Another restless sleep in Bethlehem interrupted by the 4 am call to prayer… In lieu of tossing and turning frustratedly for the next hour, I thought recording a few stories lodged in my brain from yesterday might be a more profitable use of my time.
Our day began at the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) where we spent a fascinating hour with a fascinating man. Our scholarly host walked us through countless maps and statistics and analyses of what the encroachment of Israel into the Palestinian territory has looked like, how they have been able to get away with actions that are illegal under international law, and what their long-term objectives might be. But for me, it wasn’t the stats and maps and graphs that will linger in the memory. It was when he told us that his grandchildren have never been to Jerusalem, despite the fact that you can see it from the front door of his office. It would be almost be like living on Scenic Drive in Lethbridge and never having visited the west side of the river. “When I was a young man,” he said, “we would go to Jerusalem for the evening, find a nice restaurant, enjoy ourselves. “Bethlehem used to almost be part of Jerusalem. Now, it is impossible.” For most of the presentation, our host had been a mixture of passion and anger and humour and devastating analysis. When he told this story, he mostly just seemed sad.
Later, we visited the Aida Refugee Camp, a place where Palestinians have been living since they were forced out of their homes following the 1947-49 war. Their lives are desperate and threatened in countless ways, not least because they are (literally) within a stones throw of the massive wall that the Israeli government has built. A weekly ritual here is that the teenage boys will throw stones at the surveillance towers or at the wall, and the Israeli army will send soldiers in with rubber bullets or tear gas (or worse). We had seen empty canisters on the roof of the youth center we were visiting. Our host told us the story of his family. He has four children, three girls and one boy. The boy came last. When his five-year-old daughter found out that their mother was pregnant for the fourth time, she said, “I hope it’s another girl.” “Why don’t you want a brother?” she was asked by one of her parents. “Because I don’t want a brother to get injured or jailed or killed.” I thought about that for a moment. This is the thought process of a five-year-old girl. I don’t want a brother are because brothers grow up to throw stones and stone throwers get shot by soldiers. Incredible.
Our host told us another story about an international exchange program that their youth centre runs. Occasionally, students from Aida Camp get the opportunity to travel to places like Belgium or England for short exchange programs. You would think that these students would be most struck by the difference in living conditions in wealthy Western nations, that they would be in awe of the material luxuries enjoyed by those outside of the camp that has been their home since birth. And they are, probably. But when asked what he was most amazed by in the outside world, one of the kids said, “I saw fathers being with their kids.” In Aida Camp, many dads get up leave at 3 or 4 am to begin the journey to low-paying jobs in Jerusalem, on the other side of the wall. This often means spending 2-3 hours waiting to get through a checkpoint in the morning and arriving home late in the evening for the same reason. If you have a Palestinian ID card, everyday life is filled with grinding, incomprehensible delays and inconveniences and indignities. And countless hours of wasted time away from kids longing to spend a few hours with their dads.
After hearing these stories, I met a few teenage boys outside the youth center. They were playing with slingshots. I thought of my own fourteen-year-old son a world away (geographically and in terms of the reality of his daily life). I thought about having to imagine such a future for him. A future so bereft of tenable options that his only recourse was to pick up useless stones and hurl them against an immovable mountain. I looked back at the boys, trying to think of something, anything to say. I thought of the kids I had kicked a ball around with for a moment while walking back to the youth center along the wall. “You like football?” I asked them. Their faces lit up. “Yes, Messi, Messi! Barcelona! Cristiano Ronaldo! Real Madrid!” I wondered if in a few years these faces would soon appear on the “martyrs” wall that I had seen a few hundred meters away. I wished for a future for these faces filled with more footballs and less stones.
I took both of the images above at the Aida Refugee Camp yesterday.