The project started on Tuesday 31st August 2013 as 10 medical students from 7 different countries ventured to Damascus Gate, Jerusalem for our first meeting with the Palestinian ReCap coordinators. Some 5, 2014. Throughout this month, a number of us came by sherut from Tel Aviv airport, others via yet another bus after travels in Israel, medical, non-medical and another who managed social activities that were done to miss achieve the meeting altogether because after a week goal of hitchhiking the ReCap project in transferring the image about refugee camps residents; their health situation, UNRWA clinics and couch-surfing timekeeping wasn’t really her thing. the situations in Palestine in general.
10 Days living in Abu Dis
The next day we woke early and headed to the picturesque campus of Al Quds University, to meet more of the Palestinian ReCap team. With our Palestinian counterparts we discussed several issues surrounding the conflict including their personal experiences of living under occupation and the future options for peace. As expected, conflicts of viewpoint emerged, yet these were not only between the Europeans and our hosts, but even between the Palestinians themselves – giving us an early indicator of how controversial and challenging many of the issues we would become exposed to, are in reality. We then had our first Arabic lesson to prepare us for basic interaction with the children and handling shopkeepers who would spot us as scammable tourists. After acquainting ourselves with the quiet town – made quieter by the fact that we were in the of midst of Ramadan and most of the shops were closed – one of our hosts, Dauod, introduced us to a local shisha bar with exquisite shisha, fantastic company and lashings of non alcoholic beer.
During this initial week in Abu Dis our Palestinian friends organized videos for us to watch about the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a tour of the museum on campus dedicated to Palestinian prisoners and the opportunity to attend lectures and discussions at organizations in various cities around the West Bank.
Visiting the Centre for Human Rights in Ramallah was fascinating, and included a wonderfully translated (Thanks Wiam) three hour discussion with the director. He told us about their work monitoring and advocating for Palestinian victims of human rights violation, many of which related to the treatment of prisoners, the arrest of individuals without strong evidence and settler-related violence. We discussed the current dichotomous situation that two groups of people; settlers and local Palestinians, live sometimes metres apart, and yet are subject to totally different sets of rules.
Whilst in Ramallah we visited Arafat’s tomb – guarded by two sombre soldiers who we managed to give the giggles, visited a museum commemorating the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and took a visit to Ramallah’s best ice-cream parlour.
Our trip to the BADIL Human Rights centre in Bethlehem (http://www.badil.org/ ) was certainly a highlight, and not only due to the tiny welcoming cups of cardamom infused Arabic Coffee. Our talk at this great organization gave us an insight into the historical, political and legal steps and events that have led to the current situation in the West Bank. From Zionist ideals, to the British Mandate, to the incentivized movement of Jews (and some Christian Russians…) to Israel and the settlements – It was an enlightening presentation. The daily frustrations experienced by Palestinians related to restricted movement by Areas A, B and C, the check points and the separation wall were also well described, as well as the restrictions on building laws which make the simplest renovation or extension an illegal action.
Our next trip took us to Nablus, one of the most populated cities in the West Bank. We took walks through two refugee camps, where we hadn’t quite bargained on every child being loaded up with a new toy gun from the Eid holiday. The resulting pelt of plastic bullets was fairly memorable – not only due to some pretty unique bruising. In the evening we escaped the city streets to make our way up the mountainside and enjoy the beautiful views with some coffee, shisha and ice cream.
During our days off we explored: Jerusalem
Whilst based in Abu Dis, we made use of our free time by taking trips around the Israel and the West Bank, playing many many card games, going to shisha bars and eating enough hummus to fill Al Aqsa mosque – which, incidentally we did not manage to enter despite five attempts.
On our first trip to Jerusalem we attempted to explore the Muslim quarter on the last Friday before the end of Ramadan. Along with 400, 000 others who were visiting Al Aqsa on this holy day. After managing to avoid shoe throwing brawls in the crowds entering Damascus gate we explored the magical atmosphere of the old city including Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and the Armenian, Jewish and Christian quarters.
Whilst managing to avoid symptoms of Jerusalem syndrome, we were all taken with the magic of the city and regularly took the local bus to visit. Climbing the Mount of Olives at sunset, visiting the sobering Yad Vashem museum, visiting David’s city and exploring the city walls and roofs were all certainly highlights.
We were invited for iftar (breaking the fast) at the house of Dauod in Bethany after one trip to Jerusalem, where we could not have been given a more warm welcome by his hospitable family. We were offered course after course of delicious homemade Palestinian food – it just kept on coming!
During Eid, as our Palestinian friends were spending time with their families, we headed North to explore more of Israel. We split multiple times but all managed to find our way to Caesarea where we swam under the stars and discussed Israeli foreign policy with local students on the beach; which was certainly eye-opening. There was no room at the inn, so we set down our towels and slept on the beach that night, enduring the low–temperatures as Getter showed off her knowledge of the constellations.
