"So you got through? Good. We’ll come and get you … it won’t take us long. We’re just around the corner."
Hearing Salah make it all sound so easy was a huge relief. The long journey overland from Amman to the West Bank had been exhausting. Israeli Immigration and cross-examination go hand-in-hand, with many foreigners choosing to omit details of plans to visit the Palestinian Territories for fear of being detained or deported. I’d called Salah at the entrance to Checkpoint 300, the principal pedestrian crossing from Jerusalem into the West Bank. This imposing concrete fortress was completed in November 2005, replacing an older, simpler checkpoint.
As I struggled to get my luggage through the metal forest of turnstiles, I noticed with some relief that none of the Israeli soldiers were remotely interested in me now that I was leaving Jerusalem. They didn’t even glance at my passport. It’s a different story coming from the other direction — just ask any of the Palestinians who use that checkpoint to get to work each day.
Many turnstiles later, the walkway becomes a narrow, fenced-in path that runs alongside the Separation Wall. Slogans like "End the Apartheid" and "No Peace … Know Peace" cover the cement blocks. At the other side of the checkpoint, Palestinian cabbies await their next fare and try to catch your eye in between drags on cigarettes and breathy yells of "Ahlan wa salain", or "Welcome".
Me, I had a ride — Salah and Rich, my two contacts at Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, pulled up at just the right time. While they were out of the car helping me with my luggage, they shook the hands of the disappointed taxi drivers, exchanging greetings and volunteering information about who I was and where I was from. As we drove alongside the Separation Wall inside the camp, the catchy, rhythmic pulse of a Dabke tune — Palestinian folkloric music — blared through Salah’s car stereo.
Salah is the Director of the Lajee Centre, a youth organisation established in 2000 by a group of young adults concerned about the next generation of Palestinians. It’s one of four youth centres in Aida Camp, and given that 50 per cent of the camp’s 4700-strong population is under 18, the proliferation of activity centres makes sense. We park alongside a glorious mosaic mural depicting life in the 27 villages that were home to these refugees before their forced departure in 1949.
"Ahlan wa Salain, Daz. Welcome to your new home." I’m embarrassed as I watch Salah and Rich hoist my oversized suitcase up a narrow staircase and into the apartment where I’ll be living for the next three months while I help set up a podcasting project with a local youth centre.
Many of us, when we hear the words "refugee camp", envisage rows of tents with oversized UN logos spotted throughout the landscape. Having seen pictures, I know that Aida Camp did indeed look that way when it was established in 1950, but now, almost 60 years later, three generations of refugees have made their living environment as comfortable as possible. People live in what can best be described as family compounds, building additional storeys atop the original homes for each new generation. My apartment belonged to Salah’s brother who, exhausted with living under occupation, emigrated with his family to the United States a few years ago. The apartment was spotless and equipped with all the everyday necessities. After making myself a cup of tea, I immediately felt at ease in my new home.
Although many refugees living inside camps in the West Bank are unemployed and rely on emergency food rations from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to feed their families, a percentage of camp residents have jobs and a high level of education. This means that although the camp was built on a relatively small piece of land (the entire camp occupies 66,000 square metres) living conditions vary considerably. The rooftops of many of the apartments in Aida Camp are fitted with satellite TV dishes and some of these households are online. All of these homes, however, struggle when it comes to water. It’s only pumped into the camp once every five to seven days and only for a few hours. Families are therefore forced to ration the water and store as much of it as possible in rooftop tanks in order to make it last. During my stay, many families went without water for days. Those who could afford it bought bottled water and others went without or borrowed from neighbours.
Along with the water tanks, the other physical attribute that’s impossible to miss is the 15-foot-tall grey concrete barrier that surrounds two sides of the camp. Completed in 2005, the Separation Wall, which includes four Israeli Defence Force watchtowers, can be seen from wherever you are within Aida. And it, of course, can see you. It’s difficult for me to skim over the impact the Separation Wall has had and continues to have on Palestinians emotionally, financially and psychologically. Even though I was only there for such a short time, I found the knowledge that I was being watched was considerably unnerving — and at times felt intensely claustrophobic.
Living under these unique and difficult circumstances forges a sense of community unlike anything I’d previously experienced. On a practical level, the residents have made their camp as self-sufficient as possible. Aida has its own corner shops, fruit and vegetable vendors, mosque, youth centres and UNRWA school — many residents never leave the camp environment. And yes, living in such a tight-knit community certainly has its ups and downs. Several individuals complained regularly about the lack of privacy, that nothing ever goes unnoticed. In addition to being surrounded by the occupying forces, the homes are literally on top of each other and the walls are paper-thin. Everyone inside the camp knows everyone and has done for three generations. And, of course, like any small suburb — not everyone gets along. But, standard community dilemmas aside, there is a tangible solidarity present, which unites all individuals regardless of their history and political stance.
I witnessed the strength of this community united during the recent bombing of Gaza. Heads of families rarely seen together met to plan a peaceful demonstration and discuss how the residents of the camp could provide aid to their countrymen who had been rendered homeless and hungry. As the kids of the camp pooled their resources, clothes and toys were piled in a heap to be delivered to the youth in Gaza, while wealthier families discussed the best way to collect donations.
For all the resilience and resourcefulness of this community and its determination to make homes for families in these most uncongenial surroundings, one sad fact undercuts everything: this is not their home. Hanging on the walls of living rooms throughout the camp, you will find the following two items: a heavy wrought iron key, and a needlepoint rendering of a UN-issued identity card. The key is the key to the house that their family was driven from all those years ago; and the identity card is the document that identifies them as displaced persons.
In Palestine, there are two questions: "Where are you from?" and "Where are you staying?" And for many Palestinian refugees staying inside one of the 19 refugee camps within the West Bank — many of whom have never known life outside a camp, outside of Occupation — this belief that they will one day be reunited with their land is still very strong. This is not a giddy daydream but rather expresses a heartfelt understanding of what they know is right and just. While I was in the Palestinian Territories, many individuals expressed their conviction that Israel’s future generations would rethink the status quo and work with them to live together within the one country.
Interestingly, I did not meet any Palestinians who believed that positive changes would arise on the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. I was in the youth centre when Obama’s victory was announced, news which I knew back in Sydney was being greeted with glee by my friends and colleagues. In the camp, this news largely went unnoticed. Mohammad, one of the volunteers at the youth centre explained this lack of interest well. He said, "When it comes to us Palestinians and our future, this makes no difference. Black dog, white dog, it’s still a dog."
Back in Australia several months later, as I was watching Obama’s recent Cairo address from the comfort of my inner-city apartment, I wondered how the speech was being received inside Aida Camp. The families that bothered to watch would have done so huddled around the satellite TV, drinking cups of sweet tea flavoured with sage or mint, with the lights from the watchtowers shining through their windows.
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