Thursday April 7 : Al-Arroub Refugee Camp

Thursday 8 March 2012
popularity : 93%

On the other side of Road 60

First time we wake up and have breakfast in Al-Arroub, the refugee camp where we are staying until next Thursday. Today, we won’t be able to meet the young Palestinians who have joined us in our encounter and exchange project before late in the afternoon as they are all at school. So, on Martine and Sandra’s advice, we use the time we have to explore the surroundings on our own and decide to cross Road 60 and walk towards the agricultural college they talked bout yesterday. The weather is really fine today, the air pleasantly mild. We breathe in deeply: at last some true “holiday-weather”!...

On the path we are following, three rather elderly men are sitting having a rest and a glass of tea in the shade of a fig tree. We greet them and they greet us back, obviously astonished to see us there – who are we? What can young Europeans be doing there?

We could have gone on walking but Anne-Claire, who has a strong communicative streak and knows a few words in Arabic, has stopped in front of them. She looks as if she was starting a conversation so we come closer to them too. They immediately offer some tea but we turn it down politely saying that we would like first to go to the school. But why not have one together when we come back? Thank you... They confirm that we are on the right way: we just need to go straight ahead then turn to the left. Anne-Claire asks them what they are doing there, if they live there. No, they don’t, but they work on the farm we see behind them. Do we want to have a look round? Of course we do.

They stand up and lead us through wild grass and rubble… OK… It is easy to understand why they don’t (nor anybody else) live there: the farm is in ruins, the roofs have collapsed… The Israeli army was there. In a pen, there are about ten long-eared goats and, next to them, some poultry and some sheep. In what used to be a barn, there is an old rusty tractor, the only one they still have to work on the fields. A fourth man has joined our little group now. He speaks some English and tells us about the situation and their living conditions under the occupation of the Israelis… What strikes us each time we start speaking with Palestinian people is the gentleness with which they express themselves, even though they have been robbed of almost everything they had. We tell these men why we have come to Palestine: we want to see and hear what people here have to say, then go back home and testify. This fills them with wonder. They look very touched. Anne-Claire asks if they would agree to participate in a future interview. The question sparks off a real enthusiasm on their part: it is not so common that people coming from Route 60 show concern and interest for them!

While Anne-Claire, Caroline, Marie-Gaëlle and Laurie go on chatting for a while, Margot, Paul, Sébastien and Tanguy follow one of the farm workers who has told them that they had a museum. In their wake: Natalia, who is too happy to shade herself from the sun. On the way, their guide tells them that Greece has sponsored the museum as well as many other buildings in the West Bank. “You’ll see”, he tells them proudly, ”we have a great collection of the insects of the area”.

At the entrance, the man in charge of the little museum welcomes the five visitors and immediately offers to explain what they can see. He is really nice and breaks his back in the little English he knows to show them around the collection. The place isn’t so much a museum as one single room in which sets of insects are piled up while only the rare and most precious specimens are exhibited in the few show cases. Margot, who knows a bit about the subject, is filled with wonder when she sees how rich and varied the collection is, and the many sorts of beetles, butterflies and ants that are gathered there.

“The insects all come from the area or have been exchanged with other international museums”, the guide tells them. Then he shows them different coloured lamp-traps which they have developped here to catch insects. “Each sort of insect is attracted to a specific colour”, he explains before taking everybody to a little hall where they keep different pesticides and insecticides the students of the nearby school use. All of them are natural products, invented and developed here, the guide says. Indeed, the Palestinians are forbidden to use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It is impossible for them to buy any as they can’t take them through the checkpoints: the Israelis are convinced that the only way they will use them is in the making of bombs... So the Palestinians ’ resourcefulness and creativity are their main tools. This is to the benefit of our planet. Tanguy, who is “green” up to his fingertips is walking on air: hey! this is all really ecological!

The visit is over. Everybody is delighted (except for Natalia who hates insects with a passion.) Again, what impresses the little Belgians who are taking their first steps in the occupied territories is the Palestinian people’s gentleness, the huge respect they feel and show for their visitors. We are nobody important however, only students and their two (former) teachers... How far this is from the picture that is still generally promoted in the Western countries: “the Palestinians, the Arabs are all (potential) terrorists...”

Our walk leads us now to the agricultural school. As we get closer, we can hear laughters and voices coming from the playground. It must be morning break but we don’t feel like going and meeting students now. Yet, the little snatches of conversation Caroline manages to understand reveal that they have seen us and that we are the centre of their attention, or of their curiosity, just like monkeys in a zoo, which is a sign that, as Tanguy and Sandra told us, internationals are rather unusual in these parts.

