Monday April, 13 : Aidacamp —> Bethlehem

Friday 8 January 2010
popularity : 68%

This morning, we all have a lie in, then scattered breakfast... We haven’t planned much for today : we have the preceding days to stomach!...

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Yet Théodore, Diane, Louise, Sophie, Julien and Laetitia eventually leave with the necessary material for the promised activities at the kindergarten they visited last Thursday : guitar and accordion to do some music, scissors, paste and balloons they will tie to form funny animals or hats with the kids.

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Diane and Julien show the children how to make a cup-and-ball game in paper : they mime the instructions as they can’t speak a word of Arabic ("make a beautiful drawing on the sheet of paper, fold it into the form of a little "cup", tie a string to a big bead you like and then to the cup : ready!..."), but it doesn’t always work and the teachers sometimes have to translate... The children are all so cute and awkward ! They don’t really manage, can’t fold the paper properly but they are proud of their creation!...

In the meantime, Louise, Sophie and Guirec do some music with the other group... The teachers are really grateful for that and offer Diane and Julian a glass of delicious mint-and-sugar tea... Later in the day, we will meet some playing with their rudimentary cup-and-ball game on the alleys of the camp ...

The rest of us laze about in the guest house reading, playing chess with our favourite Palestinians, among whom Hamza who is making real progress against Theodore. Then we prepare lunch (we are definitely loyal to our falafelman!), and chat while chopping the vegetables... That’s when some of us cry out : "But Mazen!... Why didn’t you tell us it was your birthday last week ?!... We would have organized a party for you!..." He smiles but doesn’t say anything. As we insist : "Why didn’t you tell us ?... We would have spoilt you !..." Mazen eventually whispers : "Because I hate my life... I hate me and I hate my life..." We are completely taken off guard, didn’t expect to hear that at all and just keep silent for a while. But then we ask again : "Why do you hate yourself ?... You’re such a nice guy... The songs you write, the way you sing them, it’s all so great!... We love you!..." Still smiling, Mazen looks up briefly at us - his eyes are shining : sunshine or rain ? -, then down again "I love you too... All of you..."

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3 p.m. : from far, brassy music reaches our ears. Indeed, we were told there would be a street circus this afternoon in the camp ! The most curious of us go out (it’s awfully hot today!) and try to locate where the music comes from : there is a mime show on with 4 clowns who make the kids burst out laughing...

Cirque 1
IMG/mp3/Aida_-_cirque_1.mp3
Cirque 2
IMG/mp3/Aida_-_cirque_2.mp3
Cirque 3
IMG/mp3/Aida_-_cirque_3.mp3

The actors (English-speaking) have some trouble making the children respect their stage-space : they get up, come and feel their coloured costumes, play with their instruments, take their balls and balloons and refuse to give them back... The adults who are there (parents or people from Al-Rowwad) let them go on, which first shocks us a bit until we remember what we have been told about the little children of the camps, the fact they have no reference points and little control of themselves and their feelings...

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Around 4 p.m., Sandra turns up. We met her a few days ago at the Guest House : she had come to get back didactic equipment for her training class - a huge mouth and toothbrush drawn on cardboard - she had left in one of the rooms. She had lived in the Guest House for one and a half year before she decided to move to Bethlehem because it was impossible for her to stay as the kids were always (and at any time) knocking at the door to see her!).

Sandra (on the picture with Masaa’ and Tarek) is Brazilian, linguist by education (she has kept a delicious Frenchie accent from her studies in Paris), noble-hearted and absolutely cute : she looks 14, is in fact almost twice as old and takes care of the teeth of the little kids of the camp.

She has been working for more than 2 years now as a volunteer in Aïda. When she arrived and offered her services, she was told that little or nothing was organized for the youngest children of Aïda. She then set up activities with them and for them. "But, she said, it was simply impossible to work properly ! I was in charge of about 40 kids who were awfully nervous and didn’t obey me at all !... At the beginning, I had a translator to help me but afterwards I had to get by without him... I finally understood why the workshops didn’t work : all these kids had completely rotten teeth, some with constant raging toothache that prevented them from sleeping, keeping still or doing any activity, be it drawing, or listening to a story... And I thought : how could children who are constantly in pain learn or work at school, think about themselves and the world, build their personality, defend their country and their culture ?..."

"So one day I took 3 of them to the dentist... He had to take out several of their teeth and I thought I was never going to see them again and that probably they would tell the other children and frighten them away from me too... It was just the opposite ! They had realized that once their bad teeth were out, it didn’t hurt anymore and the next day, I had tens of kids at my door begging me : "Sandra, please, take me to the dentist, look at my teeth, look how rotten they are, please take me to the dentist!..." The trouble is I get no allowance for that. At Al-Rowwad, they let me do what I want but they don’t help or support me : their project is the "Beautiful Resistance" and theatre..."

