Aida refugee camp. © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot
It has been one month since the city of Bethlehem was shut down due to a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the city and its residents were put on lockdown, exacerbating the situation of thousands of Palestine refugees.
In a news feature posted on the official website of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinie Refugees (UNRWA), the Agency reported that the lockdown could not have come at a worse time for the residents of Bethlehem, who largely depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
In the matter of a day, thousands of people were unemployed, not knowing where their next paycheck was going to come from or how long it would take before things returned to normal. Entire communities, like the Aida Refugee Camp, immediately felt the impact of the shutdown as their workforce were suddenly at home, schools were cancelled, and the bustling streets of the camp fell silent.
For people like 56-year-old Abdulrahman Abu Srour, one of the first things that came to his mind when he heard the news of the outbreak was his health. Like many of the older residents of Aida, Abu Srour has a number of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We were seeing on the news that the virus was severely impacting people with chronic illnesses, like myself, so this was very worrying,” Abu Srour told UNRWA.
But when he saw a post on Facebook from Ibrahim Abu Srour, the Community and Camp Services Officer (CCSO) in Aida, offering to pick up people’s prescriptions from the UNRWA health center in Bethlehem and bring them back to the camp, Abu Srour said his spirits were lifted. “It was such a relief that Ibrahim was going out of his way to do this for people like myself, so that we don’t have to go out to the city and potentially expose ourselves to the virus,” Abu Srour said, adding that the decision of UNRWA to give beneficiaries two-month prescriptions as opposed to one has also “been a huge help.”
With the help of UNRWA and its staff, as well as local community health workers who provide weekly at-home checkups, Abu Srour has been able to put his mind at ease despite the fears surrounding the growing COVID-19 pandemic. “Even though everyone is stuck at home, and trying to distance themselves from one another, this community is still taking care of people like me, and I am very grateful,” he said.
Mohammed Lutfi, 39, a father of four, also told UNRWA that being stuck at home has been a tough adjustment for his family. “When you have four kids and your routine suddenly changes, it can be really difficult to adjust,” he said, particularly when it comes to studying and distance-learning.
Lutfi’s two older children, 7-year-old Dalia and 6-year-old Ahmad, are enrolled at UNRWA Boys’ and Girls’ schools in Aida camp. If it wasn’t for their UNRWA educators, Lutfi says, he wouldn’t know how to manage. “Their teachers have been amazing during this time, and I can honestly say that they are the best teachers in the world,” he said, adding that the UNRWA educational Youtube videos have also been a great resource for his kids.
“The teachers also send homework assignments and lessons to us over Facebook messenger, and are in constant communication in case the kids have any questions,” Lutfi said. “We are grateful for the efforts of our children’s teachers and people like our CCSO Ibrahim Abu Srour, who are really trying their best despite the lack of international funding for UNRWA”.
“We hope that people around the world can see us as an example, and donate to UNRWA, so they can continue to give us the essential services we need, especially during this time”, he added.
Like other Palestinian refugee camps set up across the region, the situation in Aid refugee camp has been characterized by the uncertainty and fear that has come along with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands have come out of jobs and lost their livelihoods.
Allan and her husband were both born and raised in Aida, and are now raising their young daughter, 6-month-old Lea, in the camp. Their lives were turned upside down when COVID-19 reached Bethlehem and shut down the city.
“My husband Mustafa is a tour guide, so if there are no tourists, he has no job, and we have no money,” she said. “It’s been really difficult and stressful, because I quit my job after I had Lea, and Mustafa is the primary caretaker of his parents and siblings and their families.”
“We recently bought a car using all of our savings, thinking that we would be able to pay it off with the money Mustafa made this season, but now we won’t be able to,” she said. “Had we known before that coronavirus was going to arrive at our doorsteps, we would have held onto what we had.”
“As Palestinian refugees, we have lived through lots of hardships over the years, so in a way we are used to living on less, and helping the people around us,” said Sajida, echoing the voice of millions of Palestine refugees scattered across the MENA region and the world.
Aida camp was established in 1950 on land UNRWA leased from the government of Jordan. The camp is located between the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Jerusalem. It is partially surrounded by the West Bank Barrier and is near to Har Homa and Gilo, two large Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law. These factors, along with the constant military presence and the camps’ proximity to the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, have made the camp vulnerable to a number of protection concerns.
Aida camp covers a small area of 0.71 square kilometres that has not grown significantly with the refugee population. As such, it faces severe overcrowding problems. Poor personal safety and access (due to the camp’s proximity to the West Bank Barrier) and poor infrastructure are also cited by camp residents as among the most urgent challenges they face.