The following day, our group split up. One team ventured out to a Kibbutz, a tightlyķnit Jewish community with socialist ideals. Here they were invited to a man called Yoav’s home for Israeli couscous, barbecued chicken and beef, a sunset visit to the beach and discussions about his unique photograph collection.
The other half of the group hitchhiked to Nazareth, which gave some excellent opportunities to compare Israeli malls, visit the ruins where Joseph and Mary are thought to have lived, attend 3D reenactments of Jesus’ life and go to the spectacular Basilica of the Annunciation. To spend the Eid celebration in a Muslim dominated town was fantastic, and the party on the streets ran well into the night with the thousands of fireworks and free sweets creating a wonderful atmosphere.
Abu Dis was a great introduction to the friendliness of Palestinian people and will conjur up extremely happy memories for us.
1st Week in Bethlehem
Moving to Bethlehem marked the second phase of the trip where we would spend mornings visiting UN clinics attached to local refugee camps and running activities for the children of Aida camp in the afternoons.
The apartment in Bethlehem had spectacular views over the town and at just five minutes walk from the Manger Square where the most delicious kebabs and falafel can be bought for one euro – we settled in quickly! For the first time since RE-CAP had been running, the Palestinian RE-CAP organizers (and now our great friends) rented the apartment next to ours which set the scene for lots of shared games, debates and happy meals. On the first night we headed for fresh shisha and a huge surprise cake to celebrate Mohammad’s birthday – most of which ended up on his face.
We made our way to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief Working Agency) clinics early the following day. Becoming acquainted with the incredibly professional local staff, we began learning about the common challenges within the primary healthcare system. These clinics provide essential services, free at the point of access to registered refugees from Bethlehem and Dheisheh camps. The camps have existed since 1948, and over the past 60 years have expanded considerably. The initial tents were replaced with houses during the 50’s, and now the cramped conditions home large numbers of people within a few square kilometers and both communicable and non-communicable diseases have a relatively high prevalence. In the clinics we saw many similar conditions to those we see in Europe; hypertension, diabetes, tonsillitis, however the rate at which patients were in and out was staggering; each doctor saw around 150 patients per day. Within the health centres we also spent time in the child vaccination rooms, maternity clinic and pharmacy which gave opportunities to learn about the UN provision of essential medicines. The laboratories also offered some surprisingly enjoyable mornings, where our proficiency in blood film examination, venepuncture and urine microscopy improved significantly.
Lajee centre, Aida Refugee Camp
Whilst the concrete buildings of Aida camp on the edge of Bethlehem do not immediately correlate with mental preconceptions of a ‘refugee camp’, the social issues that exist here were revealed to be multifaceted. Significantly, the crowded houses and narrow streets offer little space for children to play. The Lajee community centre then, which has a large cohort of regular staff supported by regular volunteer groups, provides unique opportunities for the young people in the area to attend organized activities in a spacious environment.
Whilst our initial activities with the kids were a little unstructured, after a bit of support and encouragement from Laura (the international Coordinator who attended last year) we soon got into a regular routine. Each day a different person took the lead on activity coordination and we planned our sessions after lunch before running activities at the Lajee centre from 4.30 am – 6.30/7.00 pm. We organized a huge variety of different games and crafts for the kids that came each day: from hat making, to bingo, to plasticine modeling, singing, football, charades, food tasting and relay races. Whilst bringing things from home, buying resources and sometimes laborious planning was important – the real success of the activities was reliant on our Palestinian friends who were incredibly patient with translating!
In our free time we went hunting for Banksy grafitti along the separation wall, with several of us adding our own slogans and evocative images. The wall in Bethlehem runs extremely close to residential houses, and we regularly spoke with people who described being cut off from close friends and family by the imposing structure.
At the weekend, half of us explored Heroidum, which was King Herod’s favoured fortreses – and is now ‘well-preserved’ ruins. The other half visited Umm al Kheer, a Bedouin village that is currently the focus of local media attention, as the surrounding area is increasingly earmarked as an Israeli military zone. Situated half way between two Israeli settlements, it the village is in a coveted spot, and the coordinators of the charity funded school in the centre ensure that kids are present every day, to prevent it from being bulldozed.
2nd Week in Bethlehem
By now we were settled into our pattern of Clinics in the mornings, a large group lunch, activity planning and then playing games and running activities with the kids at the Lajee centre in the afternoons. And the arrival of Max from Germany, only strengthened our group dynamics.