"So I pay for the dentist with the help of some friends I have at home who rather than[ give money to, for ex Doctors without Border, send it to me. But it isn’t enough. I’m forced to select the children, I have no other choice but take those in the worst situations (having the worst teeth and coming from the poorest families of Aïda)... The Palestinians have always had a very lax oral hygiene but before, at least, people ate healthy food : fruit, vegetables ... Today, the kids suck sweets all day long... It is no use taking them to the dentist if they don’t take care of their teeth. That is why in parallel I started these oral hygiene workshops in which I teach the children to brush their teeth properly... But it is a never-ending work..."

Read more about Sandra’s ’SMILE’ project

Today, Sandra is taking 4 kids to the dentist and, as promised, she has come to see if any of us was interested in going with her. Laetitia, Théodore and Anne-Claire climb on the bus with them. On the way to Bethlehem, Sandra introduces the children, 3 girls and one boy, all aged 6 to 9 and tells about the special problem Qamar ("the Moon", in English) has : this lonely little 8-year-old girl doesn’t smile anymore, doesn’t eat anymore and always stays aloof from the other children. "She feels horrible, Sandra explains, her teeth are growing completely sideways and pierce her gums, which causes constant pain. She should have braces ... I must find 1000 euros". Sandra isn’t asking for anything, nor complaining : she just states a fact. But listening to her, Théodore, Anne-Claire and Laetitia’s hearts skip a beat. They empty their pockets and wallet : "Here is for you Sandra ! We planned to spend this money in Palestine anyway, take it ! That’s already that done for your project !..." Sandra then has a wonderful smile, incredulity and happiness mixed together : "Do you realize it is one fifth of the appliance at one go !" She looks at the three of them moved to tears, laughs and clasps each in her arms. Oh this good feeling of doing fair, necessary, decent things...

In Bethlehem, they have to take a taxi up to a refugee camp that is 15 minutes away and where the children will be treated. As they have a few spare minutes, Sandra shows them around the cultural centre that is just next to the medical centre : "The people here do great things", she tells them, and indeed, just the painting all along the staircase gives an idea of how great they must be...

Surgery of the young (Palestinian) dentist who supports Sandra in her project (he lets her have it cheap!) : the children go in one by one. Théodore and Anne-Claire follow Sandra who stays on her protégés’ sides all along the "torture" and comforts them, while Laetitia talks and mimes and sings songs with the next ones. While the dentist is working, Sandra explains the problems she is experiencing to renew her visa : "I have to leave Israel every three months. Each time I come back, it’s more difficult than the previous time : the soldiers detain me for hours at the airport, ask me the same questions again and again and again : why I come back, where I am going, what I am going to do... I get a proper body search, naked and the rest of it..." She smiles. Then she shows her passport : "Look ! On that occasion, they gave me a visa for one week only !" Indeed : the date on the printed stamp has been crossed out and the soldier has written "one week" in the place of "three months". Why so? "To bother me, put me off coming back... Fortunately, I have a friend at the Brazilian Embassy in Tel Aviv who got me a visa for six months but it is not renewable..." Which means? Sandra answers in a sweet voice : "Which means that in exactly 5 days, I have to leave Aida... Knowing there is nobody to take on my project and go on with my work... I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back... I’m thinking of going first back to Brazil for a while, stay with my family (whom I haven’t seen for 8 years now!), and then, I will have to find a job, there or in France, anywhere to make money, enough money to be able to come back here one day... As I told you, I get no allowance for my work here. During the 2 years I have spent here, I have run on the money I had saved and on cash donations my friends have sent me from all over the world..."

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The 4 kids have been treated. Sandra calls them all back into the surgery and asks her Palestinian dentist-friend to translate her message to them : "I have bought a toothbrush for each of you. It plays music and indicates how long you have to brush your teeth. You are now going to promise me that you will take care of your teeth, OK ? When do you have to brush your teeth ?" And the kids answer in Arabic : "In the evening ! No! In the morning ! No ! Every time we have eaten something ! Especially if we have eaten sweets!"... Sandra approves : the oral hygiene workshops bear some fruit. "You promise me?" The children answer in a chorus "I promise", but Sandra tells them : "No. I want you to promise me in Arabic", and the children promise her in Arabic...

Back to Aida now : Sandra brings the three youngest kids back home, Qamar, her little sister and her little brother. Together with their parents and the little baby, they live in a maximum 20m²-large room... Smiles and thanks, the kids proudly show off their treated teeth and their disco-toothbrush... What will all these people do when Sandra isn’t there for them anymore?...

