We are pleased and excited to have Sandi Hoover, IPMN member, share some of her experiences with women in the Aida Refugee Camp. The Women of Noor Empowerment Group was one of the projects selected in 2014 to receive an IPMN grant supported by your generous IPMN grant dollars. In the future, we hope to share with you experiences that other IPMN members have had interacting on the ground in Israel / Palestine over a longer term than the typical study trip of 7 to 10 days.
A Portrait of the Women of Noor Empowerment Group
Aida Refugee Camp, Palestine
by Sandi Hoover, Donegal Presbytery, Pennsylvania
“women hold up half the sky”- old Chinese proverb
As Americans, we cannot imagine life where one’s freedom of movement and choice is restricted by another group. Like all Palestinians, the women of the Noor Group exist under daily restrictions as to their movements, access to education, employment, as well as social and cultural freedoms.
Life in a refugee camp is even more restrictive. The residents do not own their own land, population is dense and conditions are overcrowded. In the Aida Refugee Camp, approximately 5000 people live on less than 2 acres and 40% are children under the age of 15. Infrastructure such as roads and sewers are sorely inadequate. Water and electric supply can be erratic. Services such as schools and medical facilities are provided by UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency) and are understaffed and critically under funded. Children play in the streets, as there are no green spaces. The camp is noisy, busy and congested, with cars and people sharing the narrow streets. There is no central heating system nor air-conditioning anywhere.
The women in the Noor Group were all born in this refugee camp, though one woman, Shadia, lives in al-Azzeh Camp, about a mile from Aida Camp. These women are from families who lived in the lovely little village of Beit Natif, near Hebron. Beit Natif was one of hundreds of villages and towns that were “de-populated” (an Israeli term) during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 when the local Arabs were exiled from their town. Many of the residents of Beit Natif relocated to refugee camps with the promise that they would return to their homes after the war. Of course, as we know, these refugees were never allowed to return to their homes. Aida Camp was established in 1950 and like most refugee camps began as temporary tent camps. As the permanence of the camps became apparent, the camps were converted from tents to cinderblock units, which is what exists today.
Sadly, none of the Noor Group women completed high school. Some married before they completed school and others had their high school days interrupted by the first Intifada (uprising) in 1988, when schools were closed and curfews were imposed by Israel. Most of the women have many children, which is a cultural norm in Palestine. The husbands of these women work when they can since unemployment rates in Palestine are very high at 25-30 % for men, and are even higher in refugee camps. Ahmad, married to Islam, is one of the husbands in the group, He seeks day work where he can find it, but with time on his hands, he remodeled a room in their home which now serves as the cooking kitchen for the Noor Group classes and is also used as an activity room for the women and children. Rana is a widow and has three children. Her husband was killed by Israeli soldiers during the last Intifada in 2000. She was married to Ahmad’s brother and lives in a home near Islam and Ahmad and is part of the family. Extended family is common to Palestinians and they all share caring for one another and everyone’s children.
Although these women are not formally educated, they are smart and they survive under conditions that seem impossible to us. They keep their homes spotless washing and cleaning their areas daily. Cooking and caring for large families consume most of their days. Going to “suq” (market) to find the best prices for food is usually a daily task. They monitor their children’s progress in school carefully and help with each child’s homework. They hope and pray for their children to be the first generation in their families to attend college.
Islam’s daughter, Rua, is an excellent student and speaks English fluently and is learning French. Everyone loves visits from family and friends, and social interaction is a huge part of Palestinian life and fills their lives in important ways. There are no movies or malls and families have televisions but receive few channels due to costs. They do have and use computers in the home. The women are learning to use the computers for email and to book customers for their classes on the internet. They are also learning English and are quick learners.
I have had the privilege to be their friend and advocate since 2011 when I began to serve as a volunteer English language tutor. I have made 12 visits to Palestine since 2010 and for the last three years have spent a semester a year teaching English at dar al Kalima College and University in Bethlehem in the West Bank. When I am there, I visit the women at Aida Camp two to three times a week for English and computer classes. Culturally, Palestinians are welcoming and generous. Hospitality is extended to all and food and drink are always offered. It is said “Palestine is the only place you can stop and ask for directions and you get invited for dinner.” My time spent with them has enriched my life in countless ways. These refugee families are the same as families all over the world; what the parents want most is a good and fulfilling life with opportunities for their children, which were not available to them.
The cooperation and team effort of these women working together to create and provide cooking classes and homestays demonstrates their creative abilities and motivation to do what they can with what they have. They are improving the quality of their lives and the lives of their children, especially those with disabilities. Monies earned from the cooking classes and home stays buy medicine and supplies for the disabled children, pay for field trips and help support the families. More importantly, their work serves as a model to their neighbors and shows the community that hope is possible even in the midst of despair. May their example shine a light on “empowerment” and how it begins from within.
As an IPMN member and donor, you and your generous gifts touch and improve the lives of others in ways that cannot be measured. As Islam and the Noor women would say, “ yislamu idek” (God bless your hands!).
Your donation to IPMN supports continued advocacy, education, and partnership toward a just peace in Israel/Palestine.