Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bethlehem + Aida Refugee Camp = Day 1

Written by Michael:

I wrote this a few days ago, but unfortunately we haven't got regular internet connection so I was unable to post it earlier.


Impoverished, dilapidated, unmaintained, and surrounded by a massive concrete wall, the city where Jesus was reportedly born is no longer the tourist attraction it once was. Since the construction of the seperation barrier seven years ago, tourism has nearly died in Bethlehem. Political grafitti and artistic depictions of the conflict cover the walls. Desperate taxi drivers looking for business surround newcomers. Several children attempting to sell cheap goods run up to tourists. Resturants are empty, hotels are empty, stores are empty... streets are nearly deserted.

We were a bit nervous at first. Stepping through the checkpoint felt like a portal to an unmarked territory- a third world country- or maybe even a prison. We followed alongside the wall until reaching Al-Aida Refugee Camp. The narrow streets were nearly unpopulated, and paranoid thoughts ran through my head as I thought out all the terrible circumstances that could happen.

But our fears were nothing more than paranoid creations of our imagination, and a product of the ignorance and steriotypes that surround us. The hospitality of Palestinian culture is outstanding. People passing by greet visitors with "Ahlan" (welcome) or "Salam" (peace/hello). Conversations spark spontaneously on the street. We were almost immediately invited for a cup of coffee by a middle-aged Palestinian man named Khalid. I am amazed by how much we learned from him and how well we could communicate, though he spoke little English and we know nearly no Arabic. Khalid told us a bit about life in the refugee camp.

Al-Aida was initially estbalished by the UNRWA (United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestine) in 1947. It initially served as a temporary location for refugees, mainly with origins in Jerusalem. But as it became clear that the refugees would be living there long-term, and as the practicality of return faded, people began building their own homes on the designated territory. Tents became condensed tiny homes. Today, Aida Camp is home to more than 3,000 Palestinians, 77% of whom are unemployed and 80% of whom live below the Palestinian poverty line. A refugee camp does not allow for expansion, as the territory designated in 1948 remains the only land available to date.

There's absolutely nothing for youth to do in Aida. The streets have become their playgrounds, and unsupervised children as young as four years old roam the streets and congregate with friends. There's no room for playgrounds, movie theaters, parks, or anything of that nature. As we, the foreigners, would pass by, children were curious to talk with us, and we became instant friends with dozens of children. Some interested in practicing their English, others interested in taking pictures with us, and others interested in just messing around and joking with us, it became almost like a game to go street-to-street and meet a new bunch of children.

In general, people are mad at the Israeli government and feel that the poverty is a direct result of the occupation. They have turned towards militant groups like the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, to protect them where others have failed. In Khalid's house, we watched news showing fighters who had been deported to European countries. Khalid told us that, though currently calmer than in the past, it is regular for the military to raid the camp, detain and possibly later deport Palestinian citizens.

He, like many other Palestinians, do not feel that Aida is home. Instead, he points to a picture of Dome of the Rock hanging on the corner of his room, signifying that Jerusalem, the birthplace of his parents, is his true home. Many Palestinians seem to feel this way. Why would they accept a dilapidated, impoverished camp like Aida as their home, rather than a flourishing city like Jerusalem? It seemed his eyes nearly teared us as he spoke of Jerusalem and watched the news.

But at the end of the day, it seems people are genuinely interested in peace and living in stability. No one told us they would like to see the death, nor the expulsion of Jews. Everyone treated us well and welcomed us to their city.

It all hit home, as we waited in a jammed line for an hour at the checkpoint upon re-enterring Israel. And as long as the line took to leave Bethlehem, the line enterring was hours longer.

-Josh and I will be volunteering in Aida Refugee camp for several months starting December 13th-


  1. Michael,
    When the Palestinians were kicked out of Jerusalem, was it a "flourishing city"? It seems that it has been built up so much since 1948 to a degree that it is incomparable to the old Jerusalem.

    Thanks for what y'all are doing, it's fascinating.


  2. wonderfully written. i hope you took some pictures of the faces and places you've visited!

    and to brandon.. so does that mean they dont have the right to their land? a lot can happen in 60 years so comparing jerusalem then to now is kinda silly. would you even compair dubai now to dubai 10 years ago? i mean really tho...