Dangerously Daydreaming

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." ~ T. E. Lawrence

The Writing on the Wall: Aida Refugee Camp

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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11 comments on “The Writing on the Wall: Aida Refugee Camp

  1. ethelthedean
    January 30, 2013

    Your words and pictures have brought tears to my eyes. My fingers and tongue seem too clumsy to convey everything I feel about this part of the world, so I’ll just say thank you, again and again, for telling these stories.

    Thank you.

    • Audrey
      January 30, 2013

      It’s that lump in the throat and choking on the right words to say because words don’t make it better. I’ve had the same feeling for months – evidenced by the fact that I’m just now getting around to writing about the people I met and things I saw during the trip. Before, the words wouldn’t form properly or would rush out in a rambling spew like so much water rushing through a spillway. It’s not easy to talk about this stuff but more and more I’m realizing that the stories must be told to combat the limited window of media, dialogue has to be started to change hearts and minds. I’m so grateful for your encouragement and support through each of these posts. They’re hard to write and I’m sure they’re not easy to read. Thank you so much.

  2. Denise Hisey
    January 31, 2013

    My knowledge of what is really going on over there is pitiful. Thank you for a birds eye view and an outsider’s perspective. It is heartbreaking.

    • betunada
      February 1, 2013

      (what denise said). also “ethyl” — as words alone seem NOT to be able to convey how we feel, or would like to express …

      • Audrey
        February 6, 2013

        It’s definitely hard to put words to. What got me was all the drawings and seeing the kids. Pictures can tell what stories can’t, it seems like.

    • Audrey
      February 6, 2013

      It really is heartbreaking. And the situation is so convoluted there that I can’t find an easy answer to it all. And since we only hear bits and pieces of what’s happening there it’s hard to be in the know. I’m so glad that they do have some tourist programs in place now that allow people like me to stay with Palestinian families and glimpse the issue a little better.

  3. Danny Breslin
    January 31, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s sad and outrageous that a people who were so brutalised and forced into ghettoes should, within living memory of those awful times, be doing the same to another people.

  4. whatimeant2say
    February 2, 2013

    We read in history books about the poor treatment of various peoples over the centuries, and pity them and wonder at how people could be so cruel. But it continues in present time, and it hurts me the most to see the poor children subjected to this treatment.

    • Audrey
      February 6, 2013

      It just doesn’t seem real, does it? I almost felt like I was walking around a set for a post-apocalyptic film. Seeing the kids and living situation for families was the hardest part about being there. But I love that they still want to see a peaceful resolution to everything. It’s admirable and makes me hopeful.

  5. storiesbywilliams
    February 6, 2013

    Wow. Another amazing touching story from your trip. I too hope for that someday soon, but get repeatedly discouraged! How anyone can take a one-sided stance on this is beyond me, especially when so many people have been waiting so long for the simplest of relief.

    • Audrey
      February 6, 2013

      I think that’s the inherent issue with our media, you only get the perspective they want to share or are allowed to show. The group we did our “tour” of the camp through was really good about keeping it balanced (I felt) and there were no anti-Semetic undertones. It can be a tricky slope when you want to see justice for all.

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