A FEELING LIKE HOME
This place, atop a roof surrounded by partial walls and ceiling of cinder blocks, tin, burlap and tarps, has a feeling like home. It's not the physical surroundings that feel familiar, but the strong sense of community that clearly lives here.
On a walking tour of the narrow, bending roads of Dheisheh Refugee Camp in occupied Palestine, I don't see a single unpaved inch other than the dusty roads underfoot here and there. Yet the folks at Laylac (Youth Action Community Center) are growing something organic in amongst the hard edges of cement walls and the harsh realities of barriers dividing people and land. Young people who bring their ideas here are encouraged, empowered, and supported to do projects that carry them out.
Laying around on this upper, open-air story of their community center are laundry lines, rainwater catchment buckets and tanks, a wide ring of benches and chairs made from recycled materials.
Political resolve is painted on the walls. Behind me on a concrete pillar is scrawled: "Freedom. We Shall Return." A hand symbol for peace follows.
The ability of these people to still call for peace in the face of so much unjust, oppressive violence perpetrated on Palestinians on individual and systemic levels is humbling.
Back to the street tour. Barely half a block from the community center, our young guide explains that his left wrist and arm are bound in a cast because of a soccer injury. It doesn't hold him back. In an off moment, he is wrestling with a friend, and when we are crowded around him, he delivers a piece of his mind, once holding up his green ID card to make a point: "I want to throw it away. It's worthless. It's just so much trouble."
Israeli soldiers demand to see these IDs at checkpoints Palestinians are forced at gunpoint to pass through to reach school, jobs, family members, and medical help. You can see the dilemma our host and millions of other Palestinians face. Without an ID on their person, a Palestinian is subject to immediate and indefinite administrative detention by the Israeli state. Yet with the card, Palestinians are subjected to unjust racial profiling and inhumane treatment. Which is worse?
On a nearby wall is an artistic rendering of UN resolution 194, that affirms the right of Palestinians such as him and his family to "return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors..." This is important. Many Palestinians see coexistence with all religions in one state as the best - in fact the only - solution.
On the larger commercial street to our right, a burst of horn honking drowns out our guide for a moment. He pauses, then explains that the noisy outburst is celebrating "either a wedding or someone getting out of prison." Both causes for celebration, clearly. Sixty percent of Palestinians have been imprisoned, locals say.
Further up the hill, in a maze of bending residential alleys barely wide enough to squeeze a car, let alone a delegation of 28 people hugging the walls while a car winds through, our guide tells us two stories that stick with me.
The refugee camp has a vertical character, with many people stacked on top of each other in close quarters. Situated on nearly every rooftop is a laundry line and at least one large black rainwater catchment vessel and water storage basin.
When Israeli military forces raid the refugee camp, routinely in the middle of the night or early morning, hauling people out of bed and off to prison for asserting their internationally recognized rights, Israeli soldiers like to shoot holes in these rooftop water storage tanks. When this happens, people on the floors below wake to water dripping down on them. If they wake in time, they rush to fill household containers and do their dishes while they can.
The tanks, once damaged are difficult to repair and even more difficult to replace. And life without this precious water supply, once drained, is extra challenging. "Our people are a very clean people, so when we can't wash, it's hard," our host says. "Fortunately, people here (with intact water tanks) have always helped each other when this happens."
Glance around these streets and it's immediately obvious that there's truth to his statement about cleanliness. In the midst of so much repression, poverty and political and physical discrimination, these people go to great lengths, and manage their garbage better than most. When you are left with so little, what choice but to get organized and help each other?
We continue on our walk as dusk wraps around our heads, drapes over our shoulders, and sinks down to our feet with bougainvillea and grape vines slinking up structures and spilling out overhead.
Again we halt, this time to talk about the brave history of writing and art on walls all around us. During one of the Palestinian uprisings against displacement and genocide perpetrated by Israel, the state outlawed books and other written materials in refugee camps. Refugees in Dheisheh took to leaving messages and exchanging ideas on walls, until that was also declared illegal. When Israel sought to punish wall artists and writers, elders in the camp conferred, and decided to cover every wall in the camp with words and images. Strength in numbers exemplified. They were betting that Israel wouldn't be able or willing to haul every last refugee in the camp to jail. And the elders were right.
The walls here are still covered with resistance art at every turn, and this story gives me new respect and deeper appreciation for its meaning and its role in local culture. The most heartbreaking story we hear of this place is still fresh and raw for residents of Dheisheh. A Palestinian youth named Raed As-Salih contributed his idea to create a public library by fastening bookshelves to walls in the street and furnishing them with books.
For no good reason, Israeli soldiers came for Raed in a nighttime raid on the camp earlier this year. As he ran from them, Israeli soldiers shot him. Six bullets entered his back, hitting his liver and kidneys. While Raed laid there, with family and friends witnessing from a distance, unable to go to him or be with him for fear of also being shot, an ambulance came. It delivered an Israeli soldier hit in the knee by some of the bullets immediately to a medical facility, but left Raed behind to bleed. Half a day later, soldiers transported him to an Israeli hospital off limits to his community. He died in intensive care, but Israel refused to release his body until it had decayed beyond recognition, 21 days later. When Raed's body finally came home, many vital organs were missing, leading to the belief that they had been harvested without consent to supply a growing black market for transplants. Cases like Raed's are routine, our hosts report. Raed is gone and the pain of losing him in such a horrific way is palpable, but his peers assure that they will redouble efforts to create his street library, and in that way he will live on.
Before bedding down here in this community center, multiple people warn us to keep the lights off and stay away from the windows if Israeli soldiers pay a visit in the night.
Almost ready to leave the rooftop, I move a bucket I had shifted over to make room for an activity. I place it back in its original resting spot to catch drips from the tarp overhead.
What can we really do, I ask myself. The answer is simple: every drop of resistance to this unjust regime counts.
And just as at home, the drops add up to make a reservoir we'll need to get through this together.
A version of this reflection appears on Erica’s blog.