ISRAEL-PALESTINE DELEGATION: Visits to Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps

by Abigail Metzger
Pax Christi International UN Team member

Today, 20 plus Pax Christi pilgrims visited the Aida and Dhesheh refugee camps that are just a few kilometers away from our hotel. This is a brief recap of what we saw and experienced – though words can hardly describe the reality that belongs to thousands who live in what they aptly describe as an “open-air prison.” While the two camps have much in common, as we came to see, they remain distinct in their own way.

Some commonalities:

A Palestinian refugee is defined as “a person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1, 1946 – May15, 1948 and who lost their home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

In 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was created as a temporary agency to provide services to all Palestinian refugees. Their mandate was and is to provide direct relief, humanitarian aid and human development to all Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Shatha, our guide in Aida refugee camp, next to a mural listing the names of all the villages represented in the camp.

Shatha, our guide in Aida refugee camp, next to a mural listing the names of all the villages represented in the camp.

When UNRWA was created there were 750,000 Palestinian refugees. In the 65 years since its creation, that number has swelled to over 5 million registered refugees of whom one-third (approximately 1.5 million people) live in one of the 58 recognized Palestinian refugee camps. Aida and Dhesheh are two such camps.

The small plots of land upon which the camps were first set-up were leased from either the host country or landowners. Neither UNRWA nor the refugees who now live in the camps own the property. Both the Aida and Dhesheh camps were set-up on land leased from Jordan.

At the outset, thinking the camps would be temporary, a refugee family was provided a small tent for shelter. Toilets were communal. By 1954, when a resolution to the refugee problem was not at hand and it became evident that people could not continue to withstand the winter cold and snow in tents (which often collapsed from the wind or torrents of rain and snow) UNRWA began to build small concrete dwelling places.

In the Aida and Dhesheh camps this meant 2 rooms created out of a 3 meter by 3 meter space. Often families with up to 7 members would live in these “homes”. Again, toilets remained communal and were scattered throughout the camps. These boxes were often less than 4 meters apart so anything that resembled family privacy was nonexistent. As the years dragged on and families grew, the living conditions in these small boxes became untenable. People were squeezed together “like sardines in a can.” Soon, families began to demolish these structures and build new “homes” with private bathrooms! As the numbers in the camps grew but the land did not vertical growth was the only option. Today, these cinder block houses are three and four stories high.

Palestinian street art in Dheisheh camp.

Palestinian street art in Dheisheh camp.

Another shared misery of the Aida and Dhesheh camps is the dire lack of water and intermittent loss of electricity. The water supply is controlled by Israel. For the Aida camp water is available in the winter every 10 days for 6 hours. In the summer, water is only accessible every 3 weeks for 6 hours. In Dhesheh, the water is available to residents every 14 days for two days. If per chance you are not at home during those allotted times you must wait and hope your supply lasts until you can gain access to clean water again. Families have resorted to placing large water tanks on top of their houses to collect the water and hope that the weight of the tanks will not collapse their roof and cause harm to their family or home. If one must buy water a small jug can cost a Palestinian 5 NIS. The same jug for someone living in the nearby settlement would be 1 NIS; however, the likelihood of there being a need on their part to buy water is very unlikely…water flows to the settlements in unrestricted quantity. There are no water tanks atop the settlement homes which sit only a short distance from the camps.

Electricity is provided by a Palestinian company; however, the electricity supply must be purchased from Israel.

In both camps, approximately 60% of the residents are under the age of 18. While most residents are well educated, many with college and advanced degrees, unemployment is very high approaching 35% or more.

For all Palestinians access to work is made extremely difficult by the checkpoints which can take hours to pass through. In addition, those who have their own businesses find it increasingly difficult to sell their products because of the severe constraints resulting from Israel’s control over the borders and the high tax burden imposed on them. For many, after the wall was constructed they lost their jobs which are now on the other side of the Wall.

