance and aggressiveness on the other); the attempt to

emulate the combatant heroes; the importance of belonging to the peer group; reactions to


The children feel expropriated from the street, their main place for socializing together. Their

narratives express feelings of claustrophobia.

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


“The street is full of trouble.. Sometimes you can’t go out at all for days on end.. for me it’s

like being tied to a chair.. not to be able to go out for days.. ” (Ziad).

The perceived lack of freedom is reinforced by the long nightly and daytime curfews

enforced upon the population. The lack of positive stimuli and safe places to play in

intensifies the perception of threat and danger (Punamäki, 2008); following the armoured

cars allows the children to feel active and to experience positive emotions.

“When we can’t go out during the curfew, the time goes by very slowly, I spend hours in

front of the TV and I know that out there the soldiers are occupying my streets and my

friends’ houses. For months after being in hospital, I couldn’t walk, I had to stay at home..I

felt like I was in prison, ..and to think that even when I do go out, I can’t feel free. […]

Running after the enemy is an indescribable feeling… I feel like a horse galloping,

uncatchable.” (Metqual).

“I don’t like being on the street, but where else can I go? To school? I don’t like it, especially

since my brother died, it’s not safe. The street is my second home, although I don’t like being

out on the street all day long.. I like the market..” (Ziad).

The children engage in high-risk behaviours in order to experience feelings of self-efficacy,

since they associate school with failure, labels and stigma. School does not provide them

with the motivation to learn. Attending school in conditions of military occupation and

violence increases their feeling of being under threat and they react with risk behaviors and

aggressive conduct. The conditions of uncertainty, combined with poverty and social

marginalization, lead in many cases to school drop-out.

“I’m not getting on well at school.. I can’t read and I’m not able to write very well. The

teachers and doctors told my father that I’m not learning.. that I don’t want to study, the more

time goes by, the less interest I have in learning..”; “..when you go out in the street, against the

enemy, everybody respects you: it’s the respect that combatants deserve.” (Nasser).

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


“I often don’t go to school, and the way there is not very safe.. we meet the soldiers and they

don’t let us go in, sometimes they fire at us.. my classmates are in danger too.. sometimes we

can’t come out of school.. when they occupy the streets [during the day]..” (Metqual).

The emotional tone of the narratives is strongly conditioned by the traumatic experiences the

children have undergone and by their consequent desire for revenge. The constant threat to

their lives leads to dominant negative emotions, which in turn determine the meaning that

they attribute to their experiences (Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999).

“I saw his leg.. and the shoe, the rest of the body further away covered in dust and blood…I wasn’t

able to do anything, I couldn’t hear anything, only a loud buzzing..there was whistling in my ears and

I couldn’t take my eyes off that leg…the swollen, deformed body..”. “They must be made to pay, they

attack us on purpose… I can’t forget my brother’s broken body. All the boys must train, know how to

use arms… to free our country” (Ziad).

Although the children’s lives are conditioned by fear and their perceptions, interpretations

and memories shaped by it, they react to trauma with displays of aggressiveness and bravery.

Their behaviour is vindictive, but also stems from the desire to emulate the combatants by

seeking martyrdom. Imitating the combatant hero figure is an attempt to evade the role of

victim, by activating positive behaviours and coping strategies such as acts of remarkable

courage (Punamäki, 2000). “Courageous” behaviour also earns admittance to the peer group,

whose approval and support is much sought by the children. The group facilitates the

development of a set of social competencies, which provide protection from exposure to

military violence. In contrast, exclusion from the peer group is an additional social stigma

which can heighten the individual’s sense of vulnerability and isolation.

“..the combatants are our only protection and I want to be like them, a martyr..” (Metqual).

“Anyone who refuses to go out with the group, who escapes or hides in their house is not a man… to

get away from my father’s control I prefer to meet the others straight after school. We agree on a

meeting point … one day we’re all going to be heroes ”.. (Nasser).

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


Family Level

A second level of key meanings concerns the family. The children perceive their parents to

be almost incapable of protecting and consoling them. The main thematic nuclei are:

transgenerational anger, depression, impotence, lack of future prospects, fears for offspring,

feelings of humiliation, destruction of the male, positive role of females.

Diminished parental functioning makes children who are exposed to political violence more

prone to responding with aggressiveness (Barber, 2001). The families are frequently unable

to exert authority over their children or to protect them. In terms of meanings, the children

compensate for the negative image of the family by engaging in risk behaviours such as the

pursuit of armoured military vehicles. Brave conduct is a means of redeeming their parents

who are afflicted by hopelessness and rage, as emerges from the following account.

