My Summer Trip to the Middle East
by Jaime Cader
This last summer during the months of July and August, I had the opportunity to stay in Lebanon, Jordan and Jerusalem. The majority of my stay was in southern Lebanon in the city of Tyre for one month and ten days. I went to join other English language teachers who were volunteering for the LEAP (Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians) Program. We were divided into working at two separate refugee camps: Bourj Al Shamali and Rashediah.
For me it was a wonderful experience to have worked with the children of the Rashediah camp. We were given lesson plans to use in the classroom, however we had the freedom to add other material, etc. Personally I found the lesson plan subjects too advanced for my students, so I emphasized in a part of my classes the memorization of basic verb conjugations, plus I had them learn the song “Going on a Weegee Hunt.” We also had recreational activities with the kids, like an outing to a river where we also danced and sang.
Before we actually started teaching the classes, we had orientations classes and we heard two elderly men speak about what they remembered when they were forced by Zionist forces to leave their villages in Palestine. The first speaker was a man by the name of Yousef who was born in 1928 in the village of Loubiyeh, next to Tiberius. He said that prior to the Nakba they had lived well with the Jews. He also commented that the British are mainly to blame in replacing the native population with others. In 1948 he never thought that he was leaving his homeland for good. His village was being bombed and the surrounding villages had their inhabitants exiled. The British were arming the Haganah, they had a close cooperation with them.
Yousef mentioned that he has a son in the United States and children in other countries. His children in all of those countries have the citizenship of those nations, however his children in Lebanon were not given Lebanese citizenship. He tells his children never to forget their homeland and that they should return. He reminds his granddaughter that the family is from Palestine. Some of his family members have gone back to see what remains of the village.
The second speaker was Ataya Osman (this is what I heard of his name, he may have another name with these). He was from the area of Safed and he was 15 years old when he left Palestine. He related that there was a demolishing of villages and that the British helped the Jews to take over. He commented that the entire world watched and no one helped us… He also commented “Everyone knows about the Palestinian situation, but no one does anything.”
Ataya recounted how the Zionist army entered his village, and how the villagers did not have weapons. The Zionists had advanced weaponry and told them that they had to leave, thatthey would be able to come back. There was a 4:00 a.m. massacre in another village where 400 people died. Thus when they saw things like this in the other villages, they decided to leave. Ataya was exiled to the Golan Heights in Syria in 1948. After 1967 he had to transfer to Daraa (where some of the main anti-Assad protests started). He said it was better for Palestinians in Syria than it is in Lebanon. In Syria many worked in companies. He would like to return to Syria where he has most of his daughters -if it becomes safe to do so.
Ataya added that since 1948 the United States has not helped the Palestinians and no European country has done anything to stop the Israelis. He said,”Where is justice? Recently a child was burned in the West Bank. Where are the human rights? There are no human rights!” He concluded by saying that the United States wants the Palestinian predicament to remain like this. “If they wanted to pressure Israel, they could.”
As Ataya referred to previously, Palestinians in Lebanon for the most part are not given Lebanese citizenship. In comparison to their previous situation in Syria and their present one in Jordan, Palestinians face many hardships in Lebanon. In most instances they are not even allowed to work as a taxi driver. I heard the story of a Palestinian who was fired from his job in a company in Beirut simply because people complained that he spoke Arabic with a Palestinian accent. This is precisely the reason why the LEAP Program started the summer English classes, so that Palestinian students could learn English well enough to pass an exam that will give them the opportunity to further their education and thus find better employment.
One night while I was in Tyre, I heard bombs going off along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Flares also were shot into the air so that the Israeli military could see what was on the ground. This was during the time of Israel’s attack on Gaza. I thought for a while that perhaps we would hear word that our stay in Lebanon would have to be terminated because of the situation. Fortunately that did not happen.
The organizers of the LEAP Program also took us to see other places in Lebanon such as Beirut, Byblos, Baalbek, the caves of Jeita, a border area between Lebanon and Israel, and the ruins of a crusader castle in the village of Arnoun, near Nabatiyeh, a city that has an annual Shia Muslim commemoration.
On learning more about Arnoun, I learned that it along with the rest of southern Lebanon was occupied by Israel in 1982. The Israelis did not leave until May of 2000. The upper area of Arnoun was completely destroyed by the Israelis. This is the area surrounding the ruins of the castle. Some areas of the lower part were also destroyed. Stone walls were put up in the lower part and the villagers had to walk through these corridors. Check points were placed in several parts of southern Lebanon and some were manned by the Southern Lebanese Army which worked in collaboration with the Israeli army.
