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Published: August 18th 2012
The young man's eyes were trained desperately on the two of us. He needed help. Not sure if we could trust him, I kept my mouth shut and let my friend handle it. My friend knew many people in the camp, but this one was unknown. He begged us for help, just five minutes he said. Please come. Why not? So we followed him around the corner to his home and entered.
"Do you know Mohannad? The boy who used to live here?", we asked as we passed his house.
"Yes, he's my cousin."
"Where is he? Is he home?"
"No, he's in prison again."
His accent was thick and as we followed him into the home we wondered what he needed help with. He had us sit in a small living room with ancient falling-apart couches and chairs that lined each wall. The walls were barren except for a few Islamic tapestries and icons hanging in the corner. He asked us to wait there and went into the next room. It was a miracle the building was still standing. The walls were falling apart, the windows broken and shards of glass lay around them. Dheisheh
Refugee Camp is home to 12,000 refugees and encompasses only 1 square kilometer. A room this size on average housed about 7 people here in the camp.
Dheisheh is one of 59 camps set up for Palestinian refugees, who number higher than the population of any other group of refugees from any country in the world. According to the Phoenix Association Dheisheh has two under-resourced schools and one part-time doctor for all 12,000 inhabitants. The closest hospital is outside the camp in neighboring Beit Jala, which until 1995 was almost impossible to reach as the entire community was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and the single entrance was guarded by armed soldiers. Today, unless there is a raid, traveling out of the camp has been made much easier and the wall has been torn down, leaving only the preserved revolving gate that was used at the main entrance to the camp.
The man named Mumtaz returned and gestured for us to follow into the next room. We entered a bedroom that was in the same conditon as the room before. 2 small beds were cramped up against the walls and a worn couch sat
next to a big computer from 1994. Random pieces of cloth littered the floor and a Palestinian flag hung over the window. He motioned to sit on the couch next to him and grabbed his dirty keyboard. We waited as he pulled up a website on his very slow connection. It was a job application in English, and he needed our help to fill it out. Realizing this would take hours to do and we had to visit someone, my friend exchanged numbers with him and promised to come back the next day.
We continued walking the streets of Dheisheh and watched as old women carried bags quickly through the streets to get home. After the multiple, violent Israeli raids on the camp the locals know not to stay outside too long. Children ran and played outside without a care in the world, only occasionally stopping their game to stare at my white, foreigner friend.
2 years ago my friend had lived in the camp for 12 months. He knew it pretty well, but after two years sometimes one street merges with another in the mind. We walked around looking for the house of
his friend. But all we could find was more half empty streets and all the wrong houses. After calling him we met up with his younger brother Saif, who we found cutting knaffeh, a famous Palestinian dessert, out of a pan at an intersection nearby. We followed him, chatting in Arabic along the way as he lead us to his home. They're some of the lucky ones. They have their own "apartment".
The camp was created for about 3,400 Palestinian refugees from Israeli occupied territory to the west after 1948. Originally intended to be temporary, tents were the only shelter available. After 3 generations of living in the camps, the people realized that going home was a long shot, and began building their own makeshift, concrete houses. Now there are very few tents and the buildings house multiple families.
We climbed up the stairs to the second floor (there was no first floor, only an empty garage littered with garbage) which led directly into the living room. It was in better condition than the previous house, but still obviously poor. This house consisted of two small stories, not even close to the size of
a two story house that I'm used to. Saif, the youngest son, shares a tiny bedroom with his twin brother and old Arabic books, a drawing pad, and a copy of the Quran are his only possessions. He opened an Arabic children's book to show me and handed it to me. "This I make gift to you." With barely any possessions at all, he still had the heart to give his things away. He took me up to the rooftop of the building where I could see the hills of Bethlehem and a better view of the camp.
Saif loves to draw. He took me to his room to show me his artwork. He drew pictures of him finding his future wife, of the freedom of his people and Palestine, and then he showed me something that I won't soon forget. He had drawn a key.
"What key is that?"
"This is key to old beitna (our house). My dad has it."
The Palestinians who fled under threat of violence had taken their keys with them, believing they would return someday soon. But that was over 60 years ago and now the keys are
passed down in families as a reminder of where they came from and the homes and lives they left behind.
Every day when I leave Bethlehem through the checkpoint and take the bus to Jerusalem or wherever I'm going, we pass a tall hill right outside Bethlehem. On the hill sits a small walled-in community of Israelis. This is one of the illegal israeli settlements in the West Bank. The camp started out small, but in the dead of night the camp has been added to a few times. Under the cover of night Israeli soldiers and construction crews have come in and built a new wall further down the hill, then demolished the old one. Further encroaching on Palestinian land and breaking international law. Just recently a landmark ruling was made by the Israeli high court that three small Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land are in fact illegal and must be demolished. Hopefully this ruling will act as a precedent for more cases in the future, and with the issue of illegal settlements out of the way, negotiations for peace can continue.
My friend began telling
Old Gate into the camp
It says "sana3ood" - We will come back
A statement from Palestinians saying they will one day return to their homes in occupied territory
Mummar, the older brother, a story. He had been traveling with a Palestinian friend to Jerusalem a few weeks ago. They both had the proper papers - my friend had an Israeli visa and the Palestinian had special permission to leave the West Bank. At the checkpoint for cars (they were driving to Jerusalem) they were stopped to show their papers. They both handed them over thinking everything was fine, but the Palestinian was asked to get out of the car.
"You're under arrest."
"What? Why? I have permission. And all the proper papers"
"You're under arrest."
"What? Just because I'm Palestinian?"
This sent my friend into a rage. Sticking up for his friend he started screaming at the Israeli guards, to which they decided they would arrest the loud foreigner too. They both spent the night in jail before being released the next day. My friend put it best, "why? What did they accomplish by doing that? They're occupying a country and when they encounter someone who has no problem with them, and they arrest him for no reason, they're making it so that person now has a problem with
them. The Israelis are their own worst enemy. They're stoking the hate fire."
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