A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 1999, page 69
Dheisheh Refugee Camp Dance Troupe Embarks on First American Tour in September
By Roxane Assaf
The graffiti-splattered courtyard of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp United Nations Boys’ School in Bethlehem is a sunbleached costume party. Palestinian folk music bounces off the inner walls of the one-story structure. In one-half of the paved, sandy yard members of a team of karate students from the summer camp play basketball. In the other, a slender young girl in a white satin angel blouse and harem pants draws figure-eights in the air with heavenly hands, while a shiny arc of purple and gold fans out around her. Such style. Such innocence. These are 20 of Dheisheh’s dancers, preparing to deliver a sample of their Palestinian refugee experience to points West.
In September the Dheisheh Dancers, ranging in age from 11 to 14 will make their first trip to the U.S. after having just completed a tour of Sweden and Greece. The tour will include New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco. And for kids coming from the inferior houses built in place of tents as a temporary measure 50 years ago by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), their trip should prove to be a broadening experience for performers and audience alike.
The force behind this expansive mission is the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a Bay Area human rights organization founded by Barbara Lubin. Her focus is the support of Palestinian children as well as kids in Iraq suffering and dying from the cramp of U.S. sanctions.
MECA project director Shirabe Yamada explains that the purpose of the tour is to inspire Americans with the beauty of Palestinian folk culture, and then to encourage them to exercise their voting power to see that these children and their families have a chance to leave the squalor of exile and return to the land which, according to international law, is rightfully theirs.
According to U.N. Resolution 194, Israel is required to ensure a return home for the refugees. The Israelis completely disregard this resolution. “America is a really influential country which controls the fate of the Palestinians,” says Yamada. “It is MECA’s hope that the American audience will begin to understand that without solving the question of the refugees, there can be no peace.”
The choreography of the Dheisheh Dancers is rife with meaning. The themes include occupation, life in a tent, political prisoners across the world and stolen farmland. And as the children make their purposeful way across America, they will visit schools and make friends with their American counterparts. By establishing e-mail and pen-pal relationships, the lines of communication between the two disparate worlds will remain open. And it is the goal of MECA and the Dheisheh community leaders that with the building of a guest house in the camp, some of these Americans will eventually pay a visit to Bethlehem and stay at the camp.
The cultural center out of which the dance group was born is perfectly named “Ibda’,” the Arabic word for “creating something out of nothing,” according to its founder, Ziad Abbas. Abbas, a former journalist and political prisoner during the Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, was 30 years old when he started Ibda’ in 1994.
“The dancing is a highly visible way of getting the word out to the world that Palestinians are born and spend their entire lives in refugee camps due to Israeli occupation,” says Abbas, who was also born and grew up in the camp. “They are not like actors. They can distribute an important political message through the simplicity and sincerity of their expression,” he explains. “For children born here, the borders of the camp represent the end of the world. Now they will see how other children live.”
The humble yet cheerful facility in the heart of the one-kilometer-square camp has appeal for all 11,000 camp residents. However, since half the camp’s population is under the age of 15, most of the services are youth-oriented. Ibda’ currently boasts a brand new Internet center, a small library, a kindergarten, women’s projects, language courses and international cultural exchange efforts such as the dance tours and a gift shop featuring traditional Palestinian cross-stitch art. For Ibda’, the dancers are ambassadors to the world; a hope of reflecting the truth which has long been ignored and misrepresented.
Roxane Assaf is a free-lance writer and video producer living in Bethlehem.