Finding hope in refugee camps

It’s difficult not to feel depressed during this trip.  Visiting two refugee camps certainly helped to paint a bleak picture of the people living in occupied Palestine.  However, our visit showed us how compassionate, and resilient people can be.

DSC_0051Jenin and New Askar are both refugee camps, with similar stories. They are called camps, however today you can see cinder block buildings instead of tents. People where first forced to move to these places in 1948 during the Nakba. Originally tents where provided, and the people where told they would live here for a few weeks or a month and then could return to their homes. As time wore on they began building houses. Typically the homes where built close together with narrow streets because there was no room to expand outward.

During the second Intifada tanks drove through the village destroyed many of the houses to create a wider path in Jenin.  There is now a large street with shops running through Jenin were homes once stood. The people of the village built a large horse created out of rubble from when the homes where destroyed.
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In New Askar we heard many different stories about the challenges of everyday life. We saw a dumpster overflowing with garbage because services have stopped.  We heard stories about soldiers shooting holes into water tanks.  We also learned that if a prisoner dies while in prison they will keep the body until the term is completed, and then send it back to the family.

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When you ask a resident in either town, where they are from they will tell you their family home village or city.

In Jenin we visited the Freedom Theater
They provide an outlet for youth to express themselves and to help cope with traumatic events that can occur on a regular basis.
Classes started in 2008 with young people who feel they are in the outside fringes of society and has since continued to grow. They offer classes in multimedia, film, and photography. The theater publishes a youth magazine and now has a ensemble that travels the world.
One project they are working on is a playback theater. Audience members share a story about their lives, and the actors improvise it. These stories have been collected and turned into plays.

In New Askar we stopped at the Keffiyah center This place was built as a response to the lack of schools and services available for youth. The center offers a summer camp with sports, languages, music, dance, theatre and Gymnastics amongst many others. They also have a youth leadership program, and teach culture and history.  Classes are taught by both local and international volunteers. They vary based on whatever knowledge the teachers bring.



Grassroots Al Quds in Jerusalem

hands that buildGrassroots Al Quds is a platform for Palestinian organizations to work together.  Today the group consists of 80 community organizations in 40 Palestinian communities.  It allows Palestinian people to discuss what is going on in their lives and to decide what actions to take.  It provides individuals a place to organize campaigns, and share resources.

One of the projects the group is currently working on in collaboration with Palestinian Vision Association is “Say it like a Palestinian”.  The goal is to bring awareness to how places, people and signs are given certain terms.  One way to accomplish this was to create a map showing the original Arab names for places in and around Jerusalem.

They also offer political tours around the city.  Our tour guide Micah Kurz is a Jewish Israeli citizen.  When asked why he is interested in working with the organization, or if he has considered leaving Israel, he explained that he considers himself a global citizen and that with privilege comes responsibility.DSC_0223

During the tour we visited a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem.  We drove past a building that had been a police station, but was purchased by Irving Moskowitz.  The building is now a home for Israeli Settlers.  It is surrounded by fencing, barbed wire, and hired security.  Segregated buses come into the neighborhood for the people living in the area.  Services such as garbage collectors come to the Israeli building, but pass by Palestinian homes.  Crime is on the rise in the neighborhood because there is no longer any police protection.

Wall is visible in the distance.
Wall is visible in the distance on left side of the image.

Palestinian neighborhoods around Jerusalem typically do not have enough classrooms.  The classrooms are usually simple rooms, with few if any resources such as labs.  Children must go to school until 9th grade, but there is no place to build new schools.  These neighborhoods have a 50% dropout rate.  Families do try to push their children into university, however there are very few options for Palestinian students.  There are two schools just within Jerusalem one is Mt. Scopus University and the other is Al Quds.  The third option is to go abroad to a school such as Bethlehem University.  However, because they will need to leave for more than 3 years, students will lose their Jerusalem residency, and be unable to return.

