Traveling between Israel and Palestine might be one of the most difficult processes ever! It is deceptive at first, since it is no problem to walk into the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, and buy a ticket for a bus to Jerusalem for 20NIS (about $6), that run about every 20 mins. I assumed that traveling the hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be longest part of my transit to Bethlehem which lies a few minutes drive outside the gates of the Old City. This assumption is false.
From the Jerusalem Central Bus Station you must take another Israeli bus to the Palestinian/Israeli - East/West "border." I put border in quotations because, unlike most borders in the region, there is no physical separation between the two except, perhaps, on some maps.
From West Jerusalem, where the bus drops you off, you must cross the street to East Jerusalem and board a Palestinian bus that takes you....not TO Betlehem, but to the checkpoint. At the check point you have to disembark from the bus, walk through several narrow barred off hallways, show your I.D. to a guard who seems disinterested by any U.S. Passport, and finally you are in Bethlehem.
From the other side of the checkpoint I had to take a cab to get to a (apparently there are multiple) Cultural Center in Deheishe Refugee Camp. All in all the trip took me 5 and a half hours - more than a bus ride from D.C. to New York, and nearly the time it takes to fly from the East Coast to the West. However, the distance between Tel Aviv to Bethlehem is only about 40 miles! The bureaucracy makes everything more complicated.
Before arriving in Deheishe, I had corresponded with a contact who had organized my volunteering there. So, after 5 and a half hours of traveling, and finally arrivign at the Community Center, I was a bit dismayed to discover they had no idea who I was, or even who my contact was either! I was quite convinced that I would have to immediately turn around and head back to Tel Aviv, or at least I would end up back in Jerusalem with nothing to do, for the foreseeable future.
Things started looking better when Aysar, a sort of volunteer coordinator showed up. While trying to, at least, find me a place to sleep for the night, we walked over to the other cultural center. I am really lucky that he is a volunteer at both centers because once we arrived at the other place, I immediately began recognizing faces from when I came here with Aziz and our group last year. At this Cultural Center they still weren't expecting me, but at least they knew who my contact was!
My awkward start at Deheishe was anything but indicative of the couple of days I ended up spending there. The first night I spent with Morad (a young volunteer who, last year, gave my group a tour of the camp - his father, Ngegy runs the center), and his family at a street party that rivals any one I've ever seen in the U.S. The whole camp was celebrating, and all of Palestine too. The High School seniors had just gotten their results back from their end of the year exams. These exams rival our SAT's and ACT's, only they are used to determine whether a student will receive a high school diploma or not. Only about half of the students who take the exam will succeed. Morad's family had particular reason to celebrate since, not only had Morad's younger brother passed the exams, but he had also been accepted into Brown University on a full scholarship!
Fireworks were going off until midnight, disco lights were set up in the middle of the street, foam was being sprayed all over everyone, music was blasting at full volume and people were dancing, dancing, dancing. According to my friend in Jerusalem, the festivities were so loud it was audible across the wall!
Though considerably less conservative than Cairo, Bethlehem still keeps up with some tradition, including separating women and men during parties like that. I was nervous at first because I didn't know any of the girls yet, and while this may come as a surprise to most people who know me, I am painfully shy when in a new environment. It was of little concern to the women though. Grandmas were grabbing me and leading me out to the dance floor, their hips gyrating to the music in a way that might make Shakira blush! Which I think is ultimately why they separate. The girls just wanna have fun and they don't need the guys around to do so. Not to mention that the minority of women who do cover get to shed their veils and hijab's, let down their hair, and shake what their grandma's gave them!
After the party Ngegy (Morad's father and the one in charge of the Phoenix Cultural Center) drove me back to the center where I would sleep. He led me to a room full of nine bunks that I shared the first night with three other french visitors, but after had all to myself.
I haven't had such pleasant accomdations on all my trip as I had there. The next morning before the kids came I went uptairs to snack on the hummus and pita that I'd carried with me from Tel Aviv. It cost me 22 ILS (about $6.50) and I was stretching it out into a third meal. Anticipating my miniscule breakfast (and if you know me and my eating habits at all) you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I discovered the counters of the dining hall lined with trays of hummus, pita, yogurt, orange jam, nutella, cereal, nescafe, mint tea, cheese, and meat. I was in heaven.
But really, I think Deheishe is making me fat! They prepare amazing feasts lunch at the center as well; chicken and rice, fish, arabic salad! And don't get me started on the falafel! This is not necessarily a good thing for me considering I'm supposed to be snorkeling in the Red Sea in the upcoming week.
Let me stop with the food tangent though, because that is not why I came to Deheishe. My afternoons here have been spent volunteering at a summer camp for the kids. I spend a couple of hours each day watching the kids learn karate, make art, and teach each other new games. The kids here are really amazing; so resilient and full of life that you would never guess they come from a refugee camp. Their smiles are so bright and when they meet new people they are so trusting and full of love. I was truly blessed with the opportunity to learn from them these past few days.
The kids are really an indication of what the population of Deheishe is like. Physically they are a caged people, living in the confines of a refugee camp that has slowly traded it's walls of canvas tent for concrete homes. The streets are so narrow that two cars can barely scrape by each other, and are not only used as roads for vehicles, but as playgrounds for the children into all hours of the night.
Deheishe is subject to nightly raids by Israeli soldiers, forcing it's population to carry identification papers on them at all times. An unimaginable 80% of the male population in Deheishe will serve at least one year in an Israeli prison, and most will never know why. I know this is not an exageration after walking through the streets with Aysar and stopping every five minutes to talk to a young man about how he's adjusting since being let out of prison, or meeting mother's who don't even flinch when they mention a son is BACK behind bars.
Despite all of what they live with, I have never in my life met more genuine, hospitable, and friendly people as here. Their bodies and minds may be repressed by occupation, but their souls are free. They live each day truly knowing it could be their last. They form deep friendship and family bonds knowing one day they might lose eachother. They talk openly and candidly knowing they must speak their mind or else they might never get the chance to. Despite the harsh conditions they live, most would never trade being Palestinian for any other nationality in the world. Despite the harsh conditions, they have yet to give up on the goodness of humanity. And most importantly, and perhaps because of the harsh conditions in which they live, they dream of futures bigger and brighter than anything I can even fathom.
Deheishe really left a lasting impression on my mind and in my heart. I look forward to returning in the near future to volunteer. Though really I have little to teach but so much to learn from them.