by Birte Mensing
As there is at the moment no forum in which the end of the Israeli occupation of the OPT is discussed, it is the sum of efforts of individuals and their daily struggle that is defining the context. This series of portraits is going to introduce different characters and their ideas and life committed to ending the occupation.
Meeting Echlas Al Azzeh
If there would be a competition, in which the person who is discriminated the most wins, Echlas Al Azzeh would have good chances to win. She is, obviously, a woman. She is Palestinian. She lives in a refugee camp. She sits in a wheelchair. “But the wheelchair gives me freedom!” Freedom to move, but only until the Wall. Or until the next high curb that the wheelchair cannot climb.
Growing up in the Al-Azza refugee camp in Bethlehem, she was on the spot during the First Intifada. The family’s house, where Echlas is still living, was right next to the Israeli soldiers’ base. When they wanted something, they would bother the family. “When they wanted to watch TV, they let us open our window” Echlas recalls one of the less severe incidents.
She was not accepted in the primary school because of her muscular dystrophy; her parents were asked to bring her to a special school which the parents did not want as Echlas was as smart as or even smarter than the other kids. So she learned at home. From her parents, and from her older brothers and sisters. She got hit by a settler’s car in 1995 when she was 21 years old, and her physical ability decreased severely. When she came back from a stay in Jordan in 2003 after the Second Intifada, the Israeli government started to build the Separation Wall, which now dominates her living environment.
Main street in Al Azza Camp leading down to the house where Echlas is living
Cultivating Palestinian Culture
But despite all this, Echlas is a teacher now. Teaching Arabic, teaching cooking, teaching life in Palestine. In return, people from all over the world come and stay with her, assisting in her daily life. Her volunteer project started off in 1992 when young women from Germany came for half a year to support her. By now, more than 80 women have lived with her. And living with Echlas means sharing the life in Bethlehem, in Al-Azza Refugee Camp and being educated about the situation by seeing and listening to people.
Living in the camp is not an easy thing. Living with foreign people who are strangers to the culture is also quite a challenge sometimes. Although Echlas is one of the most atheist Muslims, there are certain societal rules especially in the camp that are essential in daily life. To teach behavior over and over again can be tiring. But the chance to make people understand some more is worth the effort for Echlas.
Echlas and the author walking from Bethlehem to Beit Jala
History has left its traces. The camp is a living reminder of the different phases since 1948, when there were first tents set up for the refugees that were expelled from the villages by the newly formed Israeli army. Both of Echlas parents came from the same village – Beit Jibrin. After six years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) replaced the tents with small houses, one room each. One room for one family. Later, in the 1970s, people started to rebuild and extend the structures with their own means. Echlas’ mother started with a private bathroom so that she and her children would not have to use the public ones. During that time, the father was in prison for 7 years. In the following years, the parents sleeping room and two rooms for the children followed.
Although the camp may seem like one of many neighborhoods of Bethlehem today, most of the people living in the camp are still connected to the places they or their parents came from before ending up in the camp. Talking about Beit Jibrin, Echlas’ eyes start to shine. The one time she went to the village after the Second Intifada was one of the most touching moments in her life. “I felt a connection, a special feeling I cannot describe”. Stones from the village decorate the wall of the living room to keep the spirit of Beit Jibrin as long as she cannot use her Right to Return.
Painting a future
At the moment, Echlas is painting the walls of the living room. Or rather the painter is painting the walls. But Echlas is also painting. Every year, she designs a calendar about life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Those calendars are sold and distributed by friends, some of them former volunteers, all over Europe. Her paintings are accompanied by little thoughts explaining the images. One goes: Look at the world and try to understand it, try to like it, try to adapt to it. I try to make the world understand that there are Palestinians and Palestine. I want the world to understand and believe that the fire will calm down once everyone in the world recognizes this key (symbol of the right to return) so we can open the doors again.
Picture for May in the 2017 calendar
In order to support Palestinian business and products, the question in a shop “Do you have guavas?” is directly followed by a condition: “Not from Israel” which may cause a tour through different shops to find everything needed. Echlas lives the meaning of her name: loyalty. Some of the days, Echlas goes to visit her family in Aida Camp, a 15-minute walk from where she lives. Today, she does not go. “I just called them, there is teargas”.
She lets her volunteers go and discover for themselves. Even the other side of the Wall. “For me, it is all Palestine. Go and see it”. Echlas Al Azzeh lost her interest in talking with “the other side”, when the women, who hit her with the car did not appear once in the hospital to visit let alone apologize.
Will Echlas witness the end of occupation? “This question really scares me. But however I always have hope even though hope becomes difficult in this time.” And some days there is just no power for resistance. Those are the difficult days. The bad mood days. Life is difficult enough. Even without occupation. “No politics today”, she asks then. But still the next day Echlas will get up, back to power. Back to talk, back to resist.
Contact Echlas al Azzeh for Arabic lessons or more information. https://eiplc.wordpress.com/volunteer/