In June 2019, not long after arriving in Jerusalem, I started some volunteering work in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. From there, two of the camp residents had set up an organisation called Volunteer Palestine. This invited people from around the world to come and live in the camp and bring their skills to support a range of projects for anywhere from two weeks to three months.
I started going once or twice a week to spend a morning providing project support for a new venture to launch a tour company. The plan was to build on the success of the volunteer programme to provide a range of tours and experiences to showcase the best of Palestine alongside the harsh realities of life here. This would generate a new income stream and job opportunities for camp residents as well as dispelling myths and helping to raise awareness. It was this insight into real life that I wanted to see, and my time there was never dull.
Aida camp is one of 58 recognised refugee camps that were established across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza to shelter Palestinian refugees in 1948. The creation of the State of Israel in that year, resulted in 750,000 Palestinians being forcibly removed from their homes and entire Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed. In Arabic these are referred to as the ‘Nakba’ (the catastrophe) and some would argue that it is still going on today.
Seventy-two years later, there are now four generations of refugees resident in the camps and any notions of them being a short-term measure have long since been dispelled. The United Nations has a unique Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). This was established to provide support to those ‘who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict’. The issues are largely the same today and UNRWA’s mandate keeps being renewed, most recently until 2023. It is staggering that after all this time that the situation has been allowed to roll on decade after decade.
I’ve been told that it took around ten years before the original camp residents were willing to exchange their hastily provided canvas tents for concrete homes. They knew that accepting something akin to a real house within the camp would reduce the likelihood they would be supported to leave. They wanted instead to use their right of return to their original villages and the homes they had been forced to abandon. Many have clung on to their old house keys as a symbol of their past and intended future. In the middle of the camp stands an archway with a huge symbolic key of return on it. It is said to be the biggest in Palestine and serves as a constant reminder.
My friend and the leader of Volunteer Palestine, Mohammad Abu Srour turned 30 this year and has always lived in the camp. He is trained as a lawyer, speaks English fluently and is always smartly dressed. Before COVID hit, he would visit Europe for both business and leisure at least twice a year. This wasn’t the profile I was expecting from a refugee camp resident but then Palestine has re-defined what it means to be a refugee.
Despite living in houses with many of the conveniences of modern life, the refugees are not master of their own destinies and life is not easy in the camp. Mohammad told me that there are currently around 5000 people living in the camp, only about ten of whom remain from the original 1948 refugees.
Mohammad summarised the difficulties in the camp: ‘Aida like the rest of the Palestinian refugee camps, suffers from numerous issues such as water cuts during the summer, the weakness of electricity, overcrowding, lack of privacy, lack of public spaces, unemployment rates are very high, and the regular Israeli attacks and arrests’.
UNRWA is responsible for providing health and education services to camp residents and both are overstretched. Even before COVID, the school day was divided into a morning and an afternoon slot to accommodate the volume of kids and the rest of the time they roamed around looking for entertainment and getting under their mothers’ feet. Only basic medications were available free of charge and many people struggled to afford the medication they needed especially for recurring conditions like diabetes.
The camp is hemmed in by the separation wall which has several watchtowers, which are manned by Israeli soldiers. The wall is brightly decorated with street art, much of it political, some of it amusing and other sections, such as the display of the names of the young people killed during the occupation, is simply tragic. Following the wall for a short walk away from the camp leads to the ‘Walled Off’ hotel, established by the artist Banksy in 2017 to help raise awareness about life under occupation.
Before COVID struck, there would be daily tourist groups walking the wall to Aida camp where they would get a chance to hear from one of the camp residents and to ask questions. Often as I sat in the Youth Centre, sipping a strong cup of cardamom infused Arabic coffee, a group of wide-eyed internationals would wander in and I loved hearing their questions and reflections.
The Youth Centre is the main community space for the camp and houses a school in the basement, several offices including the room used by Volunteer Palestine and meeting rooms for all manner of community groups. The main room is bright and breezy and people regularly wandered in for a chat or other business.
The streets were normally quiet when I visited, and I struggled to visualise the fear and chaos that came from the raids and tear gas attacks which normally took place during the night.
The residents of Aida have come from 43 different villages located around Hebron and Jerusalem. Mohammad explains that despite many never having the opportunity to visit their original villages it is something they feel deeply connected to.
‘Always the people in the camp discuss the situation in the camp and they are waiting for the moment to return, I believe through the narrative and the story telling of our grandparents we got connected to the land, even so the majority of us didn’t have the chance to see it, I think we used our imagination to paint the shape and the frame of land in our mind, it’s stories we didn’t live ourself but in our mind it’s part of our memory and our life as well. If you ask me about my village, I see it as the opposite of the camp, green area, animal, people dancing dabke during the wedding, grape farms, nice housing, educated people, schools, hospital, good infrastructure, privacy, safety, generosity, playground, gardens, civilized village, high technology, arts, solar panels, not polluted, university, diversity, social ties very strong among the people and many other stuff’.
I asked Mohammad what he thought the future held and if the refugees would still be living in the camp in another 30 years’ time. He replied: ‘I would like to believe it’s not going to exist till that time, I would like to believe we are going to leave the camp and we might turn it into a museum and each one of the houses will tell the story of the people and their suffering and hopes. I deeply believe the situation of the Palestinian refugee is going to change in the next 30 years, oppression cannot last for ever’.
More immediately, COVID has layered new problems on top of existing struggles. There have been no tourists since last March which has ground the plans of both Volunteer Palestine and the new tour company to a halt. The unemployment rate is increasing all the time and people are struggling to feed their families. Starting a new year Mohammad says: ‘I would like to be optimistic for the year of 2021, despite no indicators for that so far’.
If there is something that the residents of Aida camp know well, it is showing resilience and resourcefulness in the face of great difficulties. I hope that this year brings a brighter future for the camp and I can’t wait until I can start visiting again regularly.
In the meantime, if you would like to organise a virtual tour of Aida Camp or to discuss volunteering opportunities you can contact Mohammad here. Visitors to the camp are always warmly welcomed and a range of activities can be organised as soon as lockdown restrictions permit.