Grassroots Jerusalem is working to make more people away of the uses in the area, and showing people that it is a global issue.  Israel has become an exporter of security.  Educating police forces around the world.  The French company Veolia runs the segregated bus services around Jerusalem.  Israel also has the largest drone market.  Micah emphasized how important it is for people to become aware of the issues happening in Israel/Palestine,

“Not just because we share racist values but because we share the same racist police policies and practices.  It is not a coincidence that if you are a young Palestinian man in Israel or a young black man in Ferguson you will be treated with the same tactics, and the same rubber bullets and the same tear gas.  This is an issue we need to collaborate on.  We really need the world to understand what is going on with the occupation” – Micah Kurz

DSC_0217– Stephanie

Lod (Lydd), art as activism, and a pride parade

DSC_0001This morning we drove to the town of Lod, which is near Tel Aviv, and about a one hour bus ride from Jerusalem.  The town consists of three neighborhoods, the first is Jewish settlements.  The second neighborhood is mixed, however primarily low income families live in this area.  Jewish residents usually cannot afford to leave.  The third neighborhood is Israeli-Palestinians.  Our guide Tamer Nafer is an Israeli citizen born in Lod.  Before the war of 1948 Lod had a population of about 98% Palestinians.  Today the population has dwindled to about 25% Palestinians and 75% Jewish.  Approximately 2-5% of the original families from Lod still live in the town.

To reach the Palestinian neighborhood we had to cross over a several rows of busy railroad tracks.  Tamer pointed out that the side of the tracks closest to the Jewish neighborhood has a wall to protect the people living near by, but there is no wall on the other side.  Today there is gate and booth with guards at the place to cross, as well as a bridge, but they have only existed for 8 years.  Before that residents would have to drive or run across as quickly as possible.

DSC_0008Once we crossed the tracks it was easy to see the stark differences between the neighborhoods.  We stopped near a playground with a shade.  There where very few people around.  Most people seemed to have cars, and drove by.  The playground was abandoned, and missing swings.  Most of the houses where in poor condition, and had high walls.  Some even had barbed wire and cameras.  A few of the houses and walls where well kept, and even had green lawns.  Tamer explained that the area has huge drug problems.  People are unable to get permits to add on to their homes.  About 60% of the homes have demolition warrants.  300 homes have already been demolished.  The police for the town spend most of their time harassing children, and do not go after drug criminals.  Education is poor in the area, and many families will choose to send their children to private schools run by christian organizations.

On a positive note Tamer spoke about using art as a means of social activism, and to bring about change.  Tamer is a hip hop artist, and one of the first to rap in Arabic.  His group is called DAM which stands for Dabke on the Moon. His song Born Here helped to bring awareness of the problems in Lod.  It brought the town to mainstream channels, which led to the construction of the crossing gate, and bridge by the train tracks.  Unfortunately the song did not bring an end to home demolitions.

This evening our group was considering joining a pride parade in Jerusalem.  In the end we arrived back to the city late, and where unable to go.  Soon after dinner we learned that six people attending the parade where stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox-Jew.  Fortunately we are all safe.

We were also informed that there will be protests tomorrow in the old city of Jerusalem near the Temple Mount.  However, none of us will be going to the protest.  Some people from our group will visit the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.






Day trip to Bethlehem


This morning we took the bus to the city of Bethlehem, which is Zone A section of the West Bank. According to the Oslo II Accord Zone A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Zone B is under joint Israeli- Palestinian control. Finally, Zone C is under complete Israeli control. To enter Bethlehem we had to through a military controlled gate and watchtower. The city is surrounded by a massive grey wall, and barbed wire.

DSC_0047Our first stop was at Badil, a human rights group seeking to protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees, and displaced people.  The amount of information provided in the PowerPoint presentation was overwhelming.  One of the issues that stood out for me in particular was the policy of silent transfer created by Israel.  This is accomplished by discriminatory zoning and planning, segregation and institutionalized discrimination, and denial of natural resources, and access to services.  As an example a farmer who has a farm outside the walls of Bethlehem must exit through the checkpoint, which requires a permit, to get to their land.  Once the farmer reaches his land, he has no access to water, and is unable to irrigate the farm.  This same farmer is also unable to teach his children the family trade, and they must find other ways of living.  Soon the family will loose their right to the land because they are unable to farm on it.  Further, Israel issues 1%-4% of the building permits requested the Palestinians.  If an individual adds to, or makes improvements to their home without a permit, they will be evicted and the house will be demolished.  These are just a few examples on how the state of Israel makes everyday life difficult for individuals living in the West Bank.


 While in Bethlehem we also met with some local representatives.  They spoke about their perspectives of life in occupied Bethlehem.  They spoke about houses being demolished, and a strong desire for elections and representation. They emphasized how that they do not hate the Jews, but they are against the occupation, and feel as though the Palestinians are being punished for crimes that happened abroad.

“We love you, your foreign policy needs to be adjusted” – Wi’Am.

Before leaving the city we met with Nora Kort a Community Development Consultant with Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian movement.  She spoke to us about the importance of respecting other religions and differences.  She explained that we should not use the holy books to justify political actions.

