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The final stop on the bus today was the Aida Refugee Camp. I had heard many things about Refugee Camps but have never been to one. I’m not sure what specifically I expected. I hoped I would feel empathy for the people living there.

First, the refugee camp is like a city. I couldn’t tell where Bethlehem ended and where the refugee camp ended. The housing was in better condition than the village in Gush Etzion. They had working roofs that didn’t leak. It looked like a city, not overrun like I expected.

As we began the program with the head of the local community center, I hoped to hear the challenges they faced and the hopes and dreams that they had. He teaches the youth in the refugee camp and I really hoped to get a positive and hopeful message.

My hopes were dashed. I had heard that refugee camps were breeding grounds for hate and I hoped that this would be proven wrong. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.

He told us how he teaches the children there is only one state – Palestine. He told us that the wall/fence wasn’t what stopped terrorists, it was the PA and Israeli government agreeing it would stop. And since this agreement, there were only 2 bombs on buses and one was by someone from Aida. The way he said it seemed like he was proud. He talked about how under international law they were allowed to fight back and while he didn’t believe in suicide attacks or bombs killing women and children, soldiers were ok and he certainly didn’t say that public places were off limits.

I had questions for him but couldn’t open my mouth to speak because of what I was afraid I would say. As we walked out of the community center into the streets of the camp, I was shaking my head in disbelief. I saw the images below and felt hopeless. In the village I felt sadness and empathy. Here it was pure hopelessness and despair. He told us how Israeli soldiers test new rifles on Palestinian children in the camps. It was surreal. I could barely talk as the bus brought us back to the hotel.
A big part of Encounter is the dialogue you have with other participants. While I had concerns about this part of the trip going into it (really my biggest concerns, far more than safety and security), I was really looking forward to my small group to help me process. I wrote my first post after checking into my room and then went downstairs to my small group.

Almost everybody on this trip I met today. My small group was no different. As we talked and began to share our anger, sadness, disappointment, frustration, hope and hopelessness, it was cathartic. We talked about a group of children we saw in the refugee camp. They were adorable children – smiling, laughing and waving at us. I wondered if at 5 or 8 years old their minds have already been poisoned against peace and if we have lost another generation. I wondered what they will be like in 5 or 10 years and if they will have hope for a better future or be filled with anger, resentment and hate. It felt good to share my experience with the group and as we wrapped up and prepared to head for dinner, I finally was in a place that I could think clearly and deeply about my experience.