February 2, 2000
Greetings from the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh. Some of you may have participated in the live chat that we held here. It was an eye-opening experience. A lot of ground was covered during the chat, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and observations about this place based on my visit here.
During the live chat the simplest question turned out to be the hardest one to answer. Kelsey C., from Massachusetts, asked, "Why do you live in a refugee camp?" The answer is simple, but for me, it's difficult to think about. It's difficult to write about.
Manar, 13, lives at Dhiesheh refugee camp, and she told me the history that she learned from her father and her grandfather. "In the past, the people were farming, in my village, in my country. Then, the Israelis came, they were very strong, and they killed all the people, the children, women, and men. So, we fell. We went to the tents. Then we went to the camps...and now we are in the camps." She said this while pointing at a painting of the tents. She will not easily forget this history, passed down from her grandfather, of something that happened only 52 years ago.
The authors of "All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948"* estimate that 418 Palestinian villages, like Manar's village of Ras Abu 'Ammar "were destroyed and depopulated in the war of 1948." As a result of that war, the authors state, roughly 770-780,000 people like Manar's grandfather, became refugees. The refugees from the countryside fled to the hills and caves near their villages and towns, but repeated attacks by Israeli soldiers drove them to 59 camps throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank. The 19 camps in the West Bank, like Dheisheh, are now made up of refugees and their descendants who are STILL waiting for the answer to Kelsey's question. You can read about another refugee camp, Balata, in Kavitha's dispatch.
Manar and all the other children in the camps are living here, basically, because they have nowhere else to go. They are waiting to return to their original villages, which they had to leave in 1948 and are now destroyed or occupied. "My hope is that we will go to my country. It is my village," says Manar. Her village, though, is now within the State of Israel. Her first visit, ever, to that destroyed village was an emotional one.
Ziad, one of the cofounders of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh camp, explains in more detail what happened. "When the people were uprooted from their villages, they were thinking they would come back. They took the keys, closed the houses, and were running with the kids. After the catastrophe, they were offered tents." These tents were large and people temporarily set up their living areas. But the winters with only a tent to protect the families must have been bitterly cold. It's winter now, and even inside the concrete block of Ibdaa, I'm cold and have to wear gloves while I type this. The winter of 1950 was particularly harsh, and many of the children died from exposure to the cold that year. Ziad continues, "They thought they would stay only a few months and then they will return back. They were waiting...From the first moment we arrived, we wanted to go back."
In May 1950, the UN passed a resolution for refugees, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) started moving refugees beyond the Green Line separating Israel from Occupied Palestine The tents were replaced by small rooms built for short-term occupancy. Each family got one room, which was 9 square meters. Each family had an average of 6.3 persons. "Each family had one room which was the bedroom, kitchen, living room, everything. I was born here," Ziad continues, and draws a picture of a small rectangle on the whiteboard, with the shape of these rooms. "For every 25 rooms, there were 2 toilets." Students, YOU do the math to see how many people that is per toilet. "In the morning, imagine staying in the line for the toilet...This continued from 1950 till the end of the 70s, that people were using these kinds of toilets," says Ziad, with his eyes steady.
Dheisheh was under Jordanian rule from 1948 until the 1967 war. Then Israeli rule went into effect, which led to a strict curfew. This curfew, Ziad says, changed everything. People could not leave their houses after dark, even to go pee. "Curfew has affected our life. It's affected the whole generation. The curfew increased the numbers of the people...if you can't leave the house at night, what are you going to do? Now we are 11,000 living in the refugee camp. And 55% of us are under 16 years old." The children have an uncertain future. They know of the suffering of their parents and grandparents, but don't know when they will stop being refugees.
Living in the camps is very different from living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. In the winter, electricity failure is common, as those of you who participated in the chat know (there was a power blackout right in the middle). During the summer, there are water shortages. Education, health, and security are in the hands of the UN, but the conditions are still bleak. In the camps there are only two schools, with 1150 pupils each, and 34 teachers rotating two shifts. The one doctor assigned to the camp only works 6 hours a day, and in that time sees 160 patients. How many minutes is that per patient? "This is the discrimination to the Palestinian people," explains Ziad.
The rights of the Palestinian refugees are a priority for Palestinians in the peace talks. Ziad claims that "any kind of peace without a real solution for Palestinian refugees is not a real peace...we were born here, we grew up here, we don't want to die here. If we die here, we don't want the new generation to die here."
What do the Palestinian refugees want? They want to not have to answer Kelsey's question. "The only solution to have real justice here is to have the rights of refugees," says Ziad. "I want to be like you. I want to choose for myself where I want to live, in Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv, or if possible in Chicago, I like it there. I want freedom." Manar learned from her parents to make the best of the situation in the camp, but not to accept it. "It might not be beautiful, but the people are beautiful. Everyone here is like brother, sister, parents," she says, and it's true. My host family has a nephew who, at 2 1/2, feels perfectly safe walking alone, a half-kilometer uphill, to visit us. "My parents teach me to love my camp," Manar explains, but after her visit to her original destroyed village, she says that she wants to live on her land, and that without that right, she cannot maintain her dignity. Ziad continues to explain why it's important for students like Manar and you to know about the refugees' history. "Of course we have hopes when we look to the future, but we cannot forget this. Maybe we will forgive, but not forget," he says. He keeps his head up, then walks out to the camp to attend to other business.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...email@example.com
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