We go past a barn filled with hay then stop in front of stables where we watch young girls wearing rubber boots and a scarf on the head work, sweeping and cleaning the ground with a hosepipe. We nod at them, they answer with a smile then wave towards us to come over. At that moment, a man comes out of the building. He must be their teacher. He tells us we are welcome and lets the girls (who are all excited to have visitors) take us to the baby calves. These young animals are so cute!... The girls answer our questions and tell us what their work consists in. We chat in a mixture of English and Arabic thanks to Caroline, who hasn’t forgotten her mother tongue completely. That is when we realise that, though they are written in two different languages, their chemistry schoolbook is exactly the same as ours! And they tell us their Chemistry teacher is a woman! To think that some people still think the Arabs all live in one-horse towns and that their women are only allowed to keep their mouth shut…

In the meantime Anne-Claire, Tanguy and the Palestinian teacher have arranged for us to come back and meet students in a few day. [1] We say goodbye and leave the schoolground but a group of girl-students soon catches up ith us. They are our age, all of them wear a uniform (dark-blue trousers, blue and white vichy petticoats) and scarves on their hair. They are quite forward and decide to take us on a tour round “their garden”: a plant, vegetable, flower and tree nursery surrounded by lawns decorated with trees and flowers. It is nice, neat and unexpected. They are very proud to show us the result of their work. We end up taking pictures of the whole group and after we have entwined our names on a tree stump that serves as a table, we walk back towards Road 60. In front of the farm, there is nobody left. The men are back at work in the fields. We can spot them at a distance so we call and wave goodbye. They wave back cheerfully. We are now surrounded by students all going back home for the afternoon. Some are waiting for the bus along Road 60, which we cross before we enter Al-Arroub camp whose streets are crowded with children too: school is over for everybody until tomorrow.

We have lunch at our flat, do the washing up quickly before we go down to the EJE Centre where we are meeting Samaher. We are going to decide together on the type of activities we will organise for the children for next Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. She tells us we will have two different groups, one of twenty children, the other of thirty. She says it would be great if we could think of physical activities too, not only painting or DIY work: the kids need to run and jump, most of them can’t stand still for long. She also suggests we concluded the activities by showing the short films the kids made during previous workshops. She leads us then to one of the little (class)rooms where a whole bunch of puppets are hanging : the mothers of the children attending the centre have made them and have created and sewn their little costumes. The children use the puppets to act out the little stories they invent together in front of other groups of children. The activity leaders of the centre use them too in activities that aim at increasing the mothers’ awareness to the issues of hygien, non-violent communication, respect of the others and of the environment, etc.

Visit of the camp with "our" young Palestinians

Knock-knock on the door of the classroom: a first teenager comes in, then a second and a third one… They are “our” young Palestinians, in all: eight boys and four girls. Nobody is missing on the picture… They greet us shyly as they come in the one after the others and cram into the small room. Samaher wisely suggests we all went into the main room before we died of suffocation! Here we are, standing or sitting on the children’s small wooden chairs, still forming two separate groups and looking at each other discreetely, smiling, nodding or waving, our shoulders a bit hunched, feeling both curious and intimidated. Then, one of the boys comes out of the wood. His name is Hashem, a tall, muscular and really handsome boy who obviously feels more comfortable in public than all his friends put together. He takes things in hand and asks in English if one of us feels like suggesting a nice-breaking activity. Anne-Claire makes the two groups split as she asks everybody to form a circle and there we go!... On a given rhythm (that of hands clapped once than our thumbs pointing behind our shoulders, the one after the other), we play at "Pierre - Paul", which is a way to give one’s name and try to remember each other’s names. Then Hashem finds a ball and explains that the one who gets it must give their name again and tell about something they like (doing) before throwing the ball to somebody else. Easy, except that the European and Arab names are a real challenge for the other group! But everyone is slowly getting their bearings in the middle of fits of laughters and words of encouragement when memory fails someone or when their pronunciation is really too funny. We feel already much less in awe of each other: laughing together helps greatly!

After a while, the young Palestinians decide to take us all for a discovery tour round the camp. Anne-Claire slips away to go and get to know Sarah, Tareq’s wife, better and chat with them in their new “home” [2]. Sarah would like her to go and sit and the “beautiful room”, the living-room that is reserved for the guests and visitors (traditional organisation of the eastern houses!), but Anne-Claire follows her from the kitchen to the bedroom where the baby is sleeping and back again.

On their side, while they are walking around the camp, Tanguy and all the Belgian and Palestinian Young people have a go at a first chat together using theirs hands as much as bits of French, Arabic and English. Hashem and his friends show them the first houses of Al-Arrouib, which were built in 1948. A bit further, the houses there are more recent. And that the Boys’ school, and over there, the Girls’s school, both painted in blue and white, UNRWA’s colours.

Very quickly, the Belgians notice that there is a clear separation between the Palestinian boys and girls who keep a distance from one another as they walk. This is a bit difficult to accept for them as they have grown up in a co- educational environment. But, they think to themselvesthat this probably protects the girls from people spreading gossips: Al-Arroub is like a village, one of the girls tells them, and everybody knows everything about everything and speaks well or evil of their neighbours. This is why the girls stay together. They are really discreete under their colourful scarves. They chat in Arabic with Caroline. Marie-Gaëlle and Margot try to follow, begging here and there for bits of translation, but it is getting harder and harder for Caroline to jump from one language into the other. As for the boys, they are really talkative especially Hashem who speaks an excellent English.

