Bethlehem, Aida, Ibdaa, Deheisheh
It is Monday morning, and despite yesterday’s tragedy, we are on schedule to visit Bethlehem and Ibdaa Cultural Center. Ziad Abbas of Middle East Children’s Alliance in Berkeley has kindly arranged for us to meet his friend Areej, who will give us a tour. Later Areej will take us over to Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, where I visited one afternoon in 2007. Also helping guide us is Shadi, a warm, fun and informative man who makes sure that all our questions are answered.
Areej is young, political, articulate and incredibly passionate about community organizing; getting the word out about life in this small part of the world. She has been persistent in getting a hold of me, no small feat as my cell phone has not been working reliably since I arrived on this trip! Areej grew up in Dheisheh Refugee Camp just outside of Bethlehem, living with her family of 9 people in two rooms that are approximately 100 square meters apiece. She and Ziad have arranged everything for us; taxis to get to the Nativity Church where Jesus Christ was born; lunch in a local shawerma joint; another ride to Ibdaa Cultural Center; and a warm send off back to Ramallah.
Nasr, our church tour guide takes us through the 3 chapels contained within the Church of the Nativity (Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic). We see the place where Jesus was born, and the manger. How amazing that millions of people around the globe have had their lives changed by the events that took place here…
Areej accurately predicts that Nasr will avoid telling the story of the April 2002 Israeli siege of this very same church. Burns and bullet holes still riddle the inner walls of the cloisters. It is hard to imagine the many weeks of fear and gunfire that this now serene sanctuary once saw.
Next we tour Aida Refugee Camp, a crowded ‘slumlike’ area with about 5,000 residents. The words ‘refugee camp’ conjure up images of tents and mud for me, but this camp is full of grey concrete, and has existed for over 60 years. The residents print calendars that number every single day since leaving their homes. Palestinian camps are among the longest standing refugee camps in the world. Aida, Dheisheh and other Palestinian refugee camps are administered by the United Nations, and while the U.N. employes some of the local residents, it appears to me that they are regarded somewhat more as tenement landlords.