Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Christmas Day

Even though I went to bed feeling sick with a cold, all I wanted to do Christmas morning was go for a run through Bethlehem, and I was determined to not have anything stop me! Stephen and I got up at 7am while the city was completely silent and still. The weather was misty and then rainy, and it was one of the most gorgeous moments I’ve had since I left Montana last summer. We ran through the wet streets of Bethlehem, up and down the hills and enjoying the fresh winter air. After running for about 15 minutes, while I was looking down at the road, we suddenly approached The Wall. Seeing the wall shot me back into reality, and I was saddened to think that already we had reached a checkpoint. I realized that if I was a Palestinian living in Bethlehem, this would be the end for me, and I would have to turn around and go back. That’s it. 15 minutes of running in one direction and it’s time to go back. I had a sense of the entrapment people there must feel, and it made me both sad and angry. Stephen and I did notice, however, that no one seemed to be guarding the wall. In fact, there were a group of Japanese tourists near the area and one man just walked on through the check point, took some pictures, and came back.

After a filling breakfast, our group went back to Christmas Lutheran church for the Christmas morning service. Once again we found ourselves sitting with an international group and heard Arabic, German, English, and Swedish sung or spoken throughout the service. It’s fun to sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and hear so many other tongues speaking foreign sounds with the same tune. Niveen was there doing her youth ministry duty with the children, who performed the first children’s Christmas story play the church has witnessed. Oh, what cute kids! This time I knew what was going on and even though I couldn’t follow along with words, I could follow along just by being a fellow Christian. We even had communion, which was served to us in Arabic. Sweet.

In the afternoon Niveen took us to a refugee camp in a village outside Bethlehem called Dheisheh (pronounced HAY-shah). A man who works with Niveen’s mom, Mohamed, was there to greet us and show us around. As it stands today, the camp looks much like the rest of the area surrounding it—old cement buildings. As we walked around, however, you could see the difference between the camp area and the rest of the town. First of all, there is graffiti everyone, mostly of faces. (I have a many pictures of graffiti from here and on the wall. Send me a message if you would like me to send you a link to the photos.) Mohamed explained most of the faces are “the martyrs”—those who have been killed in the camp by Israelis. There were slogans all over the cement walls as well, mostly in Arabic. On one road, however, we came to a huge sign that said “FREE PALESTINE” in bubble letters with martyr’s faces, skulls, flowers, and the words “no fear” and “keep cool” in the lettering. On another street was a huge graffiti sign stating “Justice is what we need!”

As it happens to be, Mohamed’s family members are refugees, and we had the honor of visiting their home in the refugee camp. Through a small doorway we were led inside to a large living room with a small bedroom and small kitchen attached to one side. As with most Middle Eastern homes, the building is made of all cement and it is cold. As we sat down in a circle Mohamed’s sister brought us a space heater and tea. One of Mohamed’s brothers waved to us from the bed—he stayed under the covers to keep warm. Another brother came out to greet us. Soon Mohamed’s father arrived in the living room wearing the red-checked kefiyya with black cords keeping it in place. He greeted each of us personally, then took a seat in our circle, asking that Niveen translates for him. In the next hour we heard his story. [The rest of this entry is from Teri’s blog: I decided, why reinvent the wheel when Teri already made it perfectly round? Thanks darling.]

In 1948 he and his family were forced to flee their village of Zakariyya. Zakariyya is the traditional burial place of the prophet Zechariah and is also, traditionally, the hometown of some of the Virgin Mary’s family. It’s also a wonderful agriculture-based village, where his family has "always" lived and worked. It sounds as if his ancestors have been living and dying in the village for generations. One winter night, in the middle of the night, they all had to flee their homes. They took nothing. They stayed in fields for a little while, before hearing about the group of refugees gathering in Bethlehem. The family went to Bethlehem, on foot and with no belongings, wet and cold, and found thousands of other refugees living on a hillside. Eventually the UN brought tents, but water ran through the bottom and covered the floor. After a year or so of this, the refugees dug trenches through the camp to channel the water away from the tents, but it was only partially successful. After many years of living in tents, the UN gave permission and materials to build a one-room concrete house for each family. This way at least the rainwater wouldn’t run in.

The rooms were not big—in fact I suspect that the living room we were sitting in was the original one room. Soon the family was parents and 12 children—a typical size for a Palestinian family during this period. Sometime in the late 80’s, the refugees began to add on to their one room homes (without permits or permission, and without any help from the UN). Now they have several rooms, which is better at least, but still no heat and I would venture a guess that some of the homes lack indoor running water. Now new generations are growing up here. The population is booming—there are currently 11,000 residents of the camp, and 6,000 of those are children.

