An Adventure in Dheisheh Refugee Camp

January 13, 2011 by  


By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

The suffering of the people of Palestine disturbs the conscience of people throughout the world. There are many people and groups who heed the call to action and give themselves to this cause. 

One such person is Huda Bayaa of Orange County, California. Huda has agreed to an interview with The Muslim Observer and is eager to tell of her experiences.

Huda is a young graduate of the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) having majored in history. She is of Palestinian extraction and was born and raised in Southern California. She visited and worked with the residents of Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem from early June until early October of this past year.

The Dheisheh camp was established in 1949. It was established as a temporary refuge for some 3,400 Palestinians from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron who fled during the 1948 war.

Six decades of population growth has expanded into an area between 1 and 1.5 kilometers. According to a 2008 census, the current population is somewhat more than 13,000. Dheisheh is the 2nd largest camp in the West Bank after Balata.

Located near the UNRWA school in Dheisheh is the Karama Organization. Karama originally sought to provide free educational opportunities and services to the school’s women and children. Earlier this year Karama expanded its purview to include other camps in the vicinity of Bethlehem and Hebron.

The Future Vision Society for the Development of the Abilities (AREEN) is another organization located in the Dheisheh camp. It is a non-profit groups which aims to improve the future for children, particularly girls.

The  Ibdaa Cultural Center was created to establish a positive experience for children in Dheisheh.

Following are the experiences of Huda Bayaa.

TMO: First tell us something about yourself. What has prompted your interest in the Palestinian question?

Huda:  I am twenty-five years old. I was born and raised in southern California. I’m a graduate of UCSB with a degree in history. I’m also Palestinian-American. I have always had a passion for human rights and international affairs. That and my culture combined made it a passion of mine immediately. What struck me most is how much the situation has been contorted in the American and foreign media in general.

TMO: You mentioned the sponsoring group – I believe it was called “Inspire Dreams”. Could you tell us something about that group?

Huda:  Inspire Dreams is a fairly new organization made up of many over-achieving recent graduates of Georgetown University. They were interested in starting an organization that helped children in the Palestinian refugee camps now so that they could dream and pursue those dreams. Recently, they decided they would be interested in also helping Palestinian refugee children in college preparation. Each year they recruit volunteers to teach English, run workshops and youth summer camps, as well as help local Palestinian organizations in capacity building. Their web site is inspiredreamstoday.org

TMO:  How did you get in touch with this group (or how did they get in touch with you)?

Huda: I learned about their need for summer volunteers through a friend. I applied and was selected.

TMO:  Did they make the arrangements for your trip?

Huda: No, I made all my travel arrangements. The only thing they arrange is the living situation.

TMO:  Where did you stay while working in Dheisheh Refugee Camp?

Huda:  I stayed at a local nonprofit organization called The Phoenix Center which has volunteer housing.  This was the organization that I was assigned to work with for the summer.

TMO:  Did you have specific tasks while working in Dheisheh?

Huda:  I taught English classes, organized a workshop on building a future Palestinian state, planned and led summer camps, as well as helped the local organization in any way they needed.

TMO:  While working in Dheisheh did you network with specific groups such as teachers, farmers, union members, etc.?

Huda: I met tons of people from all sorts of sectors and backgrounds. Bethlehem is definitely a very lively and historic area so you meet all sorts of people, including internationals.

TMO:  Can you give us an example of what one of your days was like in Dheisheh?

Huda:  Generally, I would spend the early part of the day on English and workshop lesson plans and assisting the local organization in proposal writing, etc. The afternoon was usually classes, and in the evening we would meet up with friends from the camp and hang out either at the center or many times we were invited to peoples’ homes for dinner or coffee.

TMO:   Did you travel outside of Dheisheh to other places in the West Bank?

Huda:   I travelled to Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and many small villages.

TMO:  Did the residents of Dheisheh talk to you about their feelings?

Huda: I would always discuss what life was like with the people I met. Most people have become very disenchanted and tired. They feel they are fighting on two fronts. They struggle with Israeli oppression and the injustice their own government, the Palestinian Authority, imposes on them. 

TMO:  Were you impressed by the murals painted by the residents of Dheisheh? Can you describe them for us?

Huda: Everywhere you go in Dheisheh there are murals. Many of the murals are of young martyrs who have lost their lives because of the Israeli occupation. You also find tons of quotes about resistance and dreams. There are Palestinian flags everywhere. You can also find recreations of Banksy murals including one of a Palestinian girl searching an Israeli soldier. Also, there are tons of mentions of Palestinian political parties.

TMO: You mentioned teaching children about a future Palestinian state. Did you use a prepared text, your own ideas, or a combination of the two?

Huda: The way we developed our future Palestinian state was by looking at different forms of governments, discussing important and necessary segments of society, discussing human/civil rights movements to understand how as Palestinians they could use effective methods of resistance to reach a point when they would be capable of building a viable Palestinian state. At the end of all these exercises and lessons we created our model Palestinian constitution. The kids essentially founded their Palestinian state on the true principles of democracy. There was freedom of speech, religion, the right to education and play, among other things.

TMO: Can you tell us some of the people you met in Dheisheh who made a particular impression on you?

Huda:. I worked with some of the most respected men of Dheisheh who during the 70s, 80s, and 90s were some of the most effective, intellectual leaders of the resistance movement. I also met a man who had been imprisoned for 19 years without any charges who is seen as a local hero in the Bethlehem community. But most people I worked with would not be known here. I would like to say, though, that I worked with children that I believe will be successful, positive, and motivated members of Palestinian society in the future. We might just hear their names one day.

TMO: Do you plan on going back to Dheisheh Refugee Camp?

Huda: I definitely plan to go back when my time permits. I can’t imagine not seeing everyone and everything again after the powerful experience I’ve had. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and do more work there with an organization. At the very least, I will be back for a visit.

Thank you, Huda, on behalf of my newspaper and our readers for your interview. Thank you also for what you have done for the people of Palestine.

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