This is Islam. Islam was born in Aida Refugee Camp and continues to live there today with her husband Ahmad and their six children. The eldest of Islam’s children is named Mohammed. Mohammed is mentally disabled, meaning that he requires additional care. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides schools and health centre in Aida Camp. However, the schools do not have the capacity to accommodate disabled children like Mohammed. This means that Mohammed cannot go to school and his full time care and education are Islam’s responsibility.
NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group is a grassroots project created by and for women in Aida Camp with disabled children. With the help of international volunteers they run cooking classes for internationals to learn how to cook traditional Palestinian food. This was an initiative created by the group to generate extra income to help them in meeting the costs of providing care and education to their disabled children. The lessons provide an enriching experience for internationals to learn about life in the camp. International volunteers have been providing the women’s group with English lessons for three years and Islam’s English is now sufficient to enable her to tell her guests about her recipes as well as her experiences in the camp. It is hoped that this skill will enable Islam to continue the classes once the international volunteers have left.
On Sunday, Islam and her friend Salua showed our group how to make a dish called Mujadara, a humble dish of rice, lentils and pasta covered in caramelised onions, and served with salad and yoghurt. This was followed by a generous slice of Basbussa, a delicious cake made with Semolina and Coconut. The women in Aida Camp are used to catering for their large families and there was plenty of food to go around. Dinner was followed by tea, and then coffee to relieve the food coma induced by the large portions.
Visiting the camp and being warmly received into the family home of Palestinian refugees was an incredible experience. After dinner Islam’s family began to arrive home – Islam’s six children, her sister and her children, and Ahmad joined us. When the cooking classes began Ahmad had been apprehensive about allowing internationals into his family home however, he seemed relaxed in our presence and engaged us in conversation. Ibtehal, Islam’s ten-year-old daughter, was keen to practice her English and enthusiastically showed me her schoolbooks containing lines of very neat English vocabulary. I was reluctant to leave having enjoyed helping Ibtehal with her English. I hope to visit again if I have chance to return to Bethlehem, as the family were so welcoming.
The people of Aida Camp are refugees from the 1948 Nakba (disaster) who were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel. Having been forcefully removed from their villages by the Israeli army they have lived in Aida camp ever since, awaiting a time when they will be granted their Right of Return. It is not at all clear when this might be and as time goes by it seems less and less likely. Meanwhile, conditions in the camp continue to get worse as the funds granted to UNWRA decrease. The building of the Separation Wall by Israel in 2002, following the second Intifada, has exacerbated the degradation of conditions. Unemployment is a massive problem in the camp as men, like Ahmad, who used to travel to Jerusalem to find labour can no longer do so due to the presence of the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Visiting NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group and taking part in one of Islam’s cookery lessons is a must do for anyone planning a trip to Palestine. It allows you to meet the victims of the Nakba, who continue to suffer today thanks to the on-going illegal Israeli occupation, but more importantly, it demonstrates the resilience and tenacity of the Palestinian people and provides an opportunity to experience their exceptional hospitality.
Find out more about NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group here: http://noorweg.wordpress.com/