You must experience both great joy and great heartbreak to really know life. So Meray, the most important man in the camp remarked. He told me that he is now watching the hope reignite life in the eyes of the man for whom we are rebuilding his families home. Without this Amos Trust project they would never have been able to begin again.
Refugees living in Aroub camp, It took them five years to originally build a proper home for the family on land that took many more years before that to save and pay for. Last year it took less than two hours for the bulldozer to demolish all that work, that hope, that home, leaving behind a tangled mess of wire and concrete and belongings, sending them back to the ‘temporary’ shelters in the main part of the refugee camp, with nothing left.
The father was working in Bethlehem when the bulldozers came that morning – his neighbours phoned him to let him know what was happening. He could not move or speak. He didn’t come. He started to work again. He refused to believe what was happening. His wife that day collapsed and then just became still and silent. She stayed that way for many months. Only his eldest son was emotionally and physically capable of trying to intervene, to rescue what could be salvaged. He – in his early thirties and eldest brother to 6 other siblings, could not stay on to help support the traumatised family as they tried to find another place to live in the camp. His work was in Jordan and he had to go back. The 7 remaining family members found shelter in a tiny 2 roomed temporary shelter and have been there ever since. This house build is a miracle to them. And knowing their community leaders thought for a long, long time before choosing them to be the benefactors of Amos’s rebuild means they can be confident about their community’s support. It certainly appears to all of us that the whole of the camp is rejoicing for them.
The most important man in the camp is silent now, before he says to me. “I do not know if they have the resilience – we will see.” I look at him – not understanding. “If the bulldozers come once you are gone”.
On Monday at the build I discovered that I don’t like working on roofs. Now the roof is up and wiring is being completed with everyone tripping over each other at a significant height about the ground, I now decide it is time to try to find something to do more safely back at ground level. Did I mention before that health and safety protections on this build pretty much amount to “don’t walk backwards while working on the roof, always wear your gloves, watch out for scorpions when you are mixing sand and look out for yourself”? Not a hard hat in sight!
Back on the ground I spot the new builder. Olive skinned, tall, very handsome boy (yes I have reached that stage in life, those who once would have made my heart flutter with girlish desire now just swell a ‘mothers’ heart!)
He is moving rocks and scree from one side of the house to create a solid foundation at the bottom of ‘Kate’s wall’ – now known by all as this – that will be concreted over on Wednesday to ensure no rain can seep under the foundations in winter. I asked if I could help him and he smiles. I diligently waddle back and forth for the next hour with buckets full of stones until the job is done. On the way to the accomplishment of that task I slowly learn – through my ‘book of Arabic words’ and his faltering, unconfident English, that he is that eldest son. He had spent the previous night walking and hitching across Palestine from Jordan so he could return to home to the build to be part of this rebirth of hope for his family.
We began a friendship on that afternoon. Mine based on admiration and enjoyment of his beautifu eyes, his gentleness and his unashamed happiness and joy in seeing the house, brick by brick, acro by acro, take on its structure, but embarrassed by his constant gratitude. His younger brother Basel and his friends also join us, keen to practice their English.
Basel, who is 17 and an almost fluent English speaker tells me it is important to study hard and to learn to speak English well so that Palestinians can speak to everyone, tell their story to everyone in Europe and beyond. Many will study abroad but most will return quickly.
The Israeli authorities are happy to see Palestinians leave, not so glad to welcome them home again. And where law under the Israeli occupation means your land can be claimed as Israel’s land if you are absent for more than three years, guarding what is your family heritage is a collective commitment.
Basel is due to sit his final school exam next Wednesday. This exam is the one chance for a good graduation – without success there will be no university. Without boys available to sit there exams there also is no success. For the second time this week I am told how senior Palestinian school boys are often picked up by the soldiers at this point in their educational careers, having been accused of throwing stones or some such thing – and taken away to the police station or to an interrogation centre for up to 4 days – often to one in Israel where parents cannot follow. They are released but not until they have had a harrowing experience and have missed their chance to better themselves through university.
Sounds unbelievable doesn’t it? But I was told of this tactic already at the school we visited by the Headteacher and education authorities.
Basil shrugs, what can he do? No matter how much his Mum asks him to stay inside in the run up to the big day, he really can’t do that all the time. He’ll take his chances, keep his head down. His friend was arrested yesterday. He worries for him.
I ask him what he wants to have as a career and he tells me he wants to go abroad to study medicine. However his father wants him to go to college nearer and study to be a policeman, he doesn’t want to risk his son not coming back or not being allowed to come back. I ask him not to let go of his dream, to go for what he wants out of life but he tells me as a clear matter of fact that Palestinians cannot afford to listen to their dreams. My head screams “If I had stones to throw at the Israeli soldiers I would do so if I had the chance”…but remember quickly that most of them are are only a year or two older that Basel himself and are responding to the ‘monstrous threat’ that they have been trained to believe since childhood, that all Palestinians represent.
It is at this point that the concrete that has been splurging out across the roof is now all in place and we are called to gather to watch the Palestinian flag firmly rooted in a flagpole being cemented in place on the top of the house by the oldest son. It was a profoundly moving and celebratory time and everyone was smiling.
The oldest son gave me a present of a Palestinian flag that afternoon on which he had written his name and the date. He said he would miss me when our part of the build was done and we left on Friday.
I have no words to thank him with. We all link hands around the house before we leave and of course there is a prayer and a blessing. We have all written messages of support and hope and these have been concreted into the roof.
The family thank us and tell us that they believe that God has brought us to them and they know the house will therefore be safe from a demolition order being served. We all know that won’t happen while we are here as the authorities would not want to risk an international media outcry – but we also are more than aware we leave at the end of the week – and anything could happen. I really pray, and will pray everyday that nothing will.
I may not be a Christian but with all my heart I join the others to implore whatever God/s might be out there to protect this family now and forever.