On the Wednesday, 18 of us rented a mini bus to take us to the port town of Jaffa. After a long drive including the airport-terminal-like check point into Israel, we were very pleased to finally arrive at the beach. Unfortunately the victims of the strong currents included an earring, two pairs of glasses and an engagement ring, but spirits were raised with a fantastic barbeque in front of the sunset. And we had lots of laughs trying to learn the Dabke, a Palestinian traditional dance of which Ahmad is an expert.
Happily we had the chance to watch him and his group perform, a few days later, at a Palestinian cultural festival for young people. The angry rap was another highlight.
After experiencing so many gems of Palestinian culture, and because we were, afterall, in Bethlehem – on the 25th of August we decided it would be the perfect opportunity to share some of our traditions with our Palestinian friends – and had a Christmas party. From turkey to personalized hats to strudel and Czech candles, we didn’t hold back. Opening our presents was hilarious, the most successful of which was undoubtably Shalom, the Christmas chick.
After lusting after another night beneath the stars, most of the group went for a night to the old abandoned village of Lifta, for fresh figs and a campfire, the scratches from which would cause all sorts of trouble in the upcoming trip to the saltiest place on earth.
On our last weekend we all took a trip to Jericho on this final weekend for some juicy dates and exploring the lowest place on the planet. After working up a sweat on a bike ride towards the Jordan border, and eating a huge all-you-can-eat buffet, we were all desperate to get into our swimmers for a hot salty float on the Dead Sea. It was in fact brilliant, and we got so engrossed in the therapeutic mud that we can expect to be free from skin ailments for a lifetime.
3rd Week in Bethlehem
Our final week in Bethlehem was marked by protests and subsequent ‘defense’ by Israeli defense soldiers directly outside Lajee community centre. The protests were triggered off by the death of 3 camp residents in Ramallah, who had been shot by undercover Israeli soldiers, which angered groups of teenage boys to throw stones and tyres etc. at the separation wall and its’ guards by Aida Camp.
Because the entrance to the Lajee centre lay between the entrance to the camp and the separation wall – by which the IDF soldiers stood, the children did not come for activities. Challengingly we saw many of the kids who we played with at the centre out on the street with their older siblings, and some throwing rocks themselves. On the first day of the protests two shots were fired by the IDF soldiers. We witnessed one rubber bullet hit a teenage boy in the leg and the other passed behind the civil police line, where it hit a seven year old boy in the head, causing significant orbital trauma. Witnessing this kind of needless violence, where the victim was somebody so innocent was a sickening experience.
Tear gas canisters were regularly shot at the area around the entrance to the camp during the week, and whilst we went every day to see if things had settled enough to gather children together – it was only on our last day that a group of them were present. For those of us who arrived a little late, it was a very moving moment to walk into the centre to see 10 or 20 kids and around 6 european students engrossed in decorating a huge floor collage, with the sound of gunfire and smell of tear gas in the not so distant background. Unfortunately, on this last day the soldiers were firing tear-gas canisters at such a close proximity to the building, that we needed to keep the kids in a further hour until it was safe enough for them to run out, hand in hand with us, to go back to their homes. The presence of the incessant violence around us that afternoon, had a markedly disturbing affect on the children. And watching one girl break down after spotting her brother being taken away by the police through a crack in the window was heart-breaking.
We took a trip to Hebron during our last few days, which was a fascinating place, as there is a Jewish settlement literally metres away from the Palestinian souk. It is a place with regular hostility, and the military presence was incessantly obvious; from the roads of empty houses now littered with Israeli flags, which the locals had been forced to evacuate a few years before, to the IDF brigades marching the streets, to the intense security checks upon entering the beautiful mosque. The local souk was bursting with beautiful food and souvenirs however, so we spent the last of shekels on some bargains.
The last official day of the trip was spent in Jerusalem where finally a few people managed to squeeze in Al Aqsa, and we had an excellent talk at the UN offices for Palestine. The certified facts and figures, given by a UN official about the current challenges of the settlements, military areas and checkpoints in both the West Bank and Gaza, was a great conclusion to the trip. Whilst our recent exposures had been moving awakening to the injustices experienced by the Palestinians, alone, the facts about the occupation also speak for themselves.
Our final goodbyes were all spread out, which was fortunate, as some of us would not have handled the emotion if we had to leave everyone at once. But we managed to have one final meal together, minus Max, which was memorably marked by the Palestinian’s acting talents whose Oscar-worthy performances crippled us all with laughter.
The ReCap trip was a fantastically interesting experience. At times it was the funniest trip we had ever had, at times the most frustrating and sad. But to have the opportunity to understand a bit, what it is like to live in the West Bank – through making such good friends with the genuinely inspirational students who live there, was a unique and valuable experience that all of us will doubtless take priceless lessons from and feel incredibly grateful to have been a part of.