Saturday, October 31, 2009

Refugees forever?

As Palestinians fled from their villages in 1948 as the Israeli army was taking control of the land, they began to gather together in communities in what was then land controlled by Jordan or Lebanon or Syria. The flood of refugees quickly became a humanitarian crisis.

The floodwaters have not receded. You can see the aftermath as you stroll through the Dheisheh Camp in Bethlehem.
There are now nearly 13,000 refugees living there, the generational growth from the first 3,500 who settled there when the United Nations took responsibility for the camp in 1954. The camp then and now covers 1.5 square kilometers.

The original homes were 9 square meters for each family. Because there is no room to expand outward, families over generations have built upwards, adding second and third floors.

One thing is slightly better now. The original camp had one public restroom for each area of these tiny homes. Now there is running water and more bathrooms.

Overlying all of this, however, is the political stalemate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One of the central Palestinian demands in negotiations is for the right of these refugees to return to their villages in Israel. The Israeli government has consistently rejected that, since Israeli families now live in those place and since an influx of Palestinians would significantly shift the demographic balance in a state created as a place for Jewish people.

A young man named Shadi, our guide through the camp, said that at this point, most refugees would no longer choose to return to Israel. Some older ones might, but the younger ones would make a life for themselves elsewhere. But they want it to be their choice, not yet another restriction put on their lives by Israel. In the meantime, they walk this odd balance in the camp.

"We are trying to make our life here better, but we are not accepting that we will stay here forever," Shadi told us. He said that the Palestinian Authority provides no assistance to those in the camps because that would imply they are citizens of the West Bank. And memories are alive from the last time this happened -- in 2002 -- that the Israeli army can come in and exert its power whenever it wants.

"The problem is not food, the problem is not water, the problem is not the checkpoints," Shadi said. "The problem is the occupation."

But the daily problems in the camp are also realities.

Many people in the camp used to work in Israel, but with the construction of the separation barrier following the Second Intifada in 2002, many of those people can no longer get to work and they have lost their jobs.

Unemployment in the camp runs around 75 percent.
The electricity network in the camp - built in 1954 and then upgraded in 1960, is totally inadequate for the camp of today, said Hazem Al Qassas, the acting director of Ibdaa Cultural Center in the camp.

Shadi said there are 1,800 school students in the camp and only 25 teachers. The clinic has one doctor, two nurses and is open six hours a day, with some 280 patients coming in each day.

And given the extraordinarily congested conditions in the camp, going back to the original nine-by-nine houses, Shadi said that "one of the biggest problems we have here is the privacy problem. You can't have any time for yourself."

Still, there is a strong sense of solidarity in the camp, of family members looking out for each other. And they look to the rest of the world in the hope that someone will listen to their story, that someone will care.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You write, that in the years since 1948, "the floodwaters have not receded..." What a powerful metaphor for what it's like to displaced and mistreated in one's homeland. And what important stories you're telling here, allowing us to look beyond caricatures, so that we can actually come to know something of the lives of the people experiencing life under the shadow of the Occupation.

    As a participant in the movement for LGBT rights, I've always known the power of story-telling in transforming the lives of oppressed and misunderstood people, juxtaposed with the destructive nature of the myths and prejudices that persist when those voices have been purposefully eclipsed or squelched.

    And yet, everything I've learned in the past year about the realities of the Occupation for the Palestinian people has brought that point home to me with crystal clarity again and again.

    You clearly have some powerful stories to tell that dispel so many deeply held myths about what it means to be Palestinian. You replace the stereotype of angry terrorist who cares little for the others with your complex portraits of people selflessly devoted to peace.

    "Go out and tell your story, let it echo far and wide.... Let them hear you, let them hear you." These are words recently sung by the Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus that have stayed with me.

    Though grounded in your previous beliefs, in recent days, you've experienced a series of profound spiritual ephiphanies, all in the context of a land deeply linked to your own faith traditions. Thank you so much for sharing your deep insights through this blog.

    Now, when you return, go out and tell those stories, and let them echo far and wide. For these are stories that can transform us all on the path to peace.