Monday April 6 - Aida Refugee camp / Al-Rowwad Center / Bethlehem

Saturday 2 January 2010
popularity : 99%

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Our first day in Aida camp...

In the Guest-House, group-life is getting organized : a trip to the bathrooms in the bathrooms, exploration of the contents of the kitchen cupboards, search for little shops where to stock up. On the way back up to the Al-Rowwad Center, there is a little greengrocer’s, a little higher a "supermarket" and just next to it, the little workshop of a guy we’ll affectionately call our "falafelman"from now on. No wonder we hadn’t noticed them yesterday : it’s impossible to guess there are small businesses there as long as the shutter-doors are closed. And by way of businesses, they are tiny stores in which you’d better go alone or in pair, not more...

Mix of gestures, smiles, Arab words and pseudo-English, and our explorers come back loaded with milk, coffee, roubès ("bread" in English), yoghourt, bananas, oranges and chocolate paste : in one word, (well actually three) Heaven on earth !

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Our hosts are early birds! They are already at our door, ready to take us around the camp. They show us the symbolic entrance to it : a wooden arch topped by a gigantic key reminding the keys the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees took with them when Israeli soldiers threw them out of their houses, the camp secondary school just in front of the separating wall, the small medical centre...

Bonds of friendship are being woven nicely : we all speak a broken English that works, we sing together and laugh... We go and greet the Director of the camp, then are shown around Al-Rowwad Center ("The pioneers", in English). We start with the large room on the ground floor where we attended the end of a meeting yesterday between the director and parents whose children are soon leaving to Austria with their theatre group. They all looked very proud but a little scared too : for most of them, it will be the first time their son or daughter goes out of the camp, something they haven’t been allowed to do and will probably never do themselves.

"So this is our only large room, we are told, which doesn’t help organizing the different activities we offer here at the centre". Then we climb to the first floor where the offices are : Abdelfattah Abu-Srour’s (director), Marwa’s, Salaam’s and Oussama’s who are (among other things) in charge of the administration. On the second floor, a classroom, a kitchenette and a computer room which they tell us is ours everyday from 4 to 5 p.m. Another flight of stairs and we land on ... a building site ! The concrete structure is still bare, no windows yet but cement sacks, rubble, a wheelbarrow, breeze-blocks... We find it both funny and surprising : who in Belgium would accept to work in a place still under construction?? "We’ll get on with it as soon as we have a little money", they tell us simply.

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The fact is we have a fine view on the camp, the minaret and the separating wall surrounding it all... "And what are these ?", Anne-Claire asks pointing to some sorts of big tanks on the roofs. "These are our water tanks", Oussama answers. "When the Israeli soldiers attacked the camp in 2001, they fired at them and destroyed most of them. This was a difficult time for us..."

"Al-Rowwad cultural centre, he tells us, was founded in 1998 by volunteers of the camp. Our philosophy is the "Beautiful Resistance", to enable the children of the camp to express themselves through different art forms but also to break the stereotypes conveyed about us in the medias and give another outlook on the Palestinians and their culture. The centre organizes artistic tours abroad and supports the production of films and photo reports... a way of building bridges between the people from here and elsewhere". And we are warmly encouraged to attend or even take part in the different workshops of the week. We plan on meeting this afternoon already !

And now, direction Bethlehem. Our Muslim friends take us to the Nativity Church, which we visit more to please them than because we are interested (in the cloister, Ribal shows us 4 orange trees : "Do you remember that in 2002, Palestinians barricaded themselves in the church to protect themselves against the Israeli army ? At one moment, they didn’t have anything left to eat, except the fruit of these trees. They surrendered after 38 days of total isolation"...), the Milk Grotto and other pilgrimage places for religious tourism... It was really kind of them but we were not actually eager for it ...

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3 p.m. we are back in Al-Rowwad where we meet Issa, a man in his thirties who everyday takes on a group of about ten 8-to-12-year-old girls to do some theatre work with them. He makes them do a number of movement exercises (running, walking on tip-toe without jostling each other...), concentration and breathing before launching them into expression exercises (miming fright, escape, relief, anger...). We watch them work in silence, take some pictures as discreetly as possible, kind of taken aback to see (and hear) Issa being so demanding, almost severe with these young children.

Enfants et Issa 1
Enfants et Issa 2
Enfants et Issa 3

Let’s not be fooled though : these little girls are not just messing around, or not only : they are working seriously, learning the rigour that leads to quality and also to safety. Before the workshop is over, Issa hands them the text of the new play, and the girls discover their part and completely thrilled, they comment excitedly on it all. Then they fly into Issa’s arms to say bye-bye to him and go back into the streets where they meet the tens of other children there are in the camp (60 % of whose population is less than18 years old !)

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Issa answers our questions and tells us the how and why of his work : "The children of the camp live in a brutal environment due to the Israeli occupation with everything this implies : the presence of the wall, that of armed soldiers on the outskirts of the camp, the impossibility to move about freely, scenes of violence watched or experienced at home or on the streets... Many of them have lost their bearings and it is vital that they reconnect to their body, their emotions and manage to express them again... This is all what our work here in the centre is about : to help the kids to "get out of confinement", to open the doors to their imaginary world, to their creativity, to dreaming..." These explanations make a strong impression and give us an idea of how precious the work of the people in Al-Rowwad is...

4 to 5 p.m. is our internet-hour : we give little signs of life to our families and friends "outside" and drop our first lines on the travel-blog...

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Tonight we are back in Bethlehem : what we didn’t know and discover is that Mazen, Mustapha and Jamal are actually in a rap band, the ’’Freedom Sons Band’’, and that they’ll appear on the stage after "Kwal", a French group from Nantes who is giving a concert at Bethlehem Peace Center tonight. We all sit in the first row, as close as possible to "our" stars : we are only one meter away from the stage where percussion instruments, a violin and a viola are growing more and more impatient. A speech (in French) by the organizers and then Kwal comes on stage under thunderous applause. Their music makes our shoulders, waist, hips and feet dance and the lyrics (both in French and Arabic) deliver committed texts that advocate peace and overtures mostly in favour of Palestine. Things are getting hotter and hotter here, some people venture some ’’Youyouyouyouyou’’ while the others clap in their hands. A great atmosphere!...

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It is now our rappers’ turn... The problem is that it seems impossible to play the CD they have brought with the music on which they give rhythm to their lyrics. Never mind! Pro to the last, they launch the public in a rhythm (clap twice on your thighs, once in you hands) and there we go !...

Concert Peace Centre

They are so full of energy and purity, rapping their texts a capella with such determination ! They sing Gaza and Palestine, while one of their little brothers starts break dancing. Minutes of glory in a real concert hall for these young boys from Aida Camp and we are really proud to be part of their audience.

Once they are done and have been cheered, as everybody is leaving the room, "Kwal"’s cameraman calls Sophie : he saw her filming the concert and asks her if they could exchange information and pictures about it. No problem, of course, and since we are at it, could we interview the singer of the group? It is Ok with them : we ask Vincent a few questions and he encourages us in our project of a docu-film because, as he says, we shall never make Europe aware enough of what the Israeli occupation implies for the Palestinians’ daily life : "In France, the people, the media are such cowards, everybody is so consentual, always trying to put both sides, the occupiers and the occupied people face to face… But they don’t know and don’t understand what’s happening… You really need to have come here, in Palestine, to be able to".

We thank Vincent, leave the Peace Centre and guided by our friends through the streets of Bethlehem, we all go back "home" : for 10 short days, the refugee camp of Aida. Our hearts and bodies are still full of the great music and conversations we were offered... Yes, it was a great evening.

Read the continuation of the trip