During my trip to Israel last November we got to spend several days in Bethlehem. There were plenty of great places to visit, beautiful buildings, and picturesque landscape. But the place that stuck with me the most was the Aida Refugee Camp. The camp was established in 1950 after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It is populated by thousands of Palestinian refugees, descendents of those who fled their homes during the war. I left there with the promise in my heart that I would tell the story of the refugees.
Bethlehem is just within the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall and Aida Camp was built along the wall. As we turned down the street into the camp, the area felt so much more congested – not with street traffic but with buildings crowded close to one another.We followed the Separation Wall into the camp and I couldn’t take my eyes from the graffiti that covered the huge concrete slabs. This wasn’t your typical teenager trying to leave his mark on the world or drop a gang sign. This was art as a vent for inner turmoil. The images evoked emotion, told the story of these people, and allowed a glimpse into the soul of the artists.
I could have wept, I was so touched. The pain, despair, and sadness of the refugees truly was written on the wall for all to see. We continued our way into the camp and passed through a huge gate. On top of the gate rested the world’s largest key. It serves as a symbol of the keys to their homes that the Palestinian people took with them when they fled in 1948 with hopes of one day returning. Many of the families still have those keys and hang on to them as a reminder of the homes they no longer have and still hope to return to. But for now, they are a people with no country and no home.
Our guide led us into one of the apartment buildings and explained that the refugee camp is not permitted to expand it’s borders so as the population within grows, they have to build ever higher. We trooped up several flights of stairs, past simple small rooms shared by multiple families because of the building limitations. He took us to the rooftop and we looked over the camp, over the Separation Wall. On the Palestinian side the buildings were so close and cramped against one another. And just over the painted wall there was a rolling field, an olive orchard, and new apartment buildings were being constructed. Within the wall, our guide pointed out the refugee’s school building that had been hit by RPGs during the Second Antifada, some of the damage to the building still unrepaired.The dichotomy couldn’t have been more clear, nor heartbreaking.
As we walked through more of the camp we spotted some sweet children playing in the street. The little girls smiled shyly at us and the boys acted all the more rambunctious as though to prove their courage to us. The walls in that area were painted with cartoon characters, butterflies, and birds. We were told that while the people want to express their struggle with being refugees, they don’t want their children to only be surrounded by the turmoil of camp life.
Bethlehem and the surround area is mostly inhabited by Palestinians (like the woman I stayed with) but the Palestinian refugees are limited to living only within the camp. They can choose to leave the camp but at the loss of any UN aid that is currently being provided to them in the form of free education, basic medical care, and food. Because the refugees get help from the UN and the other Palestinians outside the camp do not, it has created a rift between the two groups. Those outside of the camp struggle to survive in a withering economy and those within the camp are provided the minimum needed to survive but living in squalor and denied the rights of citizens. They cannot have passports, they cannot work within Palestine.
Throughout the long years, the frustration of waiting, the cramped living, and the antifadas; the refugees still carry a glimmer of hope that one day they will have a place to call home again. They strive for peace with their Israeli neighbors and look to a day when they can leave the camp, no longer a displaced people, but as citizens with equal rights. I nurse that same hope for them and was so encouraged to learn that groups of both Israelis and Palestinians have partnered together in the interest of peace and reconciliation already and their work continues. There is hope.