All images courtesy of Atikah Syarah unless otherwise stated.
Atikah Syarah enters a refugee camp in Palestine, ready to teach English. The camp is slightly different from what the 33-year-old Singaporean expected. Multi-storey residential buildings are scattered within its perimeters. There are no canvas tents emblazoned with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The buildings, massive blocks of bare concrete, were constructed in 1956 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). They were supposed to be temporary shelters for those fleeing from the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967.
However, these temporary shelters have now unfortunately turned into permanent residences.
The Al-Fawwar Refugee Camp, where Atikah would periodically teach English, is located south of the Palestinian city of Hebron. In 2021, it had an estimated population of 8,404. As of 2022, the latest available data, the registered refugee population stands at 12,452.
Growing up amongst the worn-down buildings were those refugees’ children. And now, after about 70 years, the same goes for these children’s children. Young Palestinians squeeze past each other, making their way to a classroom—a large hall flanked by slabs of the same dull concrete from all sides.
Due to decades of conflict, opportunities for quality education, like English lessons taught by Atikah, have been scarce for Palestinian children. Today, amidst the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, it’s in even shorter supply. Since the Oct 7 attacks by Hamas, the Israel Defence Force responded with excessive force on the Gaza Strip, killing at least 10,790 Palestinians as of writing.
Though Fawwar is located in the West Bank, far from Gaza, the ripples of the war are still felt. Violence has risen to record levels in the occupied Palestinian territory—armed Israeli settlers have attacked and killed Palestinian residents, forcing them out of their homes. Refugee camps, including Al-Fawwar, have been raided by Israeli forces, resulting in more Palestinian deaths outside the Gaza Strip.
As Atikah shares, the occupation is all her students have ever known all their lives. But on the ground, away from the media spotlight, Atikah also describes a strong Palestinian community—one that strives to build a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation.
Despite generations of adversity with no end in sight, their positivity still shines through.
Conflict and Comfort
Atikah, having completed her volunteer stint with The Excellence Centre in Palestine in May, is now a volunteer with the Lebanese Association For Development and Communication in Beirut, Lebanon. When we spoke, she was preparing to fly off to Turkey the next day.
“The building I live in is powered by generators. When the generators go off, we lose electricity and the internet connection,” Atikah casually reveals. “But just give it a few minutes. I’ll be back in the meeting room.”
A reliable internet connection is one of the many creature comforts Atikah relinquished when she left Singapore and travelled over 7,900 kilometres to Hebron, the biggest Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Located in the Southern West Bank, Hebron is considered a holy city important to both Jews and Muslims. Conflicts that break out in Hebron are seen as mirrors of the larger ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The city is split into two zones—the Palestinian National Authority governs zone H1, while the Israeli military administration controls zone H2.
Palestinians do not have the right to free movement in zone H2. Military checkpoints—large, intimidating metal cages—restrict movement into and out of the zone.
Only eight months ago, Atikah was still in Singapore, away from the conflict. She had just completed an eight-year stint as a case officer with the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), a non-profit organisation in Singapore.
“I was very fortunate to do the work at AMP and help people in Singapore,” Atikah, a graduate of the Singapore University of Social Sciences with a Masters Degree in Social Work, admits.
“I needed a break from work, so I took a sabbatical. I wondered if I could do more in an international context.”
She decided on Palestine after eight months of research before flying there. “I wanted to go to the Middle East because I thought it would be nice to spend time with Muslim brothers and sisters. I had to really research the place and its safety before deciding on Palestine.”
Atikah, who describes herself as unemployed, saved a year for the sabbatical. She saved about S$20,000 and currently supports herself with that amount.
“I was sceptical and anxious before moving to Palestine because I was leaving comfort. I also thought it was dangerous because it was a region of conflict. My parents were supportive when I processed my feelings with them. But they told me I couldn’t grow while in my comfort zone in Singapore.”
It was only after Atikah touched down in Palestine that her misconceptions about the region were debunked. According to her, she still felt relatively safe in Hebron.
Overcoming Culture Shock
Atikah arrived in Palestine in late March earlier this year. The month of Ramadan had just begun, and it would be another two weeks before her volunteer stint began.
Conversations with her host family surprised her. Atikah was fluent in Arabic, but Palestinians speak a dialect of the language she could not understand.
“I called my mum the first week I was there and told her I wanted to go home. My mum told me my entire extended family did not just send me off at the airport just for me to come back in a week. I felt much better after that call. Maybe I just needed to cry.”
“I spent three hours a day practising the language. Writing, speaking, and practising the language three hours before I slept. It was so tough,” she recalls. Under the tutelage of her host family, Atikah quickly learned the Palestinian dialect of Arabic.
That experience with her host family exemplified her best memories in Palestine. Palestinians she crossed paths with were nothing but warm and hospitable towards Atikah.
When she traversed the markets in Hebron, strangers would approach and invite her over for tea and cakes—our Singaporean sensibilities would think twice about accepting that invite.
“I realised the people there just wanted to know you,” she clarifies. “It was crazy how much they loved having guests over.”
Atikah would play the role of a guest many more times during the month of Ramadan. She estimates she spent about 25 days out of the whole month of Ramadan breaking her fast in various houses. They gave Atikah so much that she barely spent $10 on food in her first month there.