“I see my mother worn down by pain more and more each day and my father break his back

for a pittance that is barely enough to feed his children. I can’t stand by and do nothing about

my parents’ suffering…I can’t stand still and watch my brothers fall one after the other.. the

combatants are our only protection and I want to be like them, a martyr..” (Metqual).

Punitive and coercitive parenting styles increase the likelihood that children will engage in

impulsive and risk behaviours (Quota, Punamäki & El-Serraj, 2008). The adults themselves

are ambivalent in their attitude: on the one hand their desire to protect their children leads

them to punish them and attempt to exercise tight control over them, on the other the

prevailing propaganda encourages engagement in high-risk acts of resistance. The family’s

intense anger towards the Israeli army leads the children to have a dehumanized image of the

enemy, again encouraging them to engage in acts of aggression (Punamäki, 2008).

“..My grandfather often locks me into the house.., but he can’t hold me back. I know I make

my mother suffer, but when the time comes I know how to get to the others.. my greatest

desire is to avenge my brother and make my mother happy” (Ziad).

“..the soldiers have no mercy on anyone, they will shoot at anybody.. they deserve to be

struck down and be punished for their inhumanity, they have not got the slightest bit of

compassion… one day they’ll be put to flight …” (Nasser).

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


The adults’ anger and aggressiveness, inherited from the grandparents’ generation, that of the

“Palestinian catastrophe” (Gluck, 2008), is in contrast with their feelings of impotence and

fears concerning their children’s futures. The refugee camp parents have been forced into

humiliating conditions of poverty and imprisonment and typically display anxiety and

depression. The adult males are the most badly affected. The men are either unemployed or

work only occasionally and they struggle to support their families. The impotence of the

male family head is counterbalanced by a strong maternal presence. The women engage in a

form of silent resistance and despite their evident anxiety and suffering, their children see

them as more to be relied on (Veronese & Said, 2008).

“… For my mother, bringing me up is the most difficult thing of all.. she’s doing it all by

herself.. my grandfather has lost everything, he’s old and dull with age.. My father spends all

his time in front of the TV smoking” (Ziad).

“..for five years my mother brought us up on her own, my father was in prison and we had no

news of him.. it was her, thank God, who fed us and acted as head of the family..” (Nasser).

The children witness the humiliation, the imprisonment and often even the killing of the

adults in their world, especially the adult males. In Arab culture the male is particularly

highly valued and held worthy of admiration and trust (Quota, Punamäki, Miller & El-Serraj,

2008); undermining the male figure implies striking the entire society at its very base. The

children respond to this victimization by seeking secondary gain in terms of social

recognition for heroic acts of resistance (Quota, Punamäki & El-Serraj, 2008).

Community Level

When the children’s narratives embody social and community dimensions, they become

more complex: individual experience becomes separated from the traumatic event and

incorporates community narratives which are a source of shared pride. “The Palestinian

narratives were indeed intense, yet it was (not always, but overwhelmingly so) an intensity of

passion, not despair; of commitment, not chaos; of pride not dismay; and of welfare, not

wound” (Barber, 2008c: 287).

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


The main themes emerging from the interviews show that at a social level, great value is

assigned to certain meanings which effectively encourage children to engage in active

resistance (Barber, 2008c; Punamäki, 2008; Quota, Punamäki, Miller & El-Serraj, 2008).

Specifically: glorification of the combatant hero figure, the illegitimate expropriation and

violation of the refugee camp by the Israeli army, the refugee camp as a symbol of the

tragedy (nakbah) and the right of return, and finally, the lack of social institutions to protect

the population.

The community glorifies the hero figure. The combatant is an emblem of a society relying on

a specific hegemonic model of masculinity as one of the last bulwarks of resistance. In fact,

the narrative genre most popular and most present over recent decades, especially within the

oral tradition, has been the epic saga (Peteet, 2000).

“When we chase the tanks and we hit them with stones, we’re like Nizar Tawalli and

Zaccaria..6. When you manage to jump up on a tank and grab its machine gun then everyone

recognises that you are a man… (Nasser).

In the Jenin refugee camp, as throughout all of the Occupied Territories, the children are

forced to live in very confined spaces, circumscribed by impassable borders that isolate them

from the rest of the world, depriving them of their independence and accentuating their sense

of humiliation due to being forced to live in a provisional place, without “space”. The home

is deliberately turned into a battleground. Undermining and destroying homes becomes a

strategic symbol with which to strike at the entire community.

To live on the street is to revindicate ownership of the prison into which they have been

forced by the building of checkpoint and closed frontiers. The refugee camp is the property

of the combatants, the “mother-home”; the refugee camp is “Palestine” (Botiveau, 2006).

