How could I tell a grown man not to cry?
By Ciaran Tierney
When he got to the Cliffs of Moher, all he could do was find a quiet place to sit down and cry.
For almost 60 years on this earth, he had dreamed of a moment like this. Now that it was upon him, he was overwhelmed.
He did not want to speak, or to ruin the moment for the excited teenagers scurrying around him, not realising how profound this moment was in a life which has been so scarred.
In Galway, I met Khaled Alazraq last week. He bore a huge responsibility on his shoulders, bringing 19 teenage refugees around the country on a whirlwind national tour which took in a variety of venues in Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Kildare, over ten days.
He was in tears again when he realised the house he was staying in, down by the Claddagh, had the sea literally at the end of his street. Despite a packed schedule of tours, interviews, talks, and concerts, he would get up at dawn and just savour the view, the peace, and the clean air down by the shores of Galway Bay before meeting up with the children.
Khaled Alazraq is almost 60 years old. Until last Monday evening, he had never seen the sea.
He had grown up in a refugee camp less than an hour from the Mediterranean, but a life of restrictions, harassment, imprisonment, and being treated as a second-class citizen meant that sitting on a beach or walking by the seashore was just an impossible dream.
Khaled does not speak much English. But in the two days I spent in his company, it didn’t take long to see that he was a quiet, dignified, gentle soul. The kind who would allow the tears to fall freely after finally realising what, to most of us, seems such a simple dream.
If you grow up in the Aida refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, though, a visit to the seaside really is an impossible dream.
When there are armed soldiers and watchtowers overlooking your crowded encampment, when a huge Apartheid Wall which has gone up during your lifetime tells you life is full of restrictions and not to be lived, sometimes people like Khaled can only rely on dreams.
Khaled has spent 28 years of his life in prison.
As he smokes yet another cigarette, quiet and humble and very much in the background as the teenagers tour the Salthill aquarium or walk through the heart of Galway, it’s hard to reconcile that such a quiet, humble, and dignified soul could have been seen as such a threat for so long.
But, then again, nobody in the Aida refugee camp, where Khaled lives, enjoys what Irish people would consider to be a “normal” life.
The Lajee Dancers, including the children he accompanied all around Ireland with two other Palestinian adults, try to keep Palestinian dance, music, and culture alive against a background of military watchtowers, early morning raids on their homes, tear gas, and heavily armed soldiers.
All of their families are refugees from towns and villages in what is now Israel, with no right to return and no citizenship rights. When they travel, if and when they are allowed to, they cannot use the nearby airport in Tel Aviv. They have to face gruelling security checks and make the long trip across the Allenby Bridge to Jordan.
Entire generations have grown up in a camp where the “temporary” status of a refugee has haunted them for 72 years. They are made to believe that they don’t belong and yet they cannot return to the place their grandparents called home.
Which is why it is such a brilliant thing to see children from the camp on an Irish stage, sharing their joyful dance and music with ecstatic Irish audiences who cannot imagine what they have gone through just to get to perform in Galway, Kildare, Cork, or Dublin.
There is no privacy back home. Young Radhd (17), who was brave enough to accompany me for a “live” radio interview during her three days in Galway, talks about trying to keep the culture of her grandparents alive while living under constant surveillance from six military watchtowers.
She’s so brilliant on the radio that I forget English is her second language. But, then again, when your life is lived in a crowded refugee camp, under the watchful eyes of armed and aggressive snipers, her definition of bravery is probably much different to that of an Irish girl of her age.
“You cannot imagine how happy we are to be here in Ireland,” group leader Mohammad Alazza says. “To know that no solider is going to come and raid your house in the middle of the night. To see the sea in Galway. It is very, very special. When we saw the sea, you cannot believe it.
“One of our members who is with us, he was in jail for 28 years. The sea is not far from where we live. It is honestly only about 15kms, so it is very, very close, but we cannot reach it because of the Apartheid.”
It is important for Mohammad, Khaled, and the children to meet Irish people, to tell their stories and to discuss the realities of life under occupation in the West Bank.
In 2018, the Aida refugee camp was designated as the community most exposed to tear gas in the world by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for refugees.
A group of young people from the Aida refugee camp established the Lajee Center in April 2000 to provide refugee youth and women with cultural, educational, social, and developmental opportunities and to revive a culture which seems to be constantly under threat from the illegal occupation.
All of the 19 children who received standing ovations across Ireland last week are members of families who fled or were forced to flee their homes and villages in Israel in 1948. When the Aida camp was established in 1950, nobody expected so many of them to be still living in the tiny camp 72 years on.
For Mohammad and his family, the ‘Nakba’ (or catastrophe) of 1948, when 750,000 people were run out of their homes and villages, has never ended.
Many of the people in the camp are traumatised, having witnessed innocent people being shot dead by soldiers or found themselves hauled out of bed in the middle of the night.
They dream of returning to their villages, of leaving the tiny, over-crowded camp behind.
Or, like Khaled, they dream of a simple day out by the sea.
On Wednesday night, it was amazing to see the huge attendance at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway give the young Lajee Dancers a standing ovation after witnessing their vibrant, joyful dance.
“It’s very difficult to feel comfortable in the refugee camp,” Radhd says. “There are six military watchtowers around the camp. You cannot go anywhere outside the West Bank without getting permission from the Israeli soldiers. It is a very difficult place for a child, trying to play on the street when there’s tear gas, guns, and bombs.
“I play the music that our grandparents played in the past. I want to save our culture and traditions, because the Israeli occupation wants to stall them.”
Not only is she a gifted musician, she has won a scholarship to study medicine abroad. But, here in Ireland, we rarely get to hear the voices of brilliant young Palestinian teenagers like Radhd.
I brought Radhd and the other teenagers on a 90 minute walking tour of Galway where they asked many engaging and well thought-out questions about the walls which our own occupiers once used to keep the Irish peasants out of Irish cities.
It gave them hope that someday, too, their Apartheid wall will come tumbling down.
And that good, decent, dignified people like Khaled won’t have to wait 58 or 59 years before getting the chance to see the sea.
These gifted teenagers have so much to offer the world if only they were given the chance to breathe.
Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ciarantierney
#Palestine #Ireland #Bethlehem #LajeeCenter #Aida