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Life in a refugee camp...East Jerusalem

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I once visited a refugee camp, and only once. Yet memories from the visit remain bright and vivid, with conflicting emotions that never seem to escape me in life. We can understand most human conflict is grounded in the following bases (1) divergent ideologies or viewpoints; (2) religion; and (3) the inability of people to see past stereotypes imposed by media, culture, or the environment in which they grew up. I was reminded of this visit yesterday, when an Israeli reader began to argue with me yet again about "scary" and "evil" Muslims. Given the current political climate in the U.S., and the escalating global situation with terror threats, now seems as good a time as any to share this story.

1. The place I visited is called the Shuafat refugee camp. It's located in a Palestinian-Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and is the only camp positioned outside the separation wall enclosing Jerusalem. In fact, it's the only Palestinian refugee camp located inside any Israeli-controlled area. If you've been to this region, you will recall the land is divided into "Area A", "Area B" and "Area C", which designates whether you're in an area controlled by Israelis or the Palestinian Authority. Yes - I know Palestine is not a separate country, but I view it as such, with a very different social status, economy and living conditions when compared to Israel. Palestine - a third world country, region, territory, or whatever you want to call it, in essence.

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2. Shuafat is not a refugee camp in the classic sense with tents and aid workers running around everywhere. Residents live in old, dilapidated apartment buildings, with a lack of basic sanitation services. Some health services are provided by Israeli clinics in the camp.

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3. As soon as you enter the camp, you're reminded of the ongoing conflict and tensions in the region, which can erupt at a moment's notice. During my visit, the camp was calm but this van with its blown-out windows and graffiti serve as a warning that rocks, tear gas and molotov cocktails can start flying at any point. My visit was in the spring of 2014, and on my first night in Bethlehem, I stepped outside to sit on my balcony and was greeted with burning eyes and a sudden feeling of throat closure. Tear gas drifting in the wind from a near-by checkpoint. Shortly after we departed, tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis reignited for many months, with a lot of fighting and rockets flying toward Israel.

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4. You can read my prior reports from Palestine, but I want to speak briefly again about the people in the West Bank. I felt more welcome and safer there than at any point in Jerusalem. Locals are very warm, there was absolutely no hostility toward me as an American or woman, and most often I was greeted with a positive hand symbol like a "thumps up" and the ever present peace sign.

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5. What I remember most about the experience here is the children. They are the most beautiful and innocent creatures on the globe, until sick adults get a hold of them and poison their minds with all kinds of garbage about race, religion and other issues that divide all societies. There are a lot of kids wandering around the refugee camp alone, with no parents in sight.

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6. I'm always amazed when I travel to places like this and see men sitting on benches or going for leisurely walks during the work day. I can't recall what the main prospects for employment are, but residents of the refugee camp carry Jerusalem identity cards, which grants them the same access and privileges as regular Israelis. Thus, they can technically work in Israeli-controlled areas, and move about freely if someone will hire them.

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7. In general, the camp is very dirty and run down, with trash everywhere. It seems I didn't take many photos to portray the heaps of garbage thrown everywhere, but take my word for it.

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8. The camp is largely serviced by UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. It is largely funded by the U.S. government and other UN States, which back Israel and Palestine simultaneously, though on different fronts. One military, the other humanitarian.

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9. In any part of the world where there is ongoing ethnic, political or human conflict, you will almost certainly find art and graffiti by the locals as a means of expression. The West Bank and Israel are no exception.

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10. I already explained the significance of the key in prior reports, but in basic terms the key represents the "right of return," a principle deeply entrenched in the Palestinian mentality. The phrase is self-explanatory, but it simply means that the first-born generation of refugees and their descendants have a right of return to property they left behind or were forced to vacate due to the war, which led to the founding of Israel. The Israeli government doesn't view the admission of Palestinians to their former homes in now Israeli-controlled areas as a right, but rather a political claim to be resolved as part of an eventual peace settlement. When will such an agreement come? I think never, and certainly not in my lifetime.

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11. There are a lot of children's activities on the refugee camp, ranging from education training to after school programs like martial arts and music lessons. I met these young lads during their daily karate practice.

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12. Residents can buy all products within the camp, as there are local produce stands, grocery stores and other types of markets where all basic human necessities can be purchased. There's no need to leave the camp, except for work.

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13. More political expression painted on walls. The refugee camp suffers from very high and violent crime rates. The reasons are twofold. If you cage people and put them behind walls as animals, they will begin to act as such. This is not an excuse for the behavior, but a basic response to such human conditions. Second, the Israeli presence at the camp is limited only to checkpoints controlling entry and exit. So, we dealt with the Israeli officers when entering and leaving, and at no other point. The Israeli security forces rarely enter to control crime due to security concerns, and the Palestinian Civil Police Force doesn't operate in Israeli-controlled areas, where this refugee camp sits. So, once again, you get a feel for the complex nature of this region. That's why it's an interesting and unique place to visit...

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14. This is just an example of what it looks like in other parts of the West Bank, where bright and shiny new Jewish settlements are being built all over the place. It's my understanding the Israeli government supports settlements by providing many tax exemptions. For instance, if you buy apartments in settlements, you don't pay VAT of 18%. Moreover, salaries are usually higher. I know someone living in Arieal (a West Bank town), and his net salary is about 25% more than his colleagues in the same position who work at the same company, but within Israeli-controlled areas. Also, it's much easier for residents to get firearm permits in the settlements for protective reasons, as the risk of living there is higher than other regions due to ongoing conflicts.