“If you do the will of God you are chosen” – Nora Kort

Nora also talked about Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  She described it as a tool of resistance that is attempting to take away extremism.  It is a nonviolent and creative method that is something we can do as individuals.  Palestine is completely dependent on Israel, and BDS attempts to bring back awareness.

Lastly, we returned to Jerusalem and met with Sahar Vardi, an Israeli Refusnik.  She spoke a little about her experience when she refused to join the military, and gave a presentation on the militarization of Israel.  Sahar explained that everything surrounding Israelis is completely militarized from a very young age.  Off duty soldiers can be seen with guns in shops, and on the streets.  Military images are included in school worksheets.  Soldiers educate other soldiers as well as civilians, usually in underprivileged schools.  Soldiers are invited to schools to talk about leadership as well.  Students get a week of military training in the 11th grade.  Youth are taught that if they do not join the military the Jewish people will be persecuted.  By the time individuals reach the age to join the army they can find no reason not to.  However, there are young people that do refuse.  One group called New Profile asks young people, do you want to serve, and why?  It is a feminist movement for the demilitarization of Israel Society.  They offer support to individuals who are conscientious objectors.

DSC_0104Today was packed with a lot of information, and experiences that I have not completely processed.  I think the message overall is Palestinians and Israelis are human beings and should be treated as such.  Both groups are victims of the military forces.  International pressure is important to help bring about change.


First impressions

The journey to Israel/Palestine had its challenging moments, but we made it! I’m certain everyone in the group was feeling exhausted by the time we arrived at the Tel Aviv airport. On the bus ride to Jerusalem, the terrain was rocky and hilly with small shrubs and trees. Our tour guide Said pointed out that many of the trees are not indigenous to the region, except for Oak trees, and possibly Cyprus. The many pine trees, and palm trees had been planted to hide destroyed Palestinian villages.
The highway we traveled on was built to allow drivers to avoid areas where Palestinian people live. There are other roadways through tunnels that avoid the bypass. Some of the roadways are cutoff, and dead end at the bypass. We learned that Palestinians are only able to use certain sections of the bypass for limited number hours. However, they must go through a checkpoint and cars are detained for several hours, making using the bypass impractical. We also spotted a soldier on a ridge, and a surveillance balloon watching the highway. Said pointed out the villages with black water towers on the roof. He explained to us that the Israel government will cut off the water supply without notice, and the black water towers serve as a backup.

It seemed to me that the shadow of Israel was even more evident within the wall of the old city of Jerusalem. On the surface the old city is vibrant, and beautiful. There are vendors selling spices, clothing, and freshly pressed juice. When looking viewing it through the lens of a tourist it is an amazing place to visit. However, if you take a moment to scratch beneath the surface it quickly becomes clear that people living in the city are not truly in harmony. There are cameras on every street, and barbed wires and fences separating different sections. Israeli parents hire security guards to escort their children. More and more settler only homes are appearing. We passed a Mosque, which will soon have a settler home next to it. Street names have been changed from their original Palestinian name.
To me the old city was like a trip through Disneyland. Many areas where sanitized of their history, and visitors only saw what people in power wanted them to see.

-Stephanie Langer

No turning back

Today we are leaving for Washington D.C., to attend the orientation. We will meet the other people joining us on this trip, and of course our guides.

Right now I’m all packed, I’ve said my goodbyes, and I’m sitting in my comfortable home, surrounded by everything that is familiar. As that moment when we leave draws nearer, I am feeling more and more nervous about the entire thing. Did I pack everything I need? Am I bringing too much with me?

Whenever someone asks me if I’m nervous or scared about the trip, and they tell me I’m brave, I usually shrug it off. Many people before me have gone to Israel/Palestine with IFPB (Interfaith Peace Builders), and they have returned home safely. Why should I be afraid? However, the reality of making this trip has finally set in. This will be the furthest I have ever been from home. I have visited Germany a few times, but that was to visit relatives, and not much different from a drive to Pennsylvania. Of course the purpose of this journey is very different from any other time I’ve flown overseas. The truth is am a little afraid of visiting a land in such turmoil, but there is no turning back now. At the same time I am looking forward to meeting new people, and listening to their stories, and to becoming a witness. Most importantly I will share my experiences on this blog, and when I return home.

I will leave you with a quote from one my favorite heroines;

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.” ― Sophie Scholl

Visit Interfaith Peace Builders for more information about the organization we are traveling with.

-Stephanie Langer