“They were so warm. It would be a neighbour, someone down the street, or a volunteer at the centre. They have this culture of inviting you over to chat. Amazing.”
The warmth and hospitality amidst an ongoing conflict contributed to a much-needed sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation. It was routine that kept the people of Hebron, foreign volunteers and Palestinians alike, going.
During Ramadan, Atikah would reach the Excellence Centre at 11 in the morning. Her first class of the day, designed for beginners in the English language, started at midday. The following hours would be spent hanging out with the other volunteers at the centre—most of them Europeans and Americans.
Her main responsibilities revolve around The Excellence Centre. Occasionally, she would go to Al-Fawwar Refugee Camp to teach refugees there. Whether at the Excellence Centre of Al-Fawwar Refugee Camp, her students were eager to learn.
The Excellence Centre contributes to Palestine’s low illiteracy rates. In fact, literacy rates in Palestine are one of the highest in the world, so much so that Dr Anne Irfan at the University College London, an academic expert in the modern Middle East, called Palestinian refugees the world’s “best-educated refugees”.
It’s why the students display such an eagerness to learn. They file into the centre hours before their lessons and hang out around the compound, waiting for the lessons to start. They go about their school days as usual, creating their own routines to get them through to the next day. Education is a vehicle for social mobility.
“This is all the younger students have ever known: an occupation. It’s hard for them to compare what life was like before the occupation and now,” Atikah shares.
“Older students process what’s going on better. They’re vocal about what’s happening and passionate about their cause.”
Her students were also keenly aware of their country’s instability. Comparisons are inevitable when the students are exposed to a rotation of international volunteers. They teased her about the strength of her passport when they found out she was Singaporean. They eagerly asked about Singapore’s safety and security—things which have not been afforded to them.
“I’ve had students whose parents were taken away from them or who have been discriminated against by the Israeli military,” Atikah recounts.
“As much as they have lived for years under occupation, they try very much to live. They go to work and come home. They spend time with friends. They raise families.”
Lifting the Veil
No matter how safe, rare instances pierce that veil of normalcy. Atikah is immediately reminded of the conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Once, at a military checkpoint, no less.
While passing through an imposing checkpoint from Tel Aviv to Eilat, Atikah was singled out by Israel Defence Forces personnel. An interrogation and security check awaited Atikah, as well as a bus of 40 passengers which could not leave without her.
The whole process doesn’t take very long. At the checkpoints, citizens supposedly go through a digital fingerprint scan, identity and permit identification before making their way. Others have pointed out that the processes are mostly arbitrary—”cruelty is the point“. Soldiers would pick on people in the queues at the checkpoint just to remind them who’s in charge.
Those large metal gates and cages, with wearied bodies pressed up and folded against each other, had the same effect on time. At the checkpoint, time would stretch and lapse along with rising fear and anxiety; minutes would seem like hours to both Atikah and the 40 passengers.
“I didn’t feel like my safety was jeopardised, but I felt the discrimination. The feeling was horrible, but it’s nothing compared to what the Palestinians go through every day. It was pretty stressful, but I don’t talk about it much. I’ve had more good experiences in Palestine than bad ones.”
More recently, tensions in Palestine have risen owing to the attack by Hamas and Israel’s excessive and indiscriminate use of force on Palestinian citizens and civilian structures. Palestinian movement has been restricted by the Israel Defence Force. In Hebron, the town’s only two entrances are now blocked.
“When I saw the gates of Hebron covered by blocks of cement, I immediately texted my students and my host family,” Atikah recalls. “I was affected by the picture because I went in and out of those same gates. I needed to know that my students and host family were safe.”
Anxiety ensued for the next two days for Atikah until she started receiving replies from students.
“If students have to go through a checkpoint to go to school, that means they cannot go to school now. Some can’t even enter the city. They have to live with their relatives or a family friend,” she says.
“These kids love to go to school. For them, being unable to go to school for three weeks is torture.”
Unsurprisingly, movement restrictions have also affected adults as well as children. Palestinians in need of healthcare cannot freely move to the medical centres that provide it. The Palestinian economy has ground to a halt.
While away from the epicentre of the massacre, Atikah cannot be entirely removed from what’s going on in Palestine. Lebanon, where she is now based, holds the most number of refugees per capita. About 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 300,000 Palestinian refugees have found shelter in Lebanon.
“I moved to Lebanon because I wanted to be on the ground helping refugees. I decided to move to Lebanon a month before I left Palestine.” Turkey, where Atikah was headed, is the single biggest host country for refugees.
Personal relationships are bound to form while living and working with the people in Palestine. It’s easy to adopt a fatalistic outlook when working with people who are embroiled in a seemingly unending conflict.
Matters have only gotten worse with the unending use of indiscriminate force against Palestinian civilians who find themselves in the middle of excessive bombardment—an episode that’s threatening to cause divisions across the world.
Amidst the senseless violence, the one thing that holds true for Atikah is how kind Palestinians were to her despite having so much taken from them.
“I understood so much about the situation by living in Palestine, much more than what’s seen in the media. The best chance is that I can educate and share with people.”
I ask if she has any particular experience with Palestinians that stand out.
“I don’t have a specific favourite memory. My favourite memory is the warmth of the Palestinians on the ground. Everyone should experience it at least once. It’s crazy how much they have to give.”