I had anticipated I would feel uncomfortable as we toured a tiny piece of the tiny but densely populated Dheisheh refugee camp, 3km outside of Bethlehem. And I did, as we walked up the hillside on which the camp is built, through dilapidated building so insecurely built that they lean towards each other, even touching. The walls are plastered with graffiti, messy tags and political slogans, alongside portraits of martyrs and victims – most of the portraits were of teenaged boys.
Young children ran up to meet us ‘Hello – what’s your name – my name is Mohammed!’ They weren’t begging or selling like the children we met in Jerusalem or in Bethlehem. It was clear they were saying hi because that’s what they do, to stave off boredom, or as some kind of game – who can say ‘hello’ to the most internationals.
I feel like what I look like, that tourist again with the camera and rucksack, removed from but trying to ‘experience’ something that is happening to people worse off than me.
It made me think about something I’ve been considering a lot latterly as I have started working in digital comms. I have a thing about experiential fundraising – the kind that asks teenagers to sleep out on the streets for the night to raise funds for the homeless, or campaigns that ask people to ‘live below the line’ starving themselves for a week to know what food poverty feels like. I understand that these things are useful to a point to help us with empathy, but in general I have believed they’re probably more patronising than anything else. Indeed, from the stories I am hearing this week, the lack of food, medical supplies, good education aren’t the crux of the matter. It is the lack of freedom, respect, dignity and most of all hope. And when we live below the line for a week we still can look forward to that roast dinner as our reward, or that huge glass of vino after Dry January. That disconnect between fun-fundraising, putting awareness raising before dignity has been difficult for me.
I felt uncomfortable walking through Dheisheh because I figured that these kids jostling to see us, and the adults watching us wander past, politely but wearily saying hello, would think we just don’t, and moreover, can’t get it.
But our host in the camp, Luay, told me that they refugees like to see us there because they hope our visit will mean we help them. Not by giving them money, and not by buying their wares then and there, but they are glad we’re there, in their streets, seeing it with our own eyes because they don’t want to be patronised. Palestinians are proud, they have been an incredibly well educated nation, but as funding the UNWRA drops off, levels of literacy have plummeted. They are still proud, but they know they need understanding and help. So seeing us wander around is generally a good thing.
Listening to Luay talk about the women’s empowerment project he’s been helping run made me cry for the first time this week. He spoke about 12 women they taught to high school level, 11 of whom passed their qualifications and 7 of whom are now teachers in the area. He talked about how he and his colleagues have taught women’s rights to men, because they believe that you can teach women all you like about their rights, but until you break down the barriers of patriarchy they’ll meet in their own homes, the women’s education will be stifled. In the past 5 years, the stigma within the camp of men helping with household chores has significantly reduced.* This is the stuff my dreams are made of. I had to go and shake his hand and thank him.
There were more traditional sights seen today – the Shepherd’s fields, a tranquil tree lined garden in Beit Sahour and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We also joined a Christian congregation at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem for a service. Walking around the cluttered but fragrant Bethlehem market was a highlight. Valentine’s Day seems, inexplicably, to be a bit of a thing here and the market was strewn with giant teddy bears, love hearts and balloons.
This evening, our talk came from a friendly Christian couple, Leila and Nicola, Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem. They told us about the pressure the occupation puts on their daily life. Their school run involves passing through checkpoints and past military vehicles. They only have running water a few days a month and so have to store up all their laundry and cleaning until those few days. I can’t imagine that, just me and my husband, let alone how Leila and Nicola manage with three kids.
They spoke to us about the education system – Nicola is a teacher with 20 years as a high school chemistry teacher and now 5 months as a head teacher. He told me over dinner that the 5 months have been far harder than the previous 20 years combined. Some things are true no matter where you live.
They described managing influences on their own children, the impact on their family that comes from being split between areas of the OPT where travel is not allowed. Laila spoke about how her kids were afraid to go to the toilet on their own in case they used too much water.
They told us how they have thought of leaving. Of taking their kids to the UK (Laila is a British citizen as well as a Palestinian which doesn’t make life any easier contrary to what we might think.) “Maybe, maybe there is a better future there for them.” She says. A member of the group asked why they stay. “Our roots, they go down deep. Our family. But the tension is always our kids…what do we want for our kids.” Plus they own a small piece of land, which they started building a house on until the money ran out and the red tape got to be too much. “We can’t build on land we own; settlers can build on land they don’t even own.”
Now Nicola grows olives on it and her harvested 2 pieces of fruit in their first year which is actually amazing! If they abandon the land the Israelis will move in and claim it. So another reason to stay.
At the end of their talk, a member of our group asked if being here, being under occupation eer shakes their faith or does it make it stronger. Laila says “I get frightened. Our languages separate us, even between Palestinian Christians and Palsetinian Muslims, the way we speak can separate us.” Nicola joins in the response: “It’s about living for your kids, teaching them we believe in peace, it is important that we pass that on. Really, daily, it is just a matter of living.”
*Coincidentally, and I’d get my butt kicked for not mentioning it, the Embrace Lent Appeal is raising funds for women’s empowerment and education projects across the Middle East. We don’t currently fun Luay’s project but we fund many similar across the region.