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15. The newer Jewish settlements look something like this. Quite nice.

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17. More scenes from daily life in the refugee camp. Cuisine in this region is delicious, as I love all of these spicy and fragrant Mediterranean dishes and sweets.

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18. Ladies selling ice-cream and other tasty treats.

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19. I remember when I first told my parents I was traveling to Palestine. Immediate panic, especially from my mother. But I'm of a very different mentality, because I rarely fear anything until I'm actually in a situation where I feel threatened or in danger. Then there are those like my reader in Tel Aviv who become angry when I say anything positive about Palestinians or Muslims. He recently became agitated when I made a random comment that I found Palestinians more friendly than the Jews I encountered in Jerusalem. He began to pepper me with questions, like this:

(1) They have been informed your group belongs to the left wing population of the USA?

My answer: Don't be ridiculous. Of course not, how would they be informed of this when I was simply walking around the town and villages, sometimes by myself? Also, many members of my group were right-wing, religious conservatives. The sole reason for their visit was to go on a holy trek.

(2) Your bus had UN stickers or white numbers?

My answer: No. We traveled in ordinary minivans and sometimes personal cars going through the checkpoints between Israeli and Palestinian controlled areas.


There were other questions, but the point is that this reader falls into category #3 - someone who simply believes all Muslims are looking to attack, or should be feared. There is no excuse for such assumptions, especially when you're actually living in the region with a still valid Russian passport, which permits you access to the West Bank. Yet he has never traveled there to see for himself, or formulate his own personal experiences with such people. Go forth young reader...there are many idlers, standing there, waiting to talk to you. :))

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20. Again about the children. They captured my heart, almost all of them. What I loved most about them is that they weren't carrying bracelets or peddling useless goods to tourists. They shouted only "hallo" when they ran toward me, not "one dollar" or "buy." Their sole desire was my attention, a simple human touch from someone different, and curiosity about a foreign woman who made her way to the camp or village.

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21. No rules in the refugee camp. Very young children drive cars, work, and are engaged in labor.


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22. The separation wall is worthy of a separate report. Not only due to the beautiful murals and expressive value of the graffiti, but because it's such an eyesore in the region, at least for me. I NEVER wish to live in a country with walls, although I understand that Israel is in a unique situation, positioned dead center with enemies on all corners.

The reality is that the wall has worked, and bombings and attacks by radical extremists have gone down since it was constructed. However, the U.S. is in a different position, isolated to some extent due to oceans and a greater ability to integrate Muslims into the culture. All free people - sitting targets for attacks by extremists, both homegrown and foreign. Be it radical Muslims, or trigger happy white boys from suburbia who decide to shoot up American schools, theaters or shopping malls...It's a risk you take by living in an open, free society, but the probability of being killed by such an attack is so minuscule that it causes no me concern or fear.

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23. We have a very sick and dangerous political rhetoric going on in the current U.S. presidential cycle. Like nothing I've experienced in my lifetime, and it's so alarming and concerning that I don't even know how to speak about it. Some segments of the population have become some dumb they can't even realize they are pawns in the most classic political game in history - control through words and fear.

In the U.S., there's no excuse for ignorance other than laziness. You don't need money to travel to Palestine, or anywhere else on the globe. Americans live in a nation, where in almost any region, you can find people of all walks of life, ethnicity and faiths, often running local community centers or other open cultural events that provide insight and opportunities to speak with people you perceive as "different." Of course, it's more convenient to believe what other people tell you, rather than make any effort to discover or understand for yourself. Next, some nice photos of children to calm me. :))

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27. Sorry if this post seems a bit judgmental, but I'm really frustrated with the state of American politics as a whole. That society has suddenly decided to treat something as important as a Presidential election like a reality show, and where one of the major ruling parties - the Republicans - can put forth no better candidate than Donald Trump as an option. Btw, did you know that linguists have analyzed his speeches and determined that he purposely speaks at a 6th grade level, using basic words and concepts so as to not confuse his blind sheep? Disgusting.

I want to believe that love always wins, that kindness will always prevail in human relations, but it's quite easy to lose faith. It happened recently with my nephew, who sat and watched only a few minutes of a Republican Presidential debate. The next time he was at my parent's house playing with his friends, who are mostly Mexican or Honduran, he asked the startling question - "will Jose and Milton be deported if Trump becomes President?" Can you imagine the horror I felt when I learned he suddenly views his friends as possible deportees rather than playmates? :(( So, I sat and had a long chat with him about the situation.

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28. The sad reality is that many people will look at these beautiful Muslim boys and see only "future terrorists" or "bombers" and nothing more. There is nothing I can do to change such perceptions or stereotypes, other than to share my personal stories here and show a different side to Muslims, which is needed now more than ever.

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Comments to the post are CLOSED. I don't like to discuss politics in this blog, nor do I wish to be irritated with trolling anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic remarks. In the Israel/Palestine conflict, I'm neutral. I've been there, seen both sides with my own eyes, and there are no easy solutions. Also, I'm in court today, away from my desk, and can't monitor the comments as usual. Thus, it's a rare instance where I will prohibit expression in this blog. Totally against my American values, but necessary for the soul and my blood pressure. :)

For other stories about Palestine, start here "Journey Through the West Bank", and then move onward.


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