We are now two weeks in and feel like proper locals! People are recognising us on the streets; kids are calling us by name (well I was named Camilia early on which seems to have stuck!) and shopkeepers are no longer ripping us off as though we are tourists in for in day! Every taxi passing does still beep at us but I’d like to think it’s more of a ‘hello friend’ beep than a ‘do you tourists need a taxi’ beep! It didn’t take people long to realise we were here for longer than the normal 1 day stay tourist tend to do in Bethlehem. Busloads of tourists from Israeli tour companies in Jerusalem come to the Manger Square to see the Church of Naivety, where baby Jesus was born, then leave again. There are definitely not many tourists walking around the streets outside of the square. It is felt there is a fear installed in tourists crossing the border from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; after all, the international world rarely hear much about Palestine other than the complex ‘conflict’.
Me and Annagh have gotten into such a little routine it feels like we’ve always lived here! We wake in the nunnery and go downstairs for breakfast. We used to sit with the nuns in their dining room but the superior came home from Italy the other day and put an end to that (I don’t think she likes non-nuns mixing with her nuns!) so now we eat in the other room. We just found cereal in the shop the other day so we have introduced that to our breakfast, very exciting, along with Arabic coffee which blows the head off you! I then set off to work, a 10 minute walk away. I work in a Youth organisation called Student Forum Institute (SFI) http://www.studentsforum.org.ps/stu-forum/. They work to promote Youth Political Participation, Democracy and Empowerment. Many people in Palestine have given up on mainstream politics as some feel let down by the ruling party. I am still learning what the craic with all this but it sounds a lot like home! The last presidential elections were in 2005; when they elected the president Mahmoud Abbas, who has held his position for 11 years. There is continuous talk of an election coming up but due to the political instability; Hamas governing Gaza and Fatha making up the majority of the government in the West Bank, it doesn’t look like there will be an election anytime soon. This has lead to many people becoming disenfranchised with constitutional politics. The SFI works to try and encourage young people to engage in the political process and to have their voice heard throughout society, even if it’s through a protest vote or forming their own local movement. They also work to develop young people’s awareness of their rights; an important inherently entitlement often forgotten by young people with the constant violation of Human Rights in this part of the world. I am supporting the organisation on many projects; sourcing funding and setting up potential international connects as well as delivering my own workshops to the young people they work with. One programme I have developed is an empowerment project working with 10 young adults from Bethlehem, Dheisheh refugee camp and Jerusalem. The programme looks at Rights Awareness, Positive Leadership skills, Active Citizenship & Community volunteering.
The group meet three times a week to participate in sessions relating to these topics. I think the young people will learn a lot from each other as although they are all Palestinian they came from a wide range of diverse backgrounds, each with their unique experiences. Once a week the group will have a session via Skype with young people in Ardoyne, Belfast who are also following the same programme. The first session this week went brilliantly with both groups sharing their community maps about the positives & negatives in their communities and began the many questions and answers they had for each other. The success of this session is a result of the planning both groups put in, the honesty when sharing with each other and a massive credit must go to my amazing co-worker and good friend Dana who was able to translate Ardoyne English to Arabic at a very fast rate! I’m sure her head was spinning by the end! Throughout the programme the two groups will share what it means to live in a community divided by walls – ‘Peace Walls’ ‘Separation Walls’ ‘Interface’ whatever you want to call it! And what it means to be a young person; their hopes, their dream, their fears, their family life, their education, their daily routine. With the recent murder of Jo Cox this reminds me of her wise words; “We have far more in common than that which divides us.” For the young people in Palestine to see there are young people just like them in Belfast, who also have hopes, dreams, fears, struggles; creates a sense of unity and hope; the most powerful thing the young people of Palestine can hold. This is a threat to the occupation who work vigorously to try and isolate, divide and break the ambition of these young people. I am very proud of the young people from both ends of this project and am really excited for the future weeks of learning and connection building which will hopefully carry on long after I leave Palestine.
During the month of Ramadan my office closes at 2.30pm to give people time to rest and prepare for Iftar (a massive meal served at sunset when the fast of the day is broken). Normally when my office closes and before Annagh’s work starts we explore a new part of the city. Yesterday we went to another refugee camp in Bethlehem called Aida; with a population of 6,000 people the camp is walled by the separation wall and contiguous to the Israeli settlement of Gilo. This camp receives daily raids by Israeli soldiers; snipers from the lookout tour of the wall often shoot into the camp. The picture below is a poster of Aboud Shadi a 13 year old boy shot dead by a sniper while he walked home from school. I seen a video recorded by a resident of the camp capturing a megaphone address made from an Israeli vehicle, introducing themselves as the ‘occupation party’ during a raid in the camp. The speech warned that if they did not stop throwing stones during the raid they would be gassed to death. They repeated “We will kill every single one of you no one will be alive”. They said they have arrested a youth and would slaughter him infront of everyone in the camp if they don’t stop resisting. Please watch this 1 minute video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC5_W_zUzHc. Change the language from Hebrew to German and this could be mistaken to be footage from Auswitch in 1940’s not Bethlehem in 2015. These are just two examples of the countless accounts of daily brutality in this camp. This footage might be used in 50 years time in museums set up to for us to learn about this horrific genocide and our grandchildren will ask; ‘What was the world doing while this was going on?’