“The refugee camp is our home, it’s our pride..” “The day that the soldiers are kicked out,

we’ll all have to be in the camp and we’ll all have to contribute to the victory.. the enemy’s

days are numbered and I will do everything to be there when the Israeli army has to leave our

land for ever…”


6Palestinian combatants

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


Meanwhile the camp must continue to be the emblem par excellence of Zionist oppression

and the displacement of the Palestinian people (nakbah, tragedy, or the more acceptable

hijra, migration) to the eyes of the outside world, while internally it must remain a breeding

ground for new generations of combatant-rebels. Terms like “refugee” and “camp” become

metaphors of exile and resistance, serving to reinforce the narrative of the return to the Land

of Palestine (haqq al- ‘awda) (Farah, 1997; Chatty, 2002).

“My grandfather is a refugee, from Haifa, my father is a refugee and I am a child of the

refugee camp..I’m a mother is keeping the keys to my grandfather’s house,

because one day we’re all going to go back..” (Ziad).

From the interviews it is clear that children become prematurely involved in activism and

political life in an attempt to attribute positive meaning to their state of isolation and the

military violence endured (Barber, 2008c). The children internalize social relations which

lead them to make a very strong distinction between good and bad and to develop a hostile

attitude towards the enemy. This attitude promotes a perception of individual well-being and

helps to compensate for weak social institutions (such as schools), which are unable to

protect the children. Clearly defining the enemy and taking concrete action to defeat him,

enables both community and individuals to attribute meaning and value to the chronic

condition of violence and uncertainty in which they are immersed.


The narratives of the Jenin refugee camp children can help qualify the hypothesis of a

negative childhood condition due to exposure to armed conflict. If the analysis is only

conducted at an individual level, the children come across as having both emotional and

behavioural difficulties: the practice of chasing armoured cars would be classified as a

conduct disorder, developed as a result of negative adjustment to the constant perception of

threat (Punamäki, 2008; Srour & Srour, 2006). In addition to the risk behaviours, there are

also the trauma-related disorders (such as PTSD, anxiety and depression), which worsen the

overall mental health status of the refugee camp children (Zakrison, Shanen, Mortaja &

Hamel, 2004). Finally, cognitive and learning disabilities complete a portrait of the refugee

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


camp child who has been stigmatized and pathologized by the all-pervasive process of

victimization (Khamis, 2006a).

The family level analysis also appears to confirm a pathological response and negative

adjustment on the part of the child (Khamis, 2006b; Barber, 1999; Garbarino & Kostelny,

1996). The family is unable to cater for the needs of the children because it is crippled by the

occupation: demolished homes, parents who are humiliated, imprisoned and killed.

However, this is still only a partial vision. An individualistic perspective risks

overemphasizing the pathological aspects of the situation, while overlooking evidence of

resilience. This is particularly likely to occur within Western models, which in contexts of

trauma and political violence tend to focus on problematic and negative psychological states

(Gilligan, 2009; Barber, 2008b) and to underestimate the social and interpersonal nature of

political conflict and personal and collective suffering (Honwana, 2006).

In the light of the political meaning attributed by the community to resisting the enemy,

high-risk behaviours such as chasing tanks may be re-interpreted as an example of competent

functioning, which allows the child to cope with trauma and to become an active social agent

in conditions of uncertainty (Flanagan & Syversten, 2005). The children at the refugee camp

become precociously involved as activists in the civic and political life of the community

(Sherrod, Flanagan & Kassimir, 2005). Political involvement allows the children to restore

to their individual narrative identities aspects of competence and positivity which direct or

indirect exposure to military violence has fragmented.

High-risk and aggressive behaviours displayed by a child in a peaceful society can be

interpreted as signs of an undermined moral system and a loss of meaning on the part of the

child (Guerra & Bradshaw, 2008; Gilchrist, Howarth &Sullivan, 2007). However, in a

context such as the Jenin refugee camp, the same behaviours acquire meaning and are

incentivized by the community (Barber & Olsen, 2008). The social context encourages

children to engage in active resistance to the enemy, seen as a means of redeeming

individual, family and collective identities.

Our study analyzed a small number of stories, and therefore it is not possible to generalize

from the results. In addition the narratives are not balanced in terms of gender: in a society

which tends to respect orthodox religious conventions, it is difficult to obtain consent to

interview female children, especially for male researchers.

Veronese, G., Said, M., Castiglioni, M. (2010). Narratives from Jenin Refugee Camp: children as extreme

defence against the disintegration of family and community.International Journal of Human Sciences

[Online]. 7:2. Available:


Nonetheless the narratives offer a significant insight into the social and value systems of the

Jenin refugee camp.


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