Aida Refugee Camp
Photo : Amelie Phillipson
The city of Bethlehem is known throughout the world as the place where Jesus was born, somewhere in or around the ChurchofNativity. However,Bethlehemcan also be remembered for a very different reason, closer to politics than to religion. AcrossJordan,Lebanon,Syriaand the occupied Palestinian territory, as well as theGazastrip, there are five million registered Palestinian refugees. Two thirds of Palestinians are refugees. Close to five thousand of them live in Aida Refugee Camp, situated between Beit Jala andBethlehem.
The camp was established in 1950 by United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine refugees in the near east as the result of the 1948 war, and is a so-called home to Palestinians whose families fled their homes or were expelled during the war. Originally, the refugees came from seventeen villages around theJerusalemandHebronarea.
According to Nidal, who grew up in the camp and now volunteers there, these villages have been empty since 1948 and their return wouldn’t be likely to disturb or endanger anyone; however the political situation today makes it impossible for the refugees to return to their original home. This comes in contradiction with the United Nations resolution 194, which states in article 11 that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Sixty-five years after this resolution, the refugees, their children and grandchildren are still living in camps. Some of the villages have been raised from the map and are now known as Israeli settlements.
At first, the Palestinians moved into tents, then in 1951, the United Nations build shelters. As temporary became long-term, construction by the refugees themselves became necessary within the camp. Today, the camp isn’t the typical refugee camp you would imagine, with people living in tents and Red Cross signs everywhere. There are buildings, schools, even though it looks more like a ghetto then a city. Today, Aida refugee camp faces many issues, some of which are closely related toIsrael’s occupation of Palestinian territories. First of all, the camp covers an area of 710 square meters and has no perspective of growing. Therefore, severe overcrowding is a considerable problem. The main part of the Eastern side and the entire Northern side are closed by the separation wall, the rest of the camp is surrounded by Beit Jala andBethlehem, which makes it impossible to enlarge the camp as the population grows. A possibility is to add floors to the existing buildings, so as to make the camp grow vertically, but now, the lower floors of the houses are to fragile to be build over. Space is a problem also regarding the younger inhabitants of the camp, who have no access to play grounds or green squares whatsoever. In addition to the damaged infrastructure, the camp also suffers from high unemployment, because of the inaccessibility of the Israeli labour market, which has resulted in a high poverty rate. The sewage and water networks are of very poor quality, which makes the day to day life of the refugees very difficult.
Established in Aida Refugee Camp in the year 2000, Lajee center is a cultural center that works with the most recent generations of Palestinians, aiming to favor cultural and educational opportunities, whilst at the same time standing as a defender of Palestinian rights, especially the “Right of Return”, and of general human and moral rights. Therefore, activities are organized so as to give the younger generation an education. Many of these are set around arts or journalism, and is of high quality, as the youngsters receive the input of professionals from all around the world who come and volunteer in the camp. One of the projects is a magazine “Our Voice” made by the young refugees who write both in English and Arabic. Lajee center hosts volunteers from all around the world who come with special projects, studies or research to do that supports the ideology of the center and helps it develop projects and facilities.
Aida Refugee camp is no exception as there are many Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, in Gaza and also in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. All Palestinian refugee camps suffer from similar problems, and growing up and living all their lives in refugee camps make it harder for Palestinians to have a positive perspective of life. Initiatives such as the Lajee center are a great step taken in order to improve the situation of the refugees. Nonetheless, difficulties persist.