Student speaks about Palestinian refugee camps in Speaker Series

Alex Appel, News Editor

The Interfaith Union (IFU) Club is hosting a mini series of talks about refugees. The first talk was given by Erendira “Ren” Garcia ’20, who spent three weeks during the summer volunteering at Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon. Garcia spoke about the work she did around the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank. This talk was given on Tuesday, February 4 during common hour in the Unity Room.

“We liked the idea of a talk on refugees because ideas on them can be controversial and people have lots of opinions or maybe none at all because they are unaware. Interfaith wants to bring people together to safely have conversations where everyone feels their ideas and beliefs are welcome and people won’t be judged and where you can really talk about the hard stuff. I feel like Interfaith is about seeing other people, all people,” Secretary of IFU Elizabeth Ng ’21 said.

“I did this because I was very curious about the conflict. I also would always hear on the news different points of view from social media demeaning Palestinians or talking bad about the Israel side and the Palestinian side. I wanted to formulate my own opinions by going there,” Garcia said.

Garcia worked in two camps near Nablus: Balata, which is the most densely populated refugee camp in the West Bank with 30,000 people living in approximately 1.6 square miles, and the Askar camp. The camps were cramped and there was no permanent infrastructure.

Because these camps were hastily built and their populations kept increasing while their area remained confined, people had to build their own houses and drainage systems which were not always safe. She cited the cramped living conditions and lack of sewage systems as two prevalent problems.

While there, Garcia not only taught English, sex education and other courses to children, but she assisted one of two doctors in the camp. The doctor she worked with was a volunteer from India, who was only there for a month and was not paid for her services.

Garcia described how when the camp needed medical supplies, they would have to be bought out of her and the doctor’s own pockets because the non governmental organization (NGO) that brought them there, Project HOPE, could not afford them.

One of the biggest problems that Garcia noticed in the camp was the lack of mental health, something she contributed to a combination of the traumatizing conflict and the cultural taboo surrounding mental illness among Palestinians.

“A lot of people with mental illness, because it’s not common there, they don’t even realize it. That’s one of the biggest problems that I found in the West Bank,” Garcia said.

Garcia said that there was a huge stigma around depression and that people coping with the trauma of war struggled to get help because of this. She told the story of a man whose father was killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) allegedly for no reason, and afterwards he began burning himself and his kids with cigarettes. According to her, he was an exceptional case because he acknowledged that something was wrong with him.

Garcia highlighted individuals she met who had been impacted by the conflict. One of the reccurring experiences she heard was families losing sons to IDF patrols, either because they were out after curfew or because they were perceived as threats. She also ran into families with parents or sons who were arrested for participating in peaceful demonstrations.

“I thought that going to Palestine meant that I was going to Palestine and seeing a Palestinian flag,” Garcia said, describing the shock she felt at the Israeli presence in the area.

She also spent a significant amount of time speaking of the generosity she experienced from Palestinians and how they continued life in their conditions. One thing that she noted was how the narrow streets of the Balata and Askar camps were kept clean despite the cramped conditions.

“Even in these camps, they try not to leave trash outside their homes. They try to have some pride; they’re not going to let someone dehumanize them. One does not choose to be a refugee. These people are fighting and that’s one thing I admire the most about Palestinians,” Garcia said.

She also spoke about how on her first day in the West Bank, she got lost and a man who did not speak English still bought her a bus ticket to Nablus, gave her food and told her “welcome” in English. She asked some of the people who volunteered with her to also speak to their experiences at the camp and they too spoke of the kindness and friendliness of Palestinians.

“Anyone, whether you know the political conflict or not, you should inform yourself. Don’t take the word from social media, go to Palestine,” Garcia said at the end of her talk. “Take my word, it is such a beautiful, such a safe place, such a loving place.”

In August 2018, the Trump Administration decided to withhold more than half the amount of money that had already been allotted to Palestinian refugees in 2017. This was a political move made to pressure Palestinian leaders to drop the demands of allowing Palestinian refugees from outside of Sinai Peninsula to return as a part of peace talks with the Israeli government and it has significantly contributed to the poor conditions and lack of funding of the Palestinian refugee camps.

Currently, there are five million externally displaced Palestinians. These refugees are the descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. If these refugees were to return to their homelands, the number of Palestinians in the Israel-Palestine area would outnumber both Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Garcia spoke at the second talk in the series, in which she focused on her time in Lebanon. The third and final talk will be given by Professor Teresa Meade and will be about refugees along the U.S.-Mexican border.