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A lifetime as a refugee: Empowering women in Qalandia Camp

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Wednesday, 26 August, 2009

Sari Freitekh discovers the hidden serenity of the Qalandia Camp Handicraft Cooperative and meets the women who are empowering their peers through literacy and skills training.

On the outskirts of the Kalandia refugee camp, the atmosphere inside the Qalandia Camp Handicraft Cooperative is serene, contrasting drastically with the chaotic and heavily polluted world of the camp just outside. It provides a glimpse of what the nearly forgotten village of Qalandia was like before a refugee camp was erected there in 1949.

The Cooperative’s history intertwines with the history of the refugee camp. It is the oldest women’s society established and formally registered at the Palestinian refugee level in the West Bank. Mrs Khadija Farhan, the director of the cooperative is an interesting character of 77 years old. She has a commanding and outspoken personality that some might consider radical; yet to her this is her story and it has shaped her entire life since she left her village Lifta near Jerusalem. She left after a Jewish gang attacked the village coffee house in 1947, leaving seven dead. “Sitt Khadija’s” first question was directed at the Elders: “What will you do differently this time for a change after all these years?”

“Sitt Khadija” holds Jerusalem ID, an Israeli document permitting Palestinians living in Jerusalem since 1967 to continue living there, but without the full-rights of Israeli citizens. Thus they are required to pay taxes (Arnona) without any form of government services being implemented in their areas. Ironically enough, “Sitt Khadija” explains that the cooperative building itself is divided: the front entrance is in Jerusalem Israeli Jurisdiction whilst the backdoor is in a Palestinian Authority controlled area. Someone comments that perhaps a checkpoint should be implemented in the hallway of the building. Everyone laughs.

“Sitt Khadija” recalls her old village with a sense of nostalgia. She spoke affectionately of peaceful days when her childhood friends were Jewish, at a time when Palestinians and Jews not only shared children’s games but celebrated together, and stayed over at each other’s homes with no fear. “We want peace!” she declares. “We are all for it! But may I see how this peace looks like? Does it even exist?” she concludes.

In the early years of the refugee camp, the cooperative was a way for the young Khadija to move forward from a traumatising past and a miserable present. During the 1950s, as a young woman in her late teens, she decided along with eight other young women, to start a joint effort to eradicate illiteracy and to provide women refugees with means for economic independence. Providing training and helping develop much-needed skills, the cooperative’s focus remains the same: to financially enable the women and children of the refugee camp and the surrounding villages.

I leave the office of Mrs Khadija to speak to Shar Farraj, former general manager of the cooperative and now a board member who coordinates various projects. A US-educated woman in her 40s, Mrs Farraj is soft-spoken and timid. She experienced the dreadful days of the first uprising back in the late 1980s when she was a student at a French Catholic school in Jerusalem, and later as a university student at Birzeit University.

Mrs Farraj refuses to discuss politics; she is more concerned with her current work. She envisions an ideal plan for the cooperative where it becomes more self-sustainable. She believes in generating income for the cooperative in order to keep the institute going and to rely less on aid from outside.

Returning to “Sitt Khadija’s” office, I could hear her unfaltering laughter as she discusses arrangements for the Elders tour of the Kalandia Camp Handicraft Cooperative. She insists they visit the small crafts room, all eight of them at once. “Once they are all inside, we will lock them in and have them come up with a plan for peace, once and for all!”

Sari Freitekh is an Arabic-language writer and translator with a degree in Economics from the University of Houston in Texas where he assisted with the Arabic-Language division at the Classical and Modern Languages Department. He divides his time between Nazareth and Ramallah where he lives and works at a non-profit organisation.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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