Separation wall in Bethlehem. Photo: Joel Carillet
From Palestine to London: meet Bethlehem’s Lajee Community Centre
I had the good fortune to accompany the General Council’s delegation to Palestine and Israel at the beginning of the year. In little over three days we traveled around the West Bank whilst being based in East Jerusalem. We saw and meet many people, and I will long remember what I saw and heard in those days.
Among those memories is the visit to meet the mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, a deeply impressive woman. Following that meeting the delegation visited Aida Refugee Camp which is adjacent to Bethlehem and up against the Israeli wall. The delegation entered the camp and headed to the Lajee Community Centre. Immediately outside of the centre was a group of children on a dust covered road, some of who were using sling-shots to fling stones at the wall some 250 yards away. One of the lads was so small that his slingshot all but dragged along the road. The stones were flying everywhere and in every direction. At this stage there were no Israeli forces present.
In the Lajee Community Centre the delegation was given a presentation on the work of the centre with the camp’s children, which includes taking them on cultural visits to the UK. During this meeting the delegation’s local driver, who had been standing in the road entered the room. His eyes were streaming due, he said, to teargas. We handed him water to bathe his eyes. The delegation then went to the flat roof of the centre. A small number of Israeli soldiers had appeared and were firing teargas and rubber bullets at the children. We then saw the soldiers doing a sweep of the road with their rifles at the ready.
Following the meeting at the Lajee Community Centre, the delegation made a brief tour of the camp. As a refugee camp the UN is responsible for providing utilities. Against one part of the wall there was a dump, with rubbish just piled up on the floor. Periodically the UN arranges for this rubbish to be collected but apparently this was pretty infrequent because of the lack of resources.
The camp had been established in 1950, shortly after the 1948 war. The tents had long ago given way to buildings. Within the refugee camp it was possible to build, which has had at least two consequences. Firstly, it has driven up prices of buildings because the land covered by the camp is limited. Secondly houses are built too close together, blocking out each other’s light and providing inadequate ventilation, creating an unhealthy environment.
As I said, Lajee Community Centre, among its various activities, organises cultural visits to the UK, one of which happening soon. 22 young people aged 11-22 will be travelling next week around the UK and Ireland, and for the majority it will be their first visit outside Palestine.
On 7 July, you’ve got a chance to meet and hear from them in London. Lajee’s young representatives will be performing traditional dabke dance, showcasing an award-winning photography exhibition, screening independent films and presenting talks on their life and work in Palestine. For more details including tickets go to Lajee Community Centre.