Me and Annagh did not have any connections in this camp, we were outsiders walking around but once again we were welcomed by everyone we passed. In the Lajee Youth Centre situated in the camp we were even treated to some traditional dancing when we randomly walked into a dance class! I would definitely like to return to this camp and learn more and potentially get involved in some of that dancing!
Images at Aida Refugee camp
On other days we head straight to Dheisheh refugee camp which feels like home! Before Annagh’s group starts we talk with people, play games with kids or carry out interviews for a video we are putting together of our time here in Palestine. Annagh is beginning a programme similar to the one I am delivering but with younger teenagers from the camp, again connecting with teenagers in Belfast. Annagh runs workshops with this group in late afternoon followed by the library group; a group of 40-50 children with loads of energy! After the first hour of an educational workshop with these kids on various topics such as keeping safe, indentifying people they can talk to, internet safety etc the next hour is spent playing games. This is the part of the day where Annagh gets to boss me about, which she loves! I follow her lead and try to be of some use during these sessions – I almost made it to the final of musical statues yesterday! My favourite day with this group so far was when we did a presentation on Ireland. We showed them the map of Ireland, images of Belfast, showed them our money, taught them Irish words and Annagh did a great lesson on Irish Dancing!! Following this the children did a presentation on their villages. The refugee camp is made up of 48 villages, each with its own identity and culture. The cultural centre, Ibbda is very active in keeping these cultures alive with murals on the walls of different images from the villages and cultural contests where each village forms a team and competes in various games! The children are very aware of the village their family originates from and the fact they are refugees and why this is so.
This is just one example of the Palestinian people’s determination not to normalise the situation of their country. The population (some 20,000) of this ever expanding camp have been refugees since 1948 and they are still holding onto this refugee status with the hope and determination that this is a temporary measure and someday they will get their villages back. These villages have now been taken over by illegal Israeli settlers; the people who are from these villages are not granted permission to enter these parts of the occupied land.
At around 6.30pm the library group is over and everyone is rushing home to prepare for Iftar. So far me and Annagh have been invited to different houses for Iftar 2-3 times a week. This is a massive honour as Iftar is a very special meal during the most holy month of the year. I love accepting these invites as it gives us a real glimpse into people’s lives here and we always have such a fun night being part of a new family and getting treated to such amazing food! Within minutes of walking into someone’s home we are accepted into their family with open arms and have even been offered beds to stay with them! People could not be nicer to us, even when we have limited mutual language to communicate or they have no idea who we are because their son or daughter just brought us home for dinner! They instantly make us feel at home. We have been treated to many delicious traditional foods such as; Sfiha patties – flatbread with lamb, peppers and spices on top, Maqluba which includes meat, rice, and fried vegetables placed in a pot and flipped upside down when served, hence the name which translates literally as “upside-down”. Dolma is my favourite so far its grape leaves stuffed with rice, veg, spices and sometimes meat. These meals are always accompanied with soup, salad, bread and normally a few other mains! The hospitality of the people is unreal, we would be half way through one bite and they are offering more! Each family we have had Iftar with has taken huge pride in their food, normally the mother and daughters have been preparing the food for most of the day. I imagine it would take some amount of willpower not to nibble while preparing the food and fasting but they seem to be very disciplined people when it comes to Ramadan! With my intent to not be rude refusing their offers mixed with my addiction to good food I think it’s safe to say I’ll be rolling home at the end of this trip! After eating we normally have the strong Arabic coffee (could be a reason for the lack of sleep!) and talk with the family or play with the kids; the filters on snapchat go down a treat when there isn’t much English for conversation! On the nights we haven’t got any invites we get yummy falafels, bread, pickles and hummus off the street stalls – our whole meal with loads left normally costs us 15 shekels – less than £3! With the weather being cool and stomachs being full the streets come to life in the evenings! People are a lot more energetic at this time and for them their day is just getting started with shops opening through the night. People go shopping, pray in the mosque, hang out with friends, go for ice cream….. As we are staying with Christian nuns they do not run on the same daily schedule as the rest of the community and are tucked up in bed by 10pm – which is also our curfew! Yes I am 30 years of age and for the first time in my life I have a curfew! My mummy said the nuns are doing a better job whipping us into shape than she ever did!
After rushing home for 10pm me and Annagh normally reflect over our day, talk about the funny misinterpretations that have happened, share learning from our different experiences throughout the day and reflect on what has always been another incredible day. I am extremely thankful to have the opportunity to have this life changing experience and I am just so happy I get to share it with my sister and best friend. To be honest when Annagh started talking about joining me on this trip I was reluctant for her to come. I knew the risk coming to Palestine involved and was not prepared to put my little sister through that risk. I was unsure that being 22 she was ready for what I thought would be a very challenging and potentially dangerous experience. And I was stubborn that I wanted to do this alone. But being my sister Annagh is equally stubborn and knew she wanted to come. Now that we are here and have settled in so well I admit I didn’t need to worry. My sister is a very capable young woman and is doing an amazing job. The smile she brings to the children’s faces makes me so proud of her; and to have her at the end of each day to laugh with makes this experience even more special.
So that’s a brief overview of our days here. We are presented with new opportunities and experiences everyday and I have become a bit like Jim Carry in Yes Man – not turning down any opportunity for a new experience! After all, like everyone, no matter where in the world we are, our time is limited – why not make the most of every second?
(Don’t worry mummy we’re still keeping safe and not going to join Hamas just for a new experience lol)