Writing from Jerusalem with update # 3. The refugee camp next to Dheisheh is Aida. It is home to 5,000 refugees from 27 villages in one half square kilometer. We began walking in the first foot of snow Bethlehem has seen in 20 years. Or was it the first six inches in 7 years? Or the first four in 4 years? We have no idea. And it seems that no one else does either. It wasn’t til too late that we learned the rules of snow here: if you don’t want to play, don’t go out into the street. We began hoofing the slippery 3 miles down a steep hill in our tennis shoes (and boots for Jonah). I was a little paranoid having some expensive camera equipment because falling down the hill seemed almost inevitable. The taxis began running again and we were saved.
We arrived at Lajee (refugee in Arabic) youth center in Aida refugee camp and met with Mohammed Qassim who runs many youth programs out of the center. There were a few photo exhibits by youth capturing life in the camp and their connection with the villages where their families were displaced from. The center publishes a quarterly magazine written by youth and from the international sales of these publications they were able to purchase the building that now houses the center. They have a library, media center, interns, classes in film, photography, writing and much more.
Mohammed talked to us about how he is fighting as hard if not harder for right of return than his great grandfather. He told this to us after mentioning the quote that Golda Meir said of children eventually forgetting their histories and where their families came from. It was a really great interview. We then met with Saleh Ajarma who is the director of the center. Saleh’s family is from Ajjur village north of Hebron. Today, British park, created by the JNF sits on top of Ajjur which was destroyed in 1948. Saleh told us of the memories his grandmother shared with him about what Ajjur was like when she lived there. The air was different. The sun was different. The wind was different. The smells were different. She wanted to be buried there. Notin Aida refugee camp. Jonah and I went home to rest and ended up sleeping for almost 12 hours while the others spent social time with people from Lajee.
The next day we attempted to attend a protest at the largest settlement in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim. The building of a new settlement was recently announced in area E1 near Ma’ale Adumim. Each village in the area has a weekly protest on Fridays and this Friday, the Popular Resistance Committees of all the village agreed to cancel their protest and join together to protest this new settlement that would connect east-west across the West Bank making a cutoff from access north-south in the West Bank. We are told that more than 250 people gathered that day, set up tents and camped out for as long as the police would allow them. By the time we arrived, Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were guarding the area and did not allow our entry. We are told this action got excellent coverage in the region and across the world.
The next day the streets were clear enough for us to take a tour of Dheisheh Refugee camp. Our guide talked to us about overcrowding in the camp, one school each for girls and boys, more than 45 children to a classroom, with no places for children to play. We saw a lot of incredible and inspiring art on the walls in the camp, the UN health clinic for camp which has 1 doctor total, and the Ibdaa Cultural Center which we have heard so much about. We were thrilled to see the sunshine. At the end of our tour we were shown what was the only entrance and exit to the camp when residents were under curfew inside the camp during the Second Intifada.
The next day we had a tour of British Park and American Independence Park given by Umar from Zochrot. Zochrot (“Remembering”) seeks to raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, especially among Jews in Israel, who bear a special responsibility to remember and amend the legacy of 1948 (from their website http://zochrot.org/en). It was very emotional and connecting to speak with people in refugee camps, and then visit the sites of the villages from which they and their ancestors were removed 65 years ago. We walked through the ruins of Ajjur village. There was a market where people would come from as far as Gaza to sell their crop and livestock. Today that very spot houses a playground with fake sheep. Too many spandexed cyclists whizzing by enjoying their weekend on stolen land.
After that incredibly long day of visiting JNF parks, a couple of us went into Dheisheh to interview some elders who were displaced and whose villages were destroyed in 1948. A 93 year old man talked to us for about 45 minutes straight in Arabic. Much was captured by pen (also in Arabic) by his grandson’s friend. We waited for him to come back from prayer in his grandsons rap studio in the camp. It was built earlier that year and they make music describing life in the camp and include young people on the tracks. It was an impressive set-up. We then met with a woman who was nearly 90 who told us about her husband’s resistance to the Palmach and some heroic stories to which she credits the survival of her family. Also another woman who runs with her family the small convenience store across the street form our guest house told us about her husband who is from Zakariyya village, where British Park is found today.
We had our 1st tree planting day in Khirbet Twael, a small farming village that has experienced housing and structure demolition and also violence from settlers coming down the mountain and trying to drive villagers out. We planted a bunch of trees on their land and 112 signs were made with different villages names on them to commemorate the ongoing resistance to the JNFs plans to take over more land. Many people young and old gathered to dig into the rich earth and put beautiful saplings into the ground. Our plan was to stay in the village that night. Upon being taken to where we would spend the night (the village mosque) we saw more people planting trees on the other side of the valley. We got out of the tuck and spent time planting more trees with them and had some tea in the middle of the field. The mayor and some friends brought us an amazing dinner. We were awoken at 5 am to someone getting on the loudspeaker to pray, but we fell back asleep only to be woken up by the mayor bringing us breakfast of sheep’s cheese, eggplant, large, thin flat bread, fuul, olives, tea, eggs oh my goodness.