Aida camp

I am working in Aida camp. This refugee camp is located to the northwest of Bethlehem and adjacent to the village of Beit Jala. Most refugee camps were created in 1948. In that year the state of Israel was proclaimed. Arab countries reacted to this event with an armed intervention. In the conflict that arose, Israel conquered its present territory. But Israel went further than that. In the conquered area Israel tried to erase the Palestinian society as much as possible. Palestinians call this event “The Catastrophe” or in Arabic the “Nakbah”. Countless Palestinian villages were mercilessly razed to the ground, although the villagers were not hostile at all. The defenseless Palestinian civilians had to flee and eventually ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank, the Gaza strip, Jordan, The Lebanon and Syria.

You shouldn’t picture tents when thinking of a refugee camp. In 1948 the camps actually consisted of tents, but as soon as a return to their home villages seemed impossible, the tents were gradually replaced by concrete accommodations, known as “shelters” (a sort of garage-like building) and later the shelters were replaced with real houses.

(Two examples of shelters in Dheisheh camp, Bethlehem.)

According to European standards the camps might best be described as poor neighbourhoods or run-down suburbs, although the reason for the existence of these “neighbourhoods” is more political than economic. Symbol of the desire to return to their original house is “the key”. The refugees took the (large heavy steel) key of the house they had to leave with them. Sometimes this key is hanging above the front door of their house in the camp. In Aida camp, I have seen no keys above doors, but there is one very big key that replaces all the others and it’s located over one of the access roads to the camp.

There are several reasons why refugee camps still exist. I think the principal one is that the camp is a symbol of the temporary stay of the refugees thus underlining their desire to return. Furthermore, the camp offers social structures from which the inhabitants derive support and there are financial reasons to stay in the camp.

And so the “refugee problem” was created. Whereas the Israelis have their settlements as their trump card during peace talks every proposal for peace must contain a solution to the refugee problem; otherwise the proposal is doomed to failure. 

(Aida camp)

Aida camp has about 5000 residents and covers an area of approximately half a square kilometer. Although you notice that the community and atmosphere in the camp are different (not necessarily negative) from that in the city, I haven’t encountered any desperate situations in Aida camp. I have been told by camp residents that many of them can make a small income in Palestine and that those who are unemployed  for a long time often only have themselves to blame. But others say that it is indeed too difficult to find employment. Most residents have luxury goods such as TVs and computers.
One problem you cannot see from outside though is overpopulation. Many camps didn’t grow with the population. This has led to overcrowded houses and to structure stacked on structure in order to accommodate expanding families. According to the website of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN organisation that provides humanitarian help to Palestinian refugees), the main problems are unemployment and severe overcrowding. UNRWA provides not only (primary) education, but also handles numerous other issues, such as water supply, waste collection, employment projects, etc.

Three independent cultural centres contribute to the cultural development of the camp residents.  These centres are mainly run by volunteers. One of the centres is called the “Al Rowwad Theatre and Cultural Training Centre”, where I am working. I teach English conversation to three groups of children from age 8 to 14. I also give painting and drawing lessons to two groups of children of the same age. Furthermore I also teach English conversation to several groups of adults.

Teaching the kids especially is quite a challenge. Beforehand other volunteers who work in centres elsewhere warned me that teaching children can be very difficult because of behavioural problems developed during the intifada. It turned out to be better than expected, because each and every one of them is very kind. Alright, they are very energetic, can hardly sit still and have difficulties concentrating, but what else can you expect when they come to the centre after their regular classes? By that time they have very short concentration span and on top of that they are aware of the fact that the centre is not a real school. So what do you then when you’re a pupil? You start monkeying around!!! So they give me a hard time maintaining order, but at times I can’t refrain from laughing heartily myself at their devilment. 

1 Response to “Aida camp”

  1. 1 Robbert June 21, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Ha Ruben,
    Goed om te lezen dat je een druk bestaan hebt daar in Israel, 3 maanden gaan ook zo voorbij hè. Het is in meerdere opzichten een complexe omgeving lijkt me. Heel veel plezier nog en sterkte met de terugreis.
    Groet Robbert

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