Over 50% of Palestinians are listed by the UN as refugees (Lonely Planet; Israel & the Palestinian Territories). A refugee is someone who, owing to a well-rounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality (1951 Convention relating to status of Refugees). Fleeing national borders from conflict, or generalised violence, also classifies a person as a refugee under international law.
But what is life actually like for a refugee? What does it mean to grow up in exile? Does it affect your outcomes, choices, and internal values? I hope that when I go to Palestine, I can hear real stories, thoughts & opinions first hand, but for now, I will have to make do with internet and text book research.
The Lonely Planet begins it’s chapter on the West Bank with;
“If there’s a place in the Middle East you shouldn’t miss, the 5800-sq-km West Bank it is. Plagued by war, terrorism, military checkpoints, refugee camps and poverty; absolutely. But at the same time, welcoming, intriguing, stunning – and more.”
Since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, millions still live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and the neighbouring countries of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Life in a refugee camp brings hardship and poverty, unemployment and malnutrition; yet it is the overwhelming public attitude of humility, friendliness and warmth which is referred to time and time again.
This photo won first place in a competition run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees. The photo was taken by Samar Abu Ouf, a young Palestine refugee living in Gaza, who said;
“My photo was of young children celebrating their friend’s birthday… Despite the obstacles, they were able to enjoy themselves. Because they did not have electricity, they used candles. They were able to celebrate with very simple things” (UNRWA website).
AbdelFattah Abu-Srour is Director of the Al Rowwad Cultural & Theatre Training Centre within the Aida Refugee Camp (Bethlehem). Al Rowwad sees itself as an “empowered Palestinian Society on an educational and artistic level.” Its mission is to empower the community, promote human values and respect human rights, using the arts as a means of non-violent self-expression.
The centre itself was built via donations from around the world and accommodates children, women and disabled camp members to try and reach the most marginalised residences of an already segregated community. One of the developmental objectives of the centre is to try to break the international stereotype diffused in the media about Palestinians, whilst;
“establish(ing) art groups that strive for a gradual change in society, and allow(ing) children and women to respond to needs arising from stress and confinement via beautiful and peaceful means.”
Giving children the chance to express themselves through song, dance, theatre and art allows them to escape the plague of restrictions and curfews imposed by a life in a refugee camp. Al Rowwad provides a safe environment for children to discharge the stress and fear of life under occupation. It also helps children in the camp, and in the neighbouring region, to develop the spirit of belonging to a team, to a family, and to a country.