A communal endeavor
Verdeja ’14 volunteered at the Al-Feniq community center
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 18:09
The West Bank has always been in an area of the world engulfed in political controversy. Although the Dheisheh Refugee Camp was created as a place of refuge for Palestinians, the people there have done their best to transform the land where they live with positive spirits.
Andrea Verdeja ’14 was born in Japan and then moved with her family to the Dominican Republic where she lives now. An International and Global Studies and Politics double major and Peace and Coexistence Studies minor, Verdeja stays involved on campus from being on the Brandeis sailing team to being the president of the International Club, a student worker at ISSO, as well as being a community advisor.
This past summer, Verdeja, who is a 2012 Sorensen Fellow, volunteered at the Al-Feniq community center, also known as the Phoenix Center, which is located in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. The camp was created after more than 750,000 Palestinians had to leave Israel. This refugee camp is “the biggest camp in the Bethlehem area. They have 13,000 refugees living there,” according to Verdeja. She said the community center was established 10 years ago and is made up of mostly locals, so “they accept any international volunteers willing to go and help, but it’s basically community life.” Verdeja was one of only two from the United States volunteering at the center.
Much of the volunteer work consists of assigned projects involving the camp, such as the project Verdeja took on, which was a series of interviews with members of the camp in their early 20s, speaking about what life is like in the camp. While she was there, she took editing and filmmaking classes, which she hopes to put in use when she compiles the interviews and finalizes her film.
Besides her project, Verdeja was also working on translations, updating the center’s webpage and writing grant proposals.
Verdeja described the center which she learned about from her Palestinian friend who took her to his center, as being “a very family-based, community culture” and said the center “is basically the house [for] everyone.” Al-Feniq has programs for people of all ages. Some of the activities available for the members of the camp include bringing in trainers to run workshops on various topics including team building and stress relief; workshops on mosaics, photography, filmmaking, mural painting and theater; and exercising in gyms, including one newly built only for women. There are also library programs for younger children. “Because there is no space inside the refugee camp, they really don’t have a place to play or [a place] to have a recreational area, so the center does give them that space that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Verdeja said.
One aspect of the center that Verdeja particularly appreciated was the involvement of the volunteers inspired by pure concern for the members of the community. “Every single person including the director is a volunteer. Absolutely no one gets paid. It comes out of themselves to go and work. … It comes out of themselves to do it, for love of their communities, for love of their friends and families because they do want to make things better,” she said.
Another program that the community offered, “Campus in Camps,” gives 15 to 20 young adults with college degrees the opportunity to complete a two-year post-graduate program involving their ideas on how to improve the camp, “what are the projects that they themselves want to see implemented inside the camp,” according to Verdeja. “That was really inspiring to see them taking over the future of the camp and what’s going to happen with their community and see them so excited and motivated. Everything was so inspiring,” she said.
Within the Dheisheh refugee camp, there are two major community centers, of which Al-Feniq is one, and the Ibdaa cultural center is the other. The directors of each community center “were jailed together and inside the jail … they conceptualized the project of [building] these two centers” and began their project as soon as they were free.
Verdeja plans on continuing work in NGOs, human rights and advocacy once she graduates from the University. She praised the individuals in the community center and the camp. “They’re so inspiring. They’re honorable and their capacity to love and their capacity to be openhearted, open-minded … they’re so hospitable and so loving and [have] so much warmth. They welcome you into their families,” she said.
Verdeja said that considering their situation, she was so impressed with their attitudes and personalities and called her whole experience humbling. “[The people in the camp are] under occupation 24/7. They wake up every morning with a smile on their faces. It gives you perspective on what real problems are; if they go through everything they go through and still have a smile on their faces and be as loving human beings as they are, what gives us the right in our perfect little world to complain about things?”