On the programme of the tour: the stadium (still under construction), the golden cupola of the mosque, the Roman pool. It used to be a water tank but then, the boys tell us plainly, there were some “troubles” with the Israeli authorities [3]. Consequently, it has turned into this revolting green soup in which a lot of rubbish now drifts.

We leave the camp to its countryside: fields, orchards (we taste our first green almonds - Natalia is not really convinced, though they taste deliciously tart and fresh) and lines of grapevines, little walls in local stone, hills rising in terraces... How beautiful this nature is!... Yet, in the middle of this bucolic romanticism, we spot buildings perched on the top of the hills and dominating the landscape: a real eyesore. Hashem tells us that these are Israeli settlements, all of them illegal, as he reminds us of it…. Over there the Muslim cemetery.

We also go past a well: it is all ready but the israeli authorities have forbidden the Palestinians to use it. As we ask them why, the boys tell us that, as it was the case in other places, these water souces will most probably be requisitioned one day or another for the settlements that surround the camp... [4]

We are now in what looks like the “ suburbs” of the camp. Here, number of luxurious houses are under construction. As we express our surprise at it, seeing that poverty is clearly reigning inside the camp, Hashem tells us that some refugees who have a well-paid job or some family abroad could afford buying a ground on which to build their own house. In the past, refugees thought that if they built a house outside the camp, they would lose their statute as refugees and consequently their right to return to their original village and house one day. This would also have been betraying all the people who have been forced to live in the camps since 1948 or 1967... But it seems legal advisors have dispelled doubts, so a certain number of inhabitants of the camp (no doubt the richest), once they were reassured that they would not lose their right to return, have recently bought lands from the local peasants to have their own house built.

At a distance, we make out a big white building on the top of one of the hills. What is it: a temple, a warehouse, a military base? Nothing of the sort. Our young guides tell us that it is an Israeli shopping centre situated just next to the settlements of the Gush Etzion Block. The height of cynicism: this "mall" offers low-price products, affordable to Palestinians, with the result that even the inhabitants of Al-Arroub camp do their shopping there, incurring their fellowcountry people’s wrath, which we can understand. Indeed, resisting occupation is also “buying Palestinian" as much as possible.

We walk down the hill, go through the checkpoint that is situated just next to Hashem’s house and enter the camp again. We notice that there are many water tanks on the roofs. Palestinians stock the rain-water in them, in case the Israelis shut off the water, which is not so uncommon. Plic, ploc, plic, ploc… But water is pourring from some of these tanks?!? Yes, the boys explain: often, the soldiers fired at them, without any reason, for the fun of it or because they feel bored at the checkpoint where there is most of the time absolutely nothing to do. For the fun of it?... Yes. Let’s not forget that these militaries are about our age, i.e. no more than just fresh out of adolescence and that their heads were filled with descriptions of all the Palestinians being terroristes… Dangerous cocktail. [5]

The walk is finished, everybody goes back home for the evening meal. Some of us go and buy what we need to cook dinner. Tonight, all “our” young Palestinians are coming to spend the evening with us. Well not all of them actually: we won’t see the four Palestinian girls anymore, neither tonight, nor on thje following days. They are not allowed to go out at night, even if it is to join us and they generally avoid activities with boys. [6]

Our flat is now full to bursting. Not only "our" Palestinians are present but also other inhabitants of the camp (and even further) who have heard about us (tam-tam !). They have postponed going back home after their workday and have sometimes come a long way to meet us. This both touches and unsettles us: we don’t think we are worth the trip… Apparently we are: it is so uncommon to have internationals come and stay with them in the camp !... And all this happy crowd chat together and makes quite a noise! We feel a bit lost in the midst of their exuberance. Anne-Claire, as the expert teacher she is, tries to control the troups and gives out the speaking time so that everybody can speak and hear what the others say. Tanguy tries to get the atmosphere on his recorder.


Then, the boys throw themselves with all their enery into the musical game Anne-Claire has launched: the Belgian group starts singing a song, stops on a word, a syllable or sound and the Palestinian group must take over starting from this last sound, using it as the first sound of their own song,. Then, in the same way, they stop on a sound/word/syllable, and the Belgians react… This until we say goodbye and already look forward to seeing each other again tomorrow.

See pictures of Al-Arroub Camp

Read on about the trip

[2In 2009, Tareq told Taayoush that he had to move out and didn’t know where he would go and live ith his little family

[3the true nature of which we’ll discover little by little all along our stay in Palestine

[4No access to the well (locked with a key!), ban on using the Roman pool as a water tank. We can’t catch the full extent of the problem at this stage of our trip, but we will soon understand that depriving the Palestinian population of water is one of the weapons Israel uses against them...

[5Read the testimonies of former soldiers collected by the Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence.

[6See more photos of Al-Arroub.