The following commentary was published this week as part of the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries' Witness for Justice series.
Written by Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
UCC Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries
It is one thing to hear news reports about conditions in Palestinian refugee camps, but it is quite another to actually be there in person. As part of Global Ministries (a joint ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ), I recently visited such a camp in Beirut, Lebanon. There is no way to fully describe the situation, but I am sure that what I saw will remain in my memory for a long-time to come.
The Joint Christian Committee for Social Services in Lebanon (JCC), which is part of the Middle East Council of Churches, boldly demonstrates extraordinary commitment to serving Palestinian refugees. It is important to remember that these refugees were first displaced over 65 years ago, first to Syria – then from Syria to Lebanon. The JCC Director, Mrs. Sylvia Haddad, is courageous in her quest to keep the Palestinian community's story alive, generation after generation.
Mrs. Haddad first wanted to expose our group to a positive experience at the JCC Sabra Center because she knew that entering the nearby inner-city refugee camp would present a more disturbing picture that would jolt our consciousness. She was correct.
Following an orientation to the center's inter-generational programs, we were greeted by pre-school age children with sparkling eyes and joyful smiles, and an occasional frightened face. In classroom after classroom, teachers were busily teaching basic skills, but they readily welcomed us with waves and songs. The Center's youth and adult vocational education programs include computer technology, electronics, hairdressing, and literacy to help students to become self-sufficient. The Center also offers programs for the elderly, who according to Mrs. Haddad "carry the keys to the family and community story."
As Mrs. Haddad promised, my consciousness was profoundly stirred by the journey through the Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp, just a short walk from the Sabra Center where thousands of people reside (an accurate number is not known). We wound through narrow streets and passageways between buildings, greeting people along the way. Even with the electrical wires hanging overhead from building to building and street to street, there are still some small home spaces without electrical power.
We came upon a stack of baked bread, safely tucked in clear plastic bags. We were told that many in the community are without food so the bread is left on a concrete shelf for them to take with no questions asked. In this way they do not have to beg on the streets, their dignity is preserved and immediate hunger needs are met — a clear demonstration of mutual care.
As we moved along, we passed children playing in the narrow passageways. While the Sabra Center serves many children, they are filled to capacity so the rest are left to pass their day in the camp. Three little boys were jostling as we passed, one sporting a t-shirt with the words "Never Give Up" across his chest.
Regardless of our political feelings about Israel/Palestine, we cannot ignore the human tragedy of wholesale displacement of Palestinians from their homeland generations ago. The message on this little boy's t-shirt reminded me that we all have a part – if we do nothing justice will never be realized. We cannot close our eyes to their reality. We too can never give up.