By EA Carolina, Bethlehem team.
I arrived in Duheisha Refugee Camp, in Bethlehem, at dawn and I knocked an unknown door. I was looking for Samira*, all I knew about her was that she is a well known and respected member of the Duheisha community and that she would be able to tell me her story in reasonably good English.
“All the words on the dictionary couldn’t explain about our feelings, our suffering.” Said Samira, when we eventually settled down to talk.
As I was sitting on her rooftop and drinking black tea with sage, she told me she was born and raised in the camp. “It’s my home country. But my parents came from different villages close to Al Walaja, near Jerusalem.” Her father came from Dayr Aban, and her mother came from Ras Abu ‘Amar. Now middle-aged and a mother of four children, Samira’s face showed all of her emotions and her eyes caught fire when she spoke about their struggle in the camp.
Samira has been working as a nutrition advisor in hospitals for 30 years now. She gave up working in Hebron Hospital last year, after the violence escalated inside the West Bank. “Travelling to Hebron everyday was too bad. I decided to work in Beit Jala. It was too hard.”
She is a proud mother: all of her children are educated. One of her sons, Mahmoud*, just came back from the USA, after completing a four year degree. Ameer*, graduated from Bethlehem University, and is also planning to do a Master Degree abroad. Her two daughters are living in France now, and one of them is planning to come back soon. “Of course, our first dream is freedom. But to achieve the other dreams, we must be educated. We have to educate ourselves enough to continue the struggle.” I feel the price she is paying for her children’s education is being seperated from them.
Being a woman in a military occupied land is by no means easy. I was curious to know how Palestinian women cope with the daily difficulties. Women all around the world suffer from sexism and misogyny, and Palestinian society is no different. But women living under occupation have an additional layer of oppression over them.
“It’s about having no choices but to resist”, she says. “Maybe for the society we are seen as different, but for the soldiers, we are equals: we are Palestinian. They won’t hesitate to shoot us because we are women.”
In Palestine, the girls learn very early on how it is to be a woman that has no option but to be strong. “When they arrested my husband during the Second Intifada, what did you expect from me? To be stuck in the house, lock the door and die? I had to go out, make a living. I have four children, and they were kids. This is why women here struggle the same way.”
Samira tells me that her parents had everything back in their villages and it was hard to adapt to living in a refugee camp. Originally the camp consisted of tents, and sometimes the wind would carry them away. During the winter of 1956, due to the intense cold and snow in Bethlehem, the UN started building some shelters. Today, everyone in Duheisha live in cement houses. “People from the villages have their land, but here we are inside small houses. If they need money, they can sell their land. I can’t.”
She goes on talking about the different situations of women in camps, villages and cities. “Inside the big cities, women are more educated, they have access to a better life. In the villages, women are not always well educated, they marry early, they take care of the children and the land. But the women from the camp are different: they want to be political too.”
On November 2, during the Balfour Declaration anniversary, she says all the people of Duheisha were in the streets. “Women, men, children, boys, girls, old people. When we have to fight, there are no differences.” She attended the peaceful demonstration as well.
After talking for a while, she invited me for dinner downstairs. We left the rooftop, lit by the bright full moon, and entered her living room. I sat together with her family, and the language shifted to Arabic for some minutes.
“Since 1948, men have been telling their stories about the Nakba. Since 1967, men have been telling their stories of life under occupation.” But behind the news headlines of fatalities and arrests, there is another story, that is the un-reported story of a mother, a wife, a sister and a daughter who keeps struggling on their own. They organise themselves, they embroider, they cook, talk, cry and laugh; like every other woman in the world. This was the message Samira wanted to pass to me.
I wish to never forget her face and her words. “Can I take a picture of you?” I asked. “No.” she replied courteously. “Maybe next time.”
“Maybe next time the occupation will be over”, I said. We laughed together. “Inshallah.”
*The names have of the people in this blog have been changed.
Read more about the impact of Israeli policies and practices on Palestinian women in this 2012 report by Women’s Center for Legal Aid and counselling: Glimpses of Life Under Occupation