[Wednesday, January 13]
After a day of touring sites such as Masada and Qumran and having a little float in the Dead Sea (no cameras allowed), all of us participating in the Canadian Lutheran World Relief Global Encounter came down to earth with an early morning visit to the Aida Refugee Camp and the Lajee Center.
The first sight was a large archway in the shape of a keyhole with a huge key on top. It symbolizes the loss of Palestinian homes in 1948. Many refugees still wear the key of their old homes around their necks in hope of regaining ownership again some day.
Five thousand Palestinian refugees live in the Aida camp in an area of about one square kilometre. In all there are 25,000 people in three camps in the Bethlehem area. People in the camp lived in tents for the first 10 years beginning in 1950. The British built three metre by three metre cement cubes to house the refugees and construction took almost another full decade. Since then most of the refugees have succeeded in constructing their own homes through money they have earned or from remittances of relatives overseas.
These new houses are always unfinished. They are constructed so that supports for an additional floor are above the last finished floor. A parent builds the house and then adds a floor for children and they add a floor for their children.
Living conditions leave a lot to be desired. Water is available for about two hours a week at this time of year and can often be withheld for weeks during the summer. When water is available the householders have to pump the water into tanks on top of their homes and that supplies them until water is available again. The World Health Organization estimates a person requires 100 litres a day and at very best, a refugee gets 60 litres a day.
Playgrounds for the children were destroyed when the separation wall was erected. But the worst problem is the random firing of bullets into the camp by security forces. The United Nations school in the camp was badly damaged by gunfire and 27 people have been killed by these random shootings since 2000, many of them children. There was a time when the children used a Radar O’Reilly sense and could hear the soldiers’ Jeeps coming before anyone else could. Now the wall is right beside the camp with six gun turrets within a few metres of all the activity.
In spite of all this and so much more, we heard of how people at the Lajee Centre are bringing hope to the youth of Aida camp. The main aim of the Centre is to provide refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and developmental opportunities. Its programs are designed in response to the particular needs of the children and the skills and abilities of its members. With use of film, photography, art and dance the centre is teaching young people to express themselves through all these media. They are encouraged to learn that they can resist without throwing stones or picking up arms. We saw the results of their artwork and the kinds of exhibitions of their work that are displayed world wide.
“We are not politicizing these young people,” said one of the workers. “If you have grown up with walls around your house, soldiers shooting at you, checkpoints which turn a five minute trip into 90 minutes, and being denied the most basic of human rights, you are already politicized.” He said any twelve year old in the camp could give you a complete lecture in human rights in twenty minutes. You can learn more about the Lajee Centre at lajee.org.
Twenty year old Kholoud Al-Ajana in her posted documentary which tells of broken dreams concludes, “real life is different than dreams.” Still there is hope amid all the despair and this centre is working hard to bring that about. For her, she may not become the scientist she dreamed of being but is on her way to becoming an accomplished producer of documentary films.
As we left the camp, I was personally struck by all the graffiti on the wall. This on, in particular, stood out for me, “Victory attained by violence is equal to a defeat for it is momentary – Mahatma Ghandi.”