Wednesday, 25 July 2007

A new way of looking at refugee camps...

What comes into your mind when you think of a refugee camp?
Maybe you'll have an image that looks a bit like this:

Ramshackle tents, no infrastructure, poverty, lack of sanitation... We've seen it hundreds of times on the news.

There are approximately 58,000 internal Palestinian refugees (i.e. within the state of Israel and the OPT) - it's estimated that 1 in 4 Palestinians (or their ancestors) was made a refugee during the Nakba of 1948 and the invasion of 1967. In 1948, refugee camps were set up for all the displaced people - they looked like the picture on the left. The UN provided organised rows of tents and in 1956 they built small rooms for each family. (The one pictured is the only one still standing at Aida camp in Bethlehem.) Now the camp looks like this:

It looks a little different to the tents, doesn't it? A little more permanent possibly? This is a 'camp' that has been in existence for nearly 60 years - not exactly a temporary solution. Education is still provided by UNWRA (a UN agency), there is little infrastructure - electricity & water provision is haphazard. Buildings are piled on top of eachother because although the population of the camp has increased over the years, the land hasn't.

At Aida camp, the history of its inhabitants is not forgotten. On the road into the camp, there is a wall (shorter than THE Wall that borders the camp) where each panel bears the name of a different village that was destroyed and whose population is now in the camp. Outside the Lajee centre is another mural that depicts the history of the camp itself - beginning in 1948 and continuing through to the Wall's construction.

The Lajee Centre was founded in 2000 by a group of young people within the camp who wanted to serve their community. It organises cultural, social, artistic and athletic activities for refugee youth in the Bethlehem area. This can include trips to Jerusalem for young people still below the ID card age, long-running media projects involving photography and film, dabka dancing and many others. The purpose is to develop social awareness and a wider understanding of the world in which they live. Some of the projects have promoted a child's point of view of the realities faced by Aida's community. We saw draft story-boards of film projects that included images of Israeli tanks and the ever-present Wall.

For children and young people living in this inhumane environment it's important to have some way of expressing their emotions and experiences as well as understanding that the situation is not just. Through the work of the centre they can also develop their own way of coping with the injustice.

One last point on refugee camps: the photo on the left shows a current refugee camp - Jenin - following Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 during which significant parts of the camp were destroyed. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the camps of the late 40's and early 50's doesn't it? Just goes to show how little things have changed in 60 years.

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