This is especially true for those living in the Aida camp, where the imposing Separation Barrier – a massive concrete wall at a towering height twice that of the Berlin Wall – looms over them as it winds around the entire perimeter of the camp. An even taller watch tower ensures that every move can be monitored by Israeli security.

For residents of both camps (although they are in Area A which is completely under Palestinian control) the possibility of a night incursion by the Israeli military is a constant fear and threat. While the military is known to react to gatherings of youngsters and teens with tear gas (some Pax Christi members felt the effects of one such action on Wednesday when they were near the camp) the residents are also vulnerable to soldiers forcibly entering their homes at any hour of the day or night. However, most often, it is after midnight that military units enter the camps for whatever reason they deem necessary. We heard stories from residents of both camps of arrests and searches that left families terrorized and homes significantly damaged. As these raids are often without provocation, the residents with whom we spoke believe that they are often used as training experiences for new soldiers.

As a humanitarian agency UNRWA is not permitted to provide security; however, in cases where homes have been damaged, UNWRA will assist families to fix broken doors and windows or those areas that are used by children or the handicapped.

As part of their mandate and as a primary focus, UNRWA provides education through the 8th grade for all children in refugee camps. Schools are crowded with class size hovering around 45. Yet, these children are prepared and pursue their education. They attend either government run or private high schools and then go on to university. In both camps, UNRWA provides health care at clinics in and outside the camps. For more serious or specialty needs residents are referred to private doctors.

Now the personal stories…the impressions…the reactions:

Your first image as you approach the Aida camp is the massive entryway that replicates a key lock and above it the symbolic Key of Return. Your second is the wall that snakes its way around the camp spray painted with words and images of resistance and hope. The first such image is a huge graphic invoking the link between Gernika 1936 and Palistina 1948.

Just outside the camp’s entrance is the Lajee (Arabic for refugee) Center where we were welcomed by several residents and the camp’s UNRWA director. Gathered in a large room we were given an overview of the camp’s history, current conditions and the work of the Lajee Center.

A lovely young woman, Shatha was our guide. An articulate ambassador for the camp and Lajee center she shared her personal story.

She was born in the camp and like her parents has known nothing but the reality of living as a refugee in her homeland. As she explained, today there are 6000 residents of the Aida camp living in 71 sq. meters…a little more than a 1 sq. meter for every person.

After finishing high school she went on the Bethlehem University where she studied science. Soon after she married but within two weeks of her wedding, during a night raid, her husband was arrested. A soldier struck him and she instinctively went to protect him but was warned that she should be quiet or her husband would receive another blow. She was determined not to let the soldiers see her fear but rather only her resolve. They would not intimidate her. Yet, afterwards she cried and cried. Her husband was detained for 3 months. She was allowed one visit. It took her four hours to get to the jail for a 40 minute visit. A glass wall separated them and Israeli security stood monitoring their conversation over the phone.

As she described the work of the Lajee Center, where she is employed, it was clear that a resilience and indomitable spirit was at its core. The center was established in 2000 by a group of 11 young people. It is a “community-based grassroots creative cultural center that works with the new generation of Palestinians as they continue their struggle for justice and rights for Palestine and all Palestinians.” The center houses a music institute, photography and multi-media program, a library ( the only one in Aida camp), a Dabka (Palestinian folk dance) troupe and an environmental unit that has recently launched a program to develop rooftop gardens and greenhouses. Among the center’s proudest accomplishments is a garden and playground for the children. As the camp is extremely dense with narrow alleys and virtually no space for children to play (let alone open green space) this new playground offers a respite and humanizing dimension for residents of the camp(s) and community.

The center also runs several summer camps including one for internationals. The musical and dance groups have toured internationally and perform throughout the West Bank encouraging pride in the rich Palestinian cultural heritage.

Shatha embodies a spirit of hope and possibility. She represents everything that could be if she and millions like her could establish roots in a homeland and be free to maximize their full potential.

