Tuesday, May 27, 2008

WWJBB? (Where would Jesus be born?)

Today I visited New Askar Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Nablus. There are three such camps in the Nablus area. New Askar is “new” because it was built in1964 as an expansion of the original (or “Old”) Askar, built in 1950. But since New Askar is not an official camp, there are no UNRWA facilities there and its challenges and hardships are accordingly greater.

Here is the UN definition of a Palestinian refugee:

Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. . . . UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 4.4 million in 2005, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.

I went to Askar camp observe an English class for young children. The teacher, another volunteer with Project Hope, was nothing short of brilliant. For each new topic (days of the week, adjectives, greetings, etc.) she had a song, an activity, a puppet, a funny sound effect or a picture. Sometimes all of the above. The kids were delightful, as well as squirmy, shy, exuberant, and mostly eager to learn. I’m guessing the teacher would stand out in any high-end suburban school in the U.S., but there she was teaching at her own expense in an unofficial refugee camp in Palestine, offering hope and opportunity to kids trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair.

The camps surrounding Nablus are three of twenty in the West Bank. Thirty-nine more dot the map across Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. I visited Jerash camp in Jordan back in 2004 and have stayed several times in Deheisheh on the edge of Bethlehem. Each camp has its stories to tell. Older residents are glad to reminisce over the cherished farms and villages from which they had to flee some 60 years ago. Many yearn to return.

There are certainly darker places on earth to raise a family There is clearly more deprivation in parts of Africa, Latin America, the Indian sub-continent, the Philippines and elsewhere. I wonder, however, whether you’d find anything similar in countries as developed and sophisticated as Israel, with its world ranking as 22nd-highest in gross domestic product per capita (at US$33,299). I have my doubts.

What if Christians on holy pilgrimage to the site of Jesus’ birth were to include a side trip to nearby Deheisheh or Aida camps? What if they paused to listen to a few of these displaced Palestinians tell their stories? It is there, I suspect, rather than in the gilded shrine of the Nativity Church in Manger Square, that they would see most clearly what it must have been like for Jesus to embrace humility and to identify, from the very beginning, with “the least of these” (Mt 25:40). And perhaps it is there as well that we would find there is much to be done in the causes of both mercy and justice.

6 comments:

Brian Schultz said...

Just one comment on one of your statements (though I do not wish it to distract from the point you are trying to make): "I wonder, however, whether you’d find anything similar in countries as developed and sophisticated as Israel": An interesting piece of data I have heard which, if true, is quite ironic and at times ignored in the multitude of facets the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict embodies. Apparently there were refugee camps within Israel's borders right after 1948. These refugees, although not given the right to return to their homes, were not constrained in camps, were given Israeli citizenship, and allowed to integrate society along side other Arabs within Israel's 1948 borders that weren't refugees. To my knowledge no Arab country treated Palestinian refugees similarly. Ironically, then, in 1948 it was best as an Arab to be a refugee in your enemy's country than in your allies' countries.

I would be interested to know if Israel had a policy of keeping refugees constrained in refugee camps after it "inherited" them in 1967 and until they were "handed over" to the PA. Similarly, I would like to know if the PA allows its refugees to leave the camps and share the same life as their non-refugee counterparts, or if they are forced to remain in camps as I hear they are in Lebanon, Syria, etc.

Isaac said...

Brother Bruce,

It good to see you posting again; and I'm sure it's good to be back in Palestine. Keep up the good work. I'm a reader.

peace,
isaac

Bruce N. Fisk said...

Thanks, Brian, for your comments. I would commend to you chapter 9 in Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) on the plight of Palestinians within the new state of Israel in the aftermath of the '48 war. I have not researched the treatment of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, but Pappe makes it all too clear that the "catastrophe" didn't end when the war did.

I haven't finished Pappe's book yet but I haven't seen references to "refugee camps" in Israel. He refers, rather, to prisons and labor camps, to looting, confiscation, ghettoising and the like. It's not bedtime reading.

As for Palestinians in refugee camps like Jenin, Balata and Askar in the West Bank, I'm told that refugees are completely free to relocate if they have the financial resources to do so.

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