Back to Bethlehem on foot up to Star Street (the street of the Three Wise Men) where Sandra rents a flat with a "photographer for peace" "who is always very lucky with her visas!" On the way, they stop in front of a stone staircase that leads to the wooden door of a house, which Sandra opens ... on nothing left ! The inside, the roof, the floors of the house have collapsed. At the bottom of the 3 disappeared floors, there is nothing left but vegetation that is slowly but surely growing all over it and two puppies that look as if they have found a shelter here against the rest of the world. The rest has vanished under the 2002 bombings, during the second intifada...

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Here and there, it is still possible to distinguish a broken cupboard, torn clothes, a shelf still hanging on the wall of what used to be a bedroom, the arch of a window... "You know Ayssar in the camp? It was his parents’ house... If you look now ahead of you, to the hills, you can see the Israeli settlements... More than 40% of these houses are empty, yet despite that, they go on building, stretching their territory... "

Théodore, Laetitia and Anne-Claire go down the stairs that lead to nowhere anymore and follow Sandra to the arranged meeting point : in front of the Peace Centre on Manger Square where the rest of the group should be waiting soon. But a man’s voice calls for Sandra "Hey ! It’s David ! A friend !..." Sandra only has friends, which is not hard to understand. David is a young Palestinian in his early thirties. He holds one of the many souvenir shops on the Saint Paul IV Street that leads to the Nativity Church.

"Business is getting worse and worse for all these little shopkeepers", Sandra tells them. "The tourists come to Bethlehem by coach, are brought as herds to the different tourist sites, then leave, still as a herd without stopping anymore at the little shops. They are definitely encouraged to avoid coming into contact with the Arabs..." On hearing that, Théodore decides that he is going to buy the present he wanted to bring back home for his parents in David’s little shop... One way or another, it is impossible to refuse David’ invitation : they all enter his little stall (10m² at the most), sit down on the heap of carpets for sale or on the floor and, a glass of delicious mint-tea in their hand, they all listen to David, completely overwhelmed by what he is telling : how 4 years ago, he and a few friends went to Jerusalem behind the Israeli soldiers’ back : a true epic .

"It started as a bet : you want to go to Jerusalem? Are you game? I bet you we do it tonight!..." And he tells them how they left that night, first by car, then on foot, how they skirted round the checkpoints, crawled up to a place where the wall was a mere a wire fencing. How they progressed meter after meter in the darkest night ever, across the countryside they knew nothing about, getting up and pulling in their stomach in when hiding behind a tree when the sound of steps or engines caught them unaware. In which state of overexcitement and fright they finally arrived in view of Jerusalem, crept inside the old town and there, at last, let themselves unwind a bit, lost in the middle of a crowd that, what a delight!, wasn’t the least aware of their presence !... "We walked, and walked... On every centimetre of the town, every centimetre of our town, thinking : we are in Jerusalem! WE ARE IN JERUSALEM!!!... We just couldn’t believe it!"

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Yes ! They had managed !… They slept only 4 hours during that 24-hour-long adventure and David’s eyes still quiver at the memory of all they had to endure and above all, the memory of the absolute bliss it had been to be able to walk again in the streets of Jerusalem... Sandra had heard the story several times before but has as much pleasure as if for the first time. Yet, there is a certain uneasiness about it too : this was not simply about students going on a spree... David concludes it all on a sad note : when will they be able to go to Jerusalem again ?...

Then, Sandra is forced to tell him she is leaving soon... The reaction is immediate : "But you can’t! I’m getting married at the end of the month! You must come!" "Really?? You’re getting married?" Sandra is so happy for her friend! "Yes! There will be a big feast ! For three days! And everybody is welcome!... I mean everybody except the Israelis..." Winks, large smiles, hugs. Théodore, Laetitia and Anne-Claire leave them and go and meet with the rest of the group who have spent the afternoon… at the pub…

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We all go back to Aida, head to our Guest House where we prepare the evening meal and each drop a few lines on the postcards we had brought from Belgium and which we’ll give to all those who gave us some of their time and their joy all along the 10 days we have spent in the camp : Martine, Salam, Marwa, Samira, Sandra, Ribal, Oussama, Abdelfattah, Ayssar, Youssef, Hamsa, Abdel, Murad, Issa, Tarek, Ahmad and our Four Musketeers : Mohammed, Mustapha, Mazen, Jamal, as well as to our "falafelman" who, when he gets it, will tell Louise : "You won’t believe me, but I’ll miss you!"

Our last meal in Aida : our rappers sing a song they have written for us!

Sur le groupe 1
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Sur le groupe 2
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They have little presents for each of us : little Teddy-bears, fluffy hearts, recordings of their songs… We decide to give them the camera which on Jean-Francois’advice we had brought with us and intended to leave here in Palestine (Jean-François is a photographer we had met while preparing for the trip). The boys are moved, very much so... It is going to be hard to leave them tomorrow...

Read the continuation of the trip