Osama and the refugee camp

Rights & dissent

Up there, on the mountain, the children have left once again, like last year, the farm and its summer camp where I work. The mountain quivered to their music, soaking up the sap of their wildest, simplest dreams to fly over borders, to reach the sea and, maybe, one day, to taste freedom

Osama too took care of the youngest ones. A child of Bethlehem’s Al Azza refugee camp, today he screams his fury for life. He’s 22 years old, with a mind of at least 50. Because he can’t stand, from the other end of the world, that his country is not, is no longer, is nothing. “Poor Palestinians” — yet nobody is going to lift a finger. Osama plays and shouts on the stages of Bethlehem’s smallest theatres. Osama demonstrates, Osama dances, writes, reads, and greets most of the town’s denizens whose paths we cross. He’s going to Germany for two weeks. His first time in Europe … and what he dreams most about is the plane, because once in the air, freedom will be within reach.

Osama shows me around the neighbourhoods of his childhood. The refugee camp – Palestine’s smallest and most densely populated – is now connected to Bethlehem through the city’s sprawl. There were tents in 1950. Nowadays, ever thinner walls climb higher and higher, against each other. Everyone seems to know one another, to know him. He leans down to lift a case of bottled water too heavy for the woman with the sparkling eyes. She would like to invite me for tea. Behind her, farther, everywhere, one child, two children, three children play with everything, with anything, and hide behind a low stone wall. The neighbours support each other, the community will hang on. But whatever the form of these camps – houses, buildings, slums or tents – “being a refugee” is unbearable, a disparity that makes you weep. Ghettos, he tells me, ghettos.

Osama has cast away religion, far away from himself, from his heart. His family observes Ramadan, but it doesn’t matter. For him, God goes by another name, and that’s enough. Osama believes in justice made by men, for men, a far cry from the sacred books that dazzle, and blind.

Then it’s back to the taxis, the jam-packed buses. After riding along part of the wall, we get off at the wide bend. A short man, carrying a backpack and a few loaves of bread in plastic bags, stepped off the bus before me. Ghassan is an archaeologist and is heading to his village, Nahalin. Thanks to his Israeli visa, Ghassan belongs to those Palestinians who get a taste of freedom, at the cost of their identity. Very soon we introduce ourselves. He prefers this path to reach the village, because the scenery is as beautiful as the paintings at the MoMA, the Louvre and history museums. He gets angry at the garbage thrown by his fellow citizens: the path leading to the farm is littered with nameless, putrid-smelling waste. “Taking care of one’s garbage is taking responsibility. But they simply aren’t capable of doing so, just as they do not take responsibility or do their utmost to build their own country, satisfied as they are with their unbelievable submission.” Ghassan wishes for so much more for his village and his country… but they can’t seem to muster the strength. They struggle and are tired.

I have already reached the farm; I say goodbye to the man and slip in under the gate. Karen and Karel, as well as a newcomer, a Spaniard, come to meet me, and Karel carries me, overjoyed at the sight of the few beers from town that I pull from my bag. Simple pleasures. They do their best. They give a little, and they push this world forwards, always. Later, when the sun vanishes on the horizon and the breeze carries victory songs, we will water the young budding trees; because, just as it was once engraved on the lips of a silver-toothed gipsy in Hungary: “Hope dies last.” And the trees have grown.

Translated by Andrea Davoust, edited by Stephanie Watt.

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