Meanwhile, the village of Zakariyya has been destroyed and rebuilt as an Israeli settlement. Mohammed’s father’s house is no longer there—he was allowed to travel there once over 5 years ago. Mohammed himself has never been to the village. As a young Palestinian man, he can’t even get permission to go to Jerusalem, let alone a village he claims as his homeland. Mohammed’s father wants to return to his village. He says that even if it was Israeli controlled, all he wants is to go back to his homeland. He tells us that he believes Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis, are all the same. We’re all people, we’re all children of God, so it doesn’t matter who controls the land. All he wants is to live in it. It’s been 55 ½ years since he and his family fled. He was probably a teenager then. But it is alive for him, it is his homeland, the land of his ancestors, the land of his livelihood, the land of his identity. He will probably never go back there. His son will probably never get permission to visit. The Israeli settlers are firmly entrenched. And we in the West wonder why Palestinians refer to the founding of the State of Israel as "the tragedy."

After a group photo, we left the house and went into the dark damp night. We headed toward the entrance to the camp, and on the way we ran across a mural of a child. It turns out that during one of the Israeli-imposed and army-enforced "curfew" periods when people in the camp were not allowed to leave their houses, a 12 year old child had gone outside to play and was shot dead in the street by an Israeli soldier. He is now among the "martyrs" and this mural is on the outer wall of his family’s home.

We walked down the hill and came to the Ibdaa center, which is a refugee-run center for education and social activities. "Ibdaa" means "to create something out of nothing." It began with a need to stop overlooking the new generation, which was growing up in the refugee camp. Since for a while there had been a fence (complete with barbed wire and one revolving-"door" entrance/exit) around the camp, there was a serious need for the children to have somewhere to go, something to do, other than sit in their homes or be cooped up by barbed wire fences. Something to counter the psychological effect of growing up in the "zoo", children of people who looked mainly at the past and hoped for a future that seemed impossible.

Some people decided that a "cross cultural experience" co-ed dance troupe was just the thing. 15 girls and 15 boys trained for a year to share the Palestinian refugee story through music and dance. The founders encountered resistance in the camp for being co-ed, but went ahead. They taught the children French, dance, and music, and performed in Paris. Then they began to travel elsewhere in the world, dancing. Soon the children were growing up and the founders decided to expand to other children and other programs. Now they are on their fourth of fifth generation dance troupe, they have a women’s basketball team, they have a library, they have programs for women, they have after school activities and tutoring, they have co-ed nursery and kindergarten, they have workshops on health and leadership, they have a computer lab, they have art classes. It’s quite a community center! We talked with one of the founders, and he was an amazing man. I am incredibly impressed with what they have created out of nothing: a place for community, for growth, for hope in the midst of sorrow, oppression, and fear. "and God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, and it was good."

The camp was our last organized activity in Bethlehem, and it was a great way to really get in and see what things are like. People are living lives here. It doesn’t look like a refugee camp “should” look. There are permanent-looking structures, schools, a small hospital, the Ibdaa center, shops, and some of the people even have jobs. But the fence didn’t come down all that long ago, and the Israeli army still has leave to come in and take people away, shoot on sight, or impose “curfew” (which isn’t just a time when you have to be in, but a 24-hour stay-in-your-house-or-get-shot extravaganza).

After our visit to the camp some of us headed to the olive wood shop owned by Adnan, the brother of Nidal, our tour guide from Christmas Eve. It’s a great shop, with hundreds of nativities and other scenes in olive wood, plus some really beautiful jewelry where I bought a Jerusalem cross and a few olive wood pieces. Teri and I also bought two candlesticks a piece, marked at $14 US each. However, Adnan told us everything in the store was 50% off for a Christmas special, probably because Bethlehem is so tourist starved. When Teri tried to pay for her two candlesticks, Adnan took them from her, wrapped them up, and said, “Merry Christmas,” refusing to let her pay. We were all blow away by his generosity, especially since he’s trying to run a tourist-oriented business in a town were tourism is down 85% from a couple years ago. Although he probably heard about Teri’s money getting stolen by our bus driver a couple days before, it was still so incredibly generous and wonderful, I almost started crying. If fact, I did cry that day. While we were at Mohamed’s house I took a break to walk outside for awhile and process. I ended up just bawling. I was so hurt at what’s happened to these people, and at the same time so touched by their generosity, their hope, their love for others. To witness such strength and integrity was such an inspiration to me.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker