Seven: How Can We Tell the Story?
Friday, November 17
Aida Refugee Camp—The Interconnections
On Saturday, the18th, after seeing the group off to the airport
at 2:00 A.M, I contacted a former student that my wife and I supported
through her graduate program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Amal is a Palestinian from Bethlehem. She completed her doctorate
a year or so ago and had promised to return to Palestine when she
finished her studies to work toward peace. Amal lived up to her
promise. I learned a few days before coming on the delegation that
she had fulfilled that part of her dream, and has worked since the
elections with the President of the Palestinian Authority on international
negotiations. What follows is story which reveals surprising connections
between Amal's family experience and an earlier excursion by the
delegation to Bethlehem this past Friday, our final day on the West
On Friday, the 17th, we made our first trip to Bethlehem,
having zipped past it on several visits to Hebron and villages further
south. The day began with a stop at the Lajee Center in the Aida
Refugee camp in the western part of the city. The street was lined
on one side with a 10-ft high wall covered with unique murals, brightly
colored and designed to represent the experience of the refugees
from 27 neighboring villages who settled in the camp after fleeing
Israel in 1948. The murals foreshadowed the story we would hear
later from a child of the camp.
The Lajee Center was established in 1999 to address
the needs of youth in the camp. There was also the hope that young
people might hold on to the memories of their fathers and grandfathers,
so that they might continue to remember "the right of return,"
part of the legal, moral, and human rights guaranteed by international
law and various UN resolutions.
The Center has two buildings, one with a computer
lab and library, and the other for festivities like dancing and
art displays. While we were touring the Aida camp, several students
followed along with us. Under the guidance of the center's director
and local volunteers, the children are provided with social awareness
activities through music, art and dance. Students are also taught
skills in critical thinking which teachers feel will lead to the
kind of an adult who seriously questions options, and acts on his/her
convictions. This approach is predicated upon the belief that a
future Palestinian state will require active participation by its
In the information session with a local volunteer,
Iyad, who teaches at a nearby school and grew up in the camp himself,
we learned that the center provides assistance with school work,
extra curricular activities in the arts, and, when possible, field
trips to the Mediterranean Sea. (Many of the residents of Aida Camp
came from villages—now in Israel—near the coast). Most
of the current generation of children in the camp, which numbers
around 2000, had never seen either the Mediterranean or the Sea
of Gallilee. We were stunned to learn that of the current generation,
some 120 are in prison for various crimes against the state of Israel
which range from rock throwing to the making of homemade firecrackers.
What I found most enlightening, was Iyad's story
about his family's journey, first to the camp in 1948 and then through
the many years that followed. We had visited several other refugee
camps in the previous days, but nothing touched me as much as the
story told by a refugee himself within the confines of the camp.
Many of us began to feel more and more empathetic as we heard about
the tremendous hardships of early inhabitants who at first had only
what they brought with them from their homes in the villages. The
winters were harsh as the early residents had only tents to shelter
them. Later, the United Nations constructed concrete block structures
which were fairly simple, with little room, but offered better protection
against the weather.
After developing a clearer picture of what refugee
life was like for camp residents, we moved around the neighborhood
and saw with renewed understandings the brightly colored murals
that kids had painted over the last two summers with international
Later, when I returned by myself, I learned from
my visit to Amal's home just up the hill from Aida, that her parents
had been refugees in the camp, and that she and her other four brothers
and sisters were raised in the shadows of the concrete block homes
that still make up the camp. I spent Monday traveling around the
same neighborhood I had seen with the delegation a few days earlier,
though somehow with what had seemed like a quantitative leap in
my understanding. Now knowing that someone close to me had actually
survived the camp, managed to build another home close by, and produce
children who became a physician, a journalist, a banker, a nurse,
and a Harvard-trained staff member working with the current President,
astounded me. I also learned that Amal's mother was a mathematics
teacher in the school we had seen, and that Amal herself was a current
board member for the Lajee Center.
Amal's younger brother, Monjit, is a free lance
journalist and works with The Arabic News Network. He too grew up
in the camp. He now works on stories which describe life for people
within the walls of the West Bank. I watched several of his taped
stories and was impressed by the quality of the
tapes and intimacy of the stories he told through probing interviews.
I wondered how they might be useful for us as delegates as we prepare
for presentations at home. I wondered how many other Monjits and
Amals rose out of the camps and how many were still there with the
potential to do so. And like all of my other experiences these past
two weeks in Israel and on the West Bank which changed my life forever,
I wondered how we might tell their story.
Reflections on Our Journey
Thursday evening before our departure, members of
the delegation pondered whether we could return home with any semblance
of hope … hope for resolution of the conflict, hope for justice
for the Palestinians, hope for an end to the fear and despair we
I couldn’t remove certain images from my mind,
“facts on the ground” that had been phrased in innocuous
terms that had lulled me into complacency for too many years. Now
I understood them as sending clear messages of apartheid and ethnic
Separation wall. Under the guise of security, it
continually looms before us, cold concrete 25 feet high, snaking
and encircling, confiscating Palestinian land, separating Palestinian
villages, separating families and friends, separating farmers from
their land and their precious olive trees.
Checkpoints. Their purpose to demean and humiliate,
Palestinians wait interminable hours to pass through these barriers,
the rate of entry determined by an automated turnstile, only to
be followed by still another turnstile, and another and another.
Ignominiously herded like cattle; presenting ID to await a soldier’s
gesture – pass through or step aside. Mothers waiting with
infants to seek medical care; sisters waiting to visit brothers
in Israeli prisons; men waiting to get to work, if there is any
work awaiting them – all awaiting the whim of the Israeli
guards to let them through.
Settlements. Populated by thousands of Israelis,
looming on the mountain crests over small Palestinian villages below,
leviathans gradually engulfing them. Ideological settlers in At-Tuwani
attacking innocent Palestinian children on their way to school while
economic settlers drive on the settlers-only roads, inured to the
violence about them.
What hope is there for the Palestinian people? How
can a people without one military tank offset the might of Israel,
backed by the US, the most powerful nation in the world? We heard
over and over again about the Palestinian tradition of nonviolence,
something we Americans never learn about from our media. What we
normally hear about the Palestinians in the US media is couched
in terms of militants and suicide bombers. Now, on this delegation,
we have witnessed their oppression and marvel at their steadfastness.
We were told that a Jewish tradition says it takes seven generations
for healing to occur. The Palestinians don’t have that much
Yet what about the incredibly exceptional people
we met – Palestinians and Israelis – working to end
the occupation? Daily putting their lives on the line to bring justice
to the Palestinians? How can we abandon these courageous men and
women? How can we say to them, “Your work is meaningless …
futile … ineffective against the Israeli machine.” Yes,
it’s a snappy slogan, “Build bridges, not walls,”
but who’s listening? How do you counter a climate of fear,
on both sides, that’s been so intense for so many years?
So perhaps it was prophetic that on our last day
we visited two oranizations: Wi’am and the Holy Land Trust.
At Wi’am, Zoughbi Zoughbi interspersed his description of
his organization’s activities with words of encouragement:
“Your presence is a message to those who are oppressed, a
message of solidarity. We cannot succeed without support from international
civil society.” He spoke about the exhaustion on both sides,
the need for “restorative justice – to address the wrongs,
not avenge them,” and said of hope: “We cannot live
without hope. This is a land of hope and hope has a price. Who thought
the Berlin wall would fall? Who knew the apartheid regime in South
Africa would fall? Hope is the prophetic voices that come here.”
Beautiful words, but all I could think about --
time is running out for the Palestinians.
We next visited The Holy Land Trust. I found Sami
Awad’s commitment to nonviolence overwhelming. Just as Rabbi
Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights moved me by his intensity,
so Mr. Awad’s gentleness touched me. Focused on the future,
Mr. Awad believes Palestinian nonviolence is a reactionary movement
right now: against the wall, against home demolitions, against checkpoints.
He sees the need to transform it into a pro-active movement. One
couldn’t help but be swayed by his gentle, firm conviction
that nonviolence exposes the violence, that if a nonviolent movement
is built in Palestine, a parallel movement will arise in Israel
and it will be Israeli society, not the Palestinians, that will
bring down the wall, once their fears are addressed.
I left feeling … perhaps, just perhaps, there
might be a possibility for hope. And who am I to deny the Palestinians
their hope … I who have visited their land for only two weeks
while they have lived under indescribable conditions their entire
lives? If hope sustains them, then I too must sustain them and that
hope. Now, in the comfort and safety of my home, I ponder my responsibility
and what I must do.