Gaza Youth Yearn For Normalcy, Haunted By War

Young Palestinian men practice parkour i i

Young Palestinian men practice parkour, a sport that involves climbing and jumping on buildings and other structures, in Gaza City on July 26. Mohammed al-Jahbir (right, in orange shorts), 21, gets defensive when people are surprised that Palestinians are into parkour. "When anything new comes out in Gaza, everyone is like, 'Oh, wow, they do parkour? Oh, wow, they surf?' It should be normal that we do these things here, too," he says. Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR
Young Palestinian men practice parkour

Young Palestinian men practice parkour, a sport that involves climbing and jumping on buildings and other structures, in Gaza City on July 26. Mohammed al-Jahbir (right, in orange shorts), 21, gets defensive when people are surprised that Palestinians are into parkour. "When anything new comes out in Gaza, everyone is like, 'Oh, wow, they do parkour? Oh, wow, they surf?' It should be normal that we do these things here, too," he says.

Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR

Fourth of five parts

The Gaza Strip has one of the highest birthrates in the world. Almost three-quarters of the Palestinians who live there are younger than 30. Most have never left the tiny coastal strip that is ruled by the militants of Hamas, have never met an Israeli, and for the youngest, have never known a time when there wasn't a conflict outside their doorstep.

Mohammed al-Jahbir, for one, feels misunderstood. The 21-year-old and his friends get together to parkour — a sport that involves flipping and jumping off walls and other structures — but what's the big deal?

"People outside think we are retarded or something here. When anything new comes out in Gaza, everyone is like, 'Oh, wow, they do parkour? Oh, wow, they surf?' It should be normal that we do these things here, too," he says.

But the search for normality in Gaza is a never-ending quest, he says.

Like many young people, he dreams of leaving, but he has never set foot outside Gaza's 140 square miles.

He has never interacted with an Israeli who wasn't a soldier.

"When I was young, I used to throw rocks at them," he says, laughing.

Palestinian teenagers hang out in a graffiti-covered warehouse. i i

At a refugee camp in Gaza, Palestinian teenagers hang out in a graffiti-covered warehouse July 28. They give classes on the art of graffiti and break dancing. Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR
Palestinian teenagers hang out in a graffiti-covered warehouse.

At a refugee camp in Gaza, Palestinian teenagers hang out in a graffiti-covered warehouse July 28. They give classes on the art of graffiti and break dancing.

Andrea Bruce/VII Network for NPR

Disaffected Youth, Indifferent Adults?

Like most of the young people NPR spoke with in Gaza, Jahbir doesn't believe that Israel wants a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. And today's disaffected youth are tomorrow's indifferent adults. The worry is that the divide between Israelis and Palestinians has grown so large that it can never be bridged, especially by a generation that was brought up in conflict.

The acrobatic twisting and jumping of parkour feels subversive somehow. But still his neighbors gather to watch Jahbir and his two friends do back flips off a wall.

In this traditional society, Palestinians — especially the Hamas movement's security forces — don't know what to make of them. The police have questioned Jahbir a few times.

"A lot of people look at us strangely, when they see us jumping house to house, wall to wall, and the first thing they think is we are thieves," he says.

Jahbir says their training grounds are kind of weird.

"The only places we can practice are the cemetery or the former Jewish settlements in Gaza. Most of the buildings there have been demolished and there are lots of things to jump off of," he says.

Gaza's young population has boomed in recent years; it's not unusual to see families with seven or more children. But there are few opportunities, and 80 percent of Gazans receive food assistance. Though firm figures are hard to come by, estimates say at least half of the population is unemployed.

The attempt to escape from these grim statistics comes in many forms.

Map of the Gaza Strip

'We Are Normal People'

Farther down the coast, at one of the refugee camps, another group of young men has formed Camp Breakerz.

The guys stand in a circle while each one takes turns break dancing. One member of the troupe dons a hard hat and spins upside down on the floor to the cheers of his peers.

Ahmed Ismael, 23, is one of the founding members of Camp Breakerz. His parents are from Gaza but he grew up in Saudi Arabia. He moved back when he was 16.

He hasn't left since. Both Israel and Egypt have restricted travel in and out of Gaza since a mini-civil war between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement in 2007 left Hamas in control of the coastal territory.

Ismael immediately wants to set the record straight about the misconceptions he also feels outsiders have about Gaza's young people.

"Let me tell you something that annoys me so much. All the people consider Gazan people are from Mars. They don't imagine that we are normal people," he says.

We don't all follow Hamas or Fatah or any political party, he says.

"I always say f—- them all. I don't care about them and their sick minds. But people outside don't know this," he says.

Ismael doesn't break-dance anymore after, he says, an Israeli soldier bashed his knee. But he says he believes in peace — when he thinks about it at all, which isn't often these days.

What preoccupies him is surviving. Ismael is educated, and he works as a nurse.

"I get a job now in a hospital, but it's better than nothing. The medical situation here is so bad. Until now, I didn't get paid from the government. This is maybe the ninth month I didn't get paid. It makes me angry, but I can't do anything," he says.

Ismael says he has enough money to buy his cigarettes and his food. He was in love once. But she dumped him because he didn't have prospects.

"She focused [on] money and cars and gold and a big house, and I'm nothing. Yes, I have my mind. I have my crew. I have my brothers. I have my friends. But she don't care about all this stuff," he says.

Ismael says he's been depressed, but he insists that he hasn't let it drag him down. He spends his free time now managing the crew, and he also helps give dance lessons to young kids in his refugee camp.

But not everyone channels their energy that way.

Like 'A Burning Inside My Brain'

Being caught with drugs carries the death penalty in Gaza. That's why, at a meeting at a Gaza City cafe, a former drug addict refuses to give his name.

He is 25, with slicked-back hair and hollow, haunted eyes.

He used to work for the Fatah-dominated security forces in Gaza, he says. During the fighting with Hamas in 2007, his cousin was killed in front of him. Filled with grief, he took it out on his fiancee and ended their engagement. Then, his father, who was diabetic, died.

"I felt like I had a fire burning in my brain. I couldn't hold anything in my hand, it was shaking so much," he says.

For this young Palestinian, life turned even worse after Israel launched a war in Gaza in 2008.

Already filled with anger and grief, he couldn't cope any longer.

"One of my friends, when he saw me in that state, offered me a pill," the man recalls. "I got hooked. Instead of supporting my family, I was using the money to buy more tablets."

The drug, Tramadol, is an opiate derivative. It calms you down.

Many young people in Gaza take it these days. It gets smuggled in through the tunnels beneath the border with Egypt.

According to the Gaza Community Mental Health Organization, some 40 percent of Gazans suffer from symptoms relating to post traumatic stress disorder.

The young drug addict says that he tried to get help, but in the end found popping pills an easier answer.

"There are many young people here who have problems, and they don't know what to do with them. I was one of them. That's why I took drugs," he says.

He's been clean now for several months. But still he says it's a struggle. He says he feels pessimistic about his future here. His life stretches out before him, one day after another, occasionally punctuated by violence, and otherwise all the same.

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