After leaving the Aida camp and a short bus ride we entered the Dheisheh camp.
With much less fanfare one enters the camp and a maze of alleys. But before that, we gathered in their cultural center. The first impressive site is the many trophies on display that have been won by the different sports teams of the camp. This room would make any coach very proud! Then we spent time appreciating the handiwork done by local women including intricate embroidery and beading. A selection of musical instruments and some incredible artifacts were also on display. Among those pieces were a few treasured items saved by a resident of the camp from her “lost” home: the door’s keyhole lock (she, like many Palestinian refugees, still has the key to her house which they thought they would return to in a matter of days or at worst weeks) a coffee grinder and three vials filled with the soil, water and oil from her land. It was a poignant reminder of how these common things become one’s true treasures when they are taken from you,

Once again, we were welcomed by a charming young man, Hamza. Like Shatha he was born in the camp in 1988 during one of the four Israeli imposed curfews he has lived through – the longest being for 41 days. His grandfather after losing his home roamed around for a year before finally entering the camp as a registered refugee. Hamza shared that when the new “sardine boxes” were being offered as a replacement for the tents that had been their home for several years, his grandfather’s neighbor refused the more permanent structure…he said that accepting this was tantamount to accepting that he would stay in the camp. We never learned if he did!

The story and reality of the Dheisheh camp is very similar to that of the Aida camp although the numbers are almost double. Dheisheh was meant to house 260 people on a plot of land one-half sq. kilometer. Today, there are over 13,000 people squeezed into that same parcel of land.

The camp is dense, almost claustrophobic with only slivers of sky peeking between the buildings. The walkways are mostly cracked and broken though elegantly dressed women do not forsake their high heels under their hijabs. Dignity and resistance comes in many forms. It is bursting with life and flowers and smiling children jumping rope and playing soccer. Like Aida and many of the camps, 60% of the residents are under 18.

Hamza was a bit more explicit about the on-going struggle for justice. He spoke longingly of the 67 years without “home, freedom, peace, justice.” Yet, he spoke of the hope that he holds in his heart. He referred to himself and the millions of refugees who long for a solution as “victims of hope.”

He reminisced about his school years when in the third grade the ceiling of the
aging building that housed the school began to crumble on the children’s heads. A new classroom was fabricated out of thin metal containers. In the winter the 45 children in his class could not hear from the pounding rain and wind on the metal and it was even worse in the summer when the classroom became a sauna. Books were scarce and had to be shared one to three students. And never once did he learn anything about Palestine. It was never mentioned in any school book.

Again he spoke with great pride in what he and others had accomplished…of the 45 kids in his class 40 have graduated from University, some with advanced degrees. Today, as a social worker working at the local YMCA he counsels children and families “who have seen too much.”

He spoke of the restrictions imposed on his ability to move freely and without curfews. For years, when he was young boy, a metal gate was the one entrance into and out of the camp. You could only come and go through that gate between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. The gate was finally pushed down by the people in the camp.

He also spoke of the Israeli soldiers entering the camp at whim and without impunity. Offering a less flattering portrait of the UNWRA presence he referred to the UN as United Nothing. While reflective and somber when speaking of the on-going situation for refugees and indeed all Palestinians he believes that hope remains in the hearts of his people. “Lose hope and you will die.”

It was when we entered the camp that an energy and flame seemed to ignite. With every passing person a handshake, a laugh, a kind reprimand to a misbehaving boy, warm greetings between individuals who as a community share the reality of living as a refugees in their own homeland.

It was a stark reminder of what the human spirit can endure while holding on to hope.

Reflections:

  • A common thread in our reactions was disbelief and commitment to somehow, in our work, never lose hope. As one member said…” I don’t have permission to give
  • We are called to ensure justice and the human right to have power over one’s own destiny – the right to freedom of movement, the right to employment, the basic right to clean accessible water.
  • Action requires us to not become fatigued when working for those who do not have a voice.
  • Look for peace in your heart to change the structure of evil in society.
  • When in the Holy Land we must always remember and be with the Living Stones.
  • Without justice there can be no peace.

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