Pope Francis to Visit Palestinian Refugee Camp

Palestinians say 25 minutes is far too short to give a true picture of life for the refugees.

Ilene Prusher

At the Phoenix Center in the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, they’re washing the floors and putting the finishing touches on extensive renovations made in anticipation of Pope Francis, who is due to visit on Sunday afternoon as part of his much-anticipated trip to the Holy Land. Pope Francis is slated to stop here on May 25 for precisely 25 minutes, where he’ll meet with 40 children from Deheisheh as well as three other refugee camps in the area.

Deheisheh, established in 1949 on land leased to the United Nations by the Jordanian government, is not listed on the official itinerary put out by Israel’s government press office, but it is a highlight on the Palestinian Authority’s itinerary, as part of a visit which also includes meetings with senior PA officials and a Mass in Manger Square.

Two or three of the kids at Deheisheh will get to tell their stories. (Officials won’t give out their names for fear they’ll be inundated by the media ahead of the event.)

“We want to show the pope our suffering, the bad economic conditions, the lack of work, the feeling of the youth that they have no future,” says Mamoun Lahham, director of the Phoenix Center. The children, he says, are being selected from “families with someone who was martyred, injured or jailed − and also some ordinary people as well.” Each child, he adds, will wear a T-shirt with the name of the village they are originally from − or more specifically, their parents, grandparents or great grandparents.

It’s quite a lot to squeeze into less than half an hour. Lahham had hoped the pope would make a much more comprehensive visit, rather than just the stop at the spacious event hall built largely for crowded camp residents to have a respectable place to hold weddings. The spic-and-span Phoenix Center was recently renovated with 70,000 shekels of PA funds, the local media reported, in part to have an appropriate place on the edge of the camp to receive the Catholic spiritual leader known in Arabic as “Il Baba.”

“It has been a tradition that when a pope visits Palestine he goes to a refugee camp, considering that 70 percent of the Palestinian people, including almost 70 percent of the Palestinian Christians, are refugees,” says Xavier Abu Eid, communications advisor for the Palestinian Liberation Organization Negotiations Support Unit. “The choice of Deheisheh deals with the role that this camp has played in the empowerment of our refugees, especially through culture and sports.”

Moreover, he notes, it’s a practicality: The heliport from which the pope will depart is located next to the camp.

Perhaps no one feels more strongly that the pope is missing the real story of the camp than Reem Hajajreh, a social worker who lives in Deheisheh and keeps track of its most desperate residents.

“If only I could take him by the hand and lead him through the camp, to at least a few houses,” says Hajajreh wistfully, “but he they told us that he isn’t actually going to go inside. If only I could take him on a walk down the narrow lanes, he would see the disastrous situation that people are living in every day.”

Only about 30 percent of the camp’s 13,000 residents − packed into a square kilometer − manage to earn enough to survive. The rest are dependent on assistance, whether in whole or in part. Neither the UN nor the PA do enough to help them, says Hajajreh, who knows just how bad camp life is because she grew up Bethlehem but moved to Deheisheh when she got married. It wasn’t an odd move because socioeconomically, she was already considered a refugee: Her parents’ families had fled the village of Beit Jubrin, known as Beit Guvrin in Hebrew, in 1948 into what was then Jordan. What she misses most living in the camp: trees and the chirping of birds that come with them.

“Sometimes dignitaries come to visit and say they will improve things, but nothing changes,” she says as she leads me over a jagged stone ledge and down the unpaved hill into the camp. There, she takes us to visit homes; the dwellings are cement blocks in which the walls are cracked and crumbling, spaces so overcrowded that there is hardly enough room for every family member to sit, much less sleep.

They may be washing the floor at the Phoenix Center, but in the heart of the camp people like Sawsan Abu Habseh don’t have enough water for cleaning the house or washing clothes. They aren’t connect to the water system − though others in the camp are − and instead have to fill a private tank above the building, when they can afford to.

“They’ve chosen a few families to talk about the situation, but why not us, why not one of my sons?” she says, gesturing to Mahmoud, 9, and Mohammed, 14. “I think the pope will not meet the poor people, he will only meet the rich,” she says.

Mohammed, for his part, would like to see the pope when he comes, but he assumes it’s best not to bother. “They won’t allow us to get anywhere near. There will be guards everywhere,” he says.

His younger brother moves a worn-out ball underfoot, listening. “He’s good student,” his mother says proudly. “They always give money to build centers, but never a park for the children, who have nothing to do. People come here to make reports, and they never come back.”

There are only so many places the pope can visit between the time he arrives by helicopter at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem at 9:30 A.M. Sunday and the time he takes off again at 4 P.M. to fly to Ben-Gurion Airport for his official arrival ceremony in Israel. His arrival there seems largely for show, as he’ll immediately fly back to Jerusalem, just up the road from Bethlehem.

Even in the Bethlehem area, the birthplace of Jesus, Muslims are the majority and the numbers of Christians have been dwindling. Christians now constitute approximately 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Jerusalem or about 50,000 people, according to PA estimates provided by churches. The numbers of Christians used to be much higher, but have been gradually dwindling due to emigration abroad. Less than 30 percent of Christians, according to a survey released this week by PA’s media department, are Roman Catholics for whom the pope is a spiritual leader. The survey also found that about 25 percent of the sampling of Christians surveyed identify as refuges − 15% percent of them are recognized refugees with an UNRWA card. But few of these live in refugee camps.

Still, the visit of a pope holds symbolic importance for Muslims as well, and the decades-long existence of the camps is the ultimate symbol many Palestinians want to impress upon him − alongside the separation wall that snakes across the landscape nearby.

Ilene Prusher