Back at the Rashediah refugee camp, on July 18, 2014 we had a screening for the students of the film Flying Paper, which is about children in Gaza who broke the Guinness World Record as to the number of kites up in the sky all at the same time. I met many nice individuals at this camp, and besides the classes we had the opportunity to work on community projects like the dental health education day, and as previously stated we also had recreational activities.
On August 10, 2014 I left Lebanon to go to Jordan. I specifically went to visit two friends, one Palestinian and the other a Syrian refugee. I also wanted to confirm something at the Al Wehdat Palestinian refugee camp which is actually I would say, a neighborhood in Amman. What I also got confirmed there was also true for the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, as with the camps in Lebanon -and that is that the land on which these camps are located is rented by the United Nations from the respective countries in which they are located. So the residents of these camps do not own the land on which they live.
The very next day after arriving in Jordan, I traveled to go to Jerusalem. At the border check point I witnessed how a Black woman who worked for the Israeli border patrol would yell at Arabs who mistakenly entered an area the wrong way. Perhaps this woman was also an Israeli… In any case, I spoke to her in English to inquire where the restroom was and she pointed to the way. She did not look as mean at me as she did to the others, surely in part because I spoke to her in English. Most likely she was rude to the others because she had to prove to the white Jews that she could do her job among other things.
I was separated from the rest of the people after it was discovered that I had been to Lebanon. I waited quite some time before I was asked to go to a room for further questioning. Before that time arrived however, I believe that it is possible that a spy was sent my way as a man approached me and happily said “Welcome to Palestine!,” to which I did not answer. He asked me if I spoke Arabic and I said -not really. I did not want him to know that I knew at least basic Arabic. Finally I was asked to enter the room. I was not asked many questions and to my surprise I was given a permit to stay in Israel until the month of November, however I would not be allowed to work. I later commented what had happened to a Palestinian in Jerusalem and he said that I was given a permit because the Israelis want me to spend money here.
While in Jerusalem I made a trip to the Dheisheh refugee camp near the city of Bethlehem. This time I made an effort to see more of Bethlehem and I visited the Palestinian Heritage Center/Museum. In my report published last year, I made a comment about a beverage that I drank in Jerusalem and how I did not like it because it was too spicy hot. This last summer I learned that the liquid in the bottle that I had purchased is supposed to be mixed with water… So I realized my mistake. The drink is called aseer louz, an almond refreshment.
One late evening while on the third floor of the house where I was staying in Jerusalem, I felt the effects of tear gas that the Israeli police or military threw. What happens is that Palestinian teenagers cause some disturbances and then the Israelis come in with their brute force. In the same house one day I saw a group of kids, the oldest being 13 years old, going through youtube.com to view the atrocities that the Israelis commit against the Palestinians. So at a very young age these kids know what is going on and they know how to look for the information. When I was at that age, I was mostly oblivious to the real details of what was happening in the world.
After that tense night in Jerusalem, I was happy to return to Jordan the following day. The situation of Israel’s attack on Gaza has caused tourism to go down in the region. I found Palestinian shop owners and workers anxious to sell their merchandise.
Back in Amman I was finally able to see my friends. Murad is a Palestinian, an intellectual I would say, and he speaks English and Spanish. Mohammad is a Syrian refugee who lives with some of his family members in Amman. His father and another sibling have been unable to join him because the Jordanian government has put a stop to Syrians emigrating to the country. Mohammad hopes to emigrate to northern Europe.
After flying out of Jordan, I went to Madrid, Spain to visit yet more friends and to do a little cultural research over there. Several blocks from where I was staying there is an Islamic Cultural Center with a mosque. I visited some areas where I lived years ago, such as a neighborhood which is close to the Pirulí television tower, which is a prominent feature in Madrid. I also discovered a government center that houses Moroccan youth who are without their families. The agency seemed to be similar to the Children and Family Services in the San Francisco Bay Area. At that center one of the office workers was a Spaniard that spoke Arabic, and one of the guards was an Algerian while another one was Romanian.
All in all, it was an educational and enlightening experience to have travelled to the Middle East and to continue to connect with Arabs and “Berbers” in Spain. I made several more friends in Lebanon and in Jordan, and I made some contacts in the Jerusalem area. Hopefully I will return to the Middle East next year to teach English once again.