AIDA, West Bank-Palestine

High concrete walls, barbed wire, deteriorating buildings, and a large, rusty key over an archway are strong reminders of the daily lives of Palestinians at Aida, a refugee camp just north of Bethlehem in the central West Bank. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada traveled to the camp during his recent visit to the Middle East, to get a firsthand look at life inside the walls.

He was joined by Presbyterian Mission Agency staff, including Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace, and Justice; Gregory Allen-Pickett, general manager of World Mission; and Amgad Beblawi, area coordinator for the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.

The camp is separated from Jerusalem by the Israeli barrier. Its huge key over the entrance, referred to as the “key of return,” is a symbol of the Palestinian desire to return to the homes they were expelled from in 1948. In a 2009 visit to the camp, Pope Benedict described the towering barrier as tragic and the living conditions in Aida as “precarious and difficult.”

As Rada and team came through Aida’s gate, evidence of periodic clashes with the occupying Israeli military could be seen at every turn. In addition to the damage to buildings, the delegation saw numerous expressions of how the thousands of residents felt about their lives. The concrete barrier that surrounded the camp had become a canvas for Palestian reflection.

“Coming into the camp, you could not help but be drawn to the paintings and words along that large, concrete corridor that cut the camp off from the rest of civilization,” said Rada. “Visual expression seems to be one of the ways these young men and women have of dealing with their imprisonment and hopelessness.”

As the group walked the narrow, broken streets, children would linger by doors, giggling or calling out to the visitors. Some would follow the team for long distances, asking basic questions and shaking hands. Nearly 5,000 people live in Aida. There are no playgrounds or green spaces. The children play in streets no larger than alleys.

The group was met by Abdelfattah Abusrour, general director of Al Rowwad, a theater and arts center developed in 1998 to give camp residents a means of expressing themselves through theater, art, dance, and other disciplines. Its theater group has toured France, Belgium, the United States, and other countries. But Al Rowwad has become more than a theater arts magnet. It has become the center of life in Aida, where children learn of their culture, women participate in health and education classes, and families are taught that diversity is a part of life.

“We wanted our children to know that there is a life beyond these walls,” Abusrour said. “Palestine has always lived in diversity, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It’s part of our history, and we wanted to express that to the world.”

Abusrour also took time to speak to the delegation about the Aida community’s desire to find a peaceful outcome in the conflict with the Israeli government. He showed the delegation a map illustrating the decreasing Palestinian territory between 1946 and 2000. Referring to the increased poverty among Palestinians, he argued that it is a direct result of the occupation.

“We are not asking for charity. We are asking for our rights to be restored,” he added.

“We as parents want to see our children grow up and be successful in life,” said Abusrour. “They should be attending our funerals, not the other way around.”

The living conditions have been magnified by high unemployment in the camp. Construction of the wall has forced many of its residents out of work because they have no access to the Israeli job market. The wall also separates the camp residents from their farmland.

Rada praised camp leaders for their courage and the risks they take to make a difference in the lives of the residents.

“Over the years, I’ve developed a keen interest in what is happening in this part of the world,” he said. “It was important that I tell them that they are loved and that their stories will be told.”

Rick Jones is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.