Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank

Rafi, our tour guide, greets us at the bus stop outside of Dheisheh.  Smiling, Rafi says, "My Mom always tells the story of getting torn from our homes, taken to a camp for what they understood, what they trusted, would be a few days.  Never to be allowed to return again."  Rafi, his Mom and now his family are one of more than 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes following the early Zionist Militia and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  Dheisheh is one of the fifty-nine Palestinian Refugee Camps.

Stepping off of the city street and into the refugee camp, we smelt the single location for the camps refuse.  Prior to the country of Japan funding plastic sewage pipes, all of the camps refuse flowed in central, open ditches in the center of the streets.

In 39 degree Celsius weather, we walked up and down the narrow footpaths weaving between original 1948 slab constructions and the generations of men who have added on in order to house the third, fourth and soon fifth generations living under occupation and interned to refugee camps.  Walking below clothes hanging out to dry on the line, we hear from a window a small boy saying, "Hallo.  Hallo.  Hallo."

As we round the bend, inches away from doors and makeshift stoops, the little boy's mother comes to her front door.  "What is your name?" she asks me.  "Jennifer," I reply.  She smiles politely and shyly asks again, "What is your name?" and my reply still puzzles her.  We laugh together and I ask, "What is your name?"

She welcomes us and wishes us health and happiness in Arabic, and wants Rafi to tell us that her 21 year old son is imprisoned with 17 life sentences for protesting the occupation.  A school girl passes our group.  After Rafi greets her and ascertains that she is learning English in school, I ask her, "How are you?" and she responds, "Fine.  Thank you."  I tell her, "great job," and she squints, looking puzzled in return.  Rafi went on to explain that their under-sourced schools had been forced to follow Jordanian curriculum from 1967 until only a few years ago.  Outraged he says, "Imagine.  Not teaching English until the 5th grade.  How much more difficult it is to learn."

While examining political art, cartoons, drawings and graffiti on the walls of the camp's cinder block homes, Rafi points to a brightly colored drawing of butterflies, flowers, sunshine and green grass.  "We encourage the children.  To hope for a better tomorrow.  Not to go the way of violence."

In the cartoon (pictured to the left), a famous writer is told, "I like your article on democracy.  What are you writing next?"

To which the older writer, huddled over his desks responds, "my will."

In another cartoon, an elderly, pacifist says, "I will cut my mustache if one piece of land is given back to Palestinians."

In the next frame, the man's mustache reaches below and outside of the cartoon frame.

11,000 refugees inhabit less than one square kilometer of land.  With two under sourced schools, one for each gender, and one doctor serving the community, the physician often sees over 700 patients a day.

Original UN cinder block constructions are 9x9 and originally intended to serve 4 to 6 people.  Today descendants have up to 40-80 men, women and children populating each.  While some choose to add-on, there is no guarantee it won't be torn down or built unsafely.  Pictured to the right is the original outhouse, the only bathroom facilities provided, serving up to 400 people daily at one time.   

After exiting, we again walk underneath a large, looming political poster featuring two young men who died fighting for "the cause," meaning the right to return to land.  It is only upon exiting do I notice the rainbow colors painted on the fence posts.  


  1. Oh, Jennifer...I can imagine this experience was deeply affecting for you. I wonder where it will lead you? xo A

  2. Allison! It is great to hear from you. Yes, this experience was deeply affecting and I, too, wonder where it will lead. I'm especially interested in reconciliation through artistic collaboration. The Friends of the Jenin Theater Group, for example, are individuals from all walks of life, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim, working together. I'd like to find ways to get involved in similar veins. My dream is to have a translation workshop for poets writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English---all translating their works. I'll soon write about my first experience doing so with Israeil poet, Yonathan Berg. Admittedly there is so much complexity to the politics influencing this region, but I have to start from my own travel experiences, tours and meetings! Thanks so much for reaching out.