Lajee Center staff, board, volunteers, members, and wider community would like to wish our friends around the world a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We hope next year we will celebrate together in a free Palestine.
We want to take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, which has been a very full year of activities for the center. We continue to mourn the loss of our founding director, Salah Ajarma, and redouble our efforts to realize his vision for Lajee, for Aida and for all of Palestine. Each of our units has facilitated educational, cultural, and social opportunities for our community to thrive and grow.
The year began with an Occupation attack on the camp that damaged Lajee’s greenhouse and hydroponics garden, destroying nearly one thousand seedlings. On January 18, an intense tear gas attack, lasting only about 20 minutes, resulted in a thick cloud of tear gas enveloping the center, the greenhouse, and other nearby residences. (See the article on Lajee’s website for a full description and video footage of the event) The following morning, Lajee Center staff and volunteers collected over 150 canisters in and around the building. As a result of this attack, the staff of the environmental unit had to replant all of the vegetables, which are supplied to nearly 120 refugee families in the camp. Lajee subsequently built a steel casing around the entire greenhouse to protect the plastic from further damage. This expense is an example of the unexpected financial strains the Israeli occupation costs Palestinian organizations.
Attacks such as this have become increasingly frequent and brutal in 2022. Despite these attacks, the center continues with its daily activities and the work of each of its units. We want to acknowledge the exceptional work that Lajee’s staff does each day to make this possible. Their commitment to this work and strong relationships with our community are the reason we are able to grow and thrive. Below you will find more in-depth descriptions of our work this year to have a sense of the tireless efforts of our staff, board, and volunteers.
Zahrat al-Yasmeen Kindergarten
Lajee Center’s Zahrat al-Yasmeen Kindergarten continued its work to provide children a safe place to learn and play, despite the difficult situation around them. Kindergarten director Maggie Fatoula said it is very important to keep the kindergarten open in this location and provide the children with their right to be happy and safe in their neighborhood. Many mornings, this means that the kindergarten teachers first check the playground for tear gas canisters thrown the day before by the occupation forces. Some children arrive in the morning already talking about tear gas, or the sudden arrests of older children in their family. The kindergarten staff is devoted to providing the children with a safe place to express themselves in the midst of this trauma. “Our kids deserve everything,” says Fatoula.
The philosophy at Zahrat al-Yasmeen is teaching through play, and paying attention to each child’s personality and emotional well-being to inform their program. The kindergarten incorporates children of all needs and abilities. The teachers work with children on an individual basis as needed to ensure each child receives the attention they deserve.
On June 11, 2022, the kindergarten celebrated the joyous occasion of its first graduation ceremony. The ceremony was led by the children, who participated as speakers to introduce the program to the parents and guests, as well as performing dabke, singing songs, and even putting on a play. Each graduating child received a special certificate.
Over the summer, the kindergarten hosted a summer camp for the new children to learn the Zahrat al-Yasmeen routine and get to know their classmates and teachers. This introduction to the kindergarten made it an easier adjustment for the children, parents, and teachers, when the new school year began.
It has been a very successful year for the kindergarten, with many special activities. Speaking about Lajee Center and its special relationship with the children and the community, Fatoula said “This is the most wonderful place I have found in my life. I found my soul here. In this place, you take and you give. You take the love from the kids, they teach you a lot, and then you give.” The work of the kindergarten honors the vision of former Lajee director Salah Ajarma, whose dream of offering a safe place for young children has become a reality.
The applications for the kindergarten are growing, and the center plans to build a third classroom to meet the demand for this kind of program in the camp.
The library program serves more than 100 children, aged 5-12, each year. This year they held a national reading week that focused on the concept of “home” and children learned and drew about their home villages. The library activities focus primarily on reading books and drawing. The children are encouraged to involve their families as well, which is why the library hosted a week of reading with women and children as well as participating in a program called “Dad, Read to Me” in which fathers and children participated in reading and other activities together.
Nakba Day – Kite Competition
On Nakba Day, Lajee hosted its 13th annual kite competition. Over 70 children participated in the day’s activities, which included learning about the massacres of Deir Yassin, Sabra & Shatila and the atrocities in the Jenin camp, as well as the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. 25 youth participated in the competition to see whose kite could fly the longest. The top ten participants received a cash prize.
Summer Camps for Youth
Lajee held three summer camps for youth in the summer of 2022 – the Yasser Arafat Summer Camp, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Summer Camp, and the Environment Summer Camp. In June, thirty children between the ages of 12-16 participated in the Environment camp to learn about recycling, local snakes, first aid, and public speaking skills. The children visited the village of Battir to plant vegetables with local farmers and went on a hike in the northern governorate of Jenin. In July, seventy children between the ages of 9-15 participated in the Yasser Arafat camp which focused on educational activities relating to the words, career, and life of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. In August, 200 children between the ages of 5 to 14 participated in the MCC summer camp. The camp included sports and health activities as well as environmental education, and encouraging creativity through storytelling, music, and handicrafts. The camp participants also learned about child rights and hosted a former political prisoner to hear his story.
Music and Dabke
Lajee continued its music and dabke programs, offering music classes to twenty children between the ages of 8 and 18. The center runs three dabke groups, starting with age 5 and continuing until age 16. The oldest dabke group and five of the musicians participated in Lajee’s cultural tour to Ireland. There have also been performances in Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Lajee’s health unit consists of six Community Health Workers who work in pairs to assist 120 patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. The patients are women and men from Aida and al-Azzeh camps. The CHWs track the patients’ medications, surgery recovers, and complications from diseases. This information helps doctors to know how patients are doing and to recommend when further medical attention may be needed.
The Community Health Workers regularly engage in activities to increase their knowledge about health issues in the camp. They prepare medical lectures for each other as well as receiving lectures from international visiting doctors and from Dr. Mohammad Abu Srour, the health unit’s medical manager. Research published in a global health journal found that this method of community health workers is an effective model for improving diabetes and hypertension control in situations of direct violence such as Aida camp.
Lajee’s Health Unit hosted two five-day camps for female patients and other women from Aida and Azzeh camps and the Bethlehem area. Over 50 women participated in each program. You can read more about the camp activities on Lajee’s website.
Third Annual Eid Carnival
In July, Lajee hosted its third annual Eid Festival for Eid al-Adha. The Lajee garden was filled with tables where Palestinian women sold local produce and handicrafts. This supports local craftspeople and strengthens Palestinian resilience and resistance against the occupation. The festival also included puppet shows, dance performances, plays, clowns, and a bouncy house for children. The day was filled with joy and celebration of life.
Lajee’s gym program has served more than 100 female participants since January 2022. During 2022, the gym also started to serve people with disabilities – both in group sessions and in individual trainings. According to Athal Al-Azzeh, the gym’s coordinator, she saw significant improvements from the individual sessions for people with disabilities. Athal is trained as an occupational therapist and was able to provide sport therapy for people with special physical needs. She sees the creation of space in the gym for people with disabilities as a very unique program in Bethlehem.
The gym is a very busy place, offering 19 one-hour group sessions each week in addition to the individual sessions. In August, Athal began offering yoga classes and is proud of the women who have remained in this program all year. She sees the cultural shift occurring when people come to the gym – some may never have been to a gym before and they become inspired to improve their lifestyle. They start to ask for exercises that will improve their own well-being and health.
Athal spoke of many stories of success this year through the trainings. One man who is a patient in the health unit began receiving individual training with Athal with the goal of running again in the Palestine marathon. When he started, it took him nearly half an hour to walk the short distance from his home in Al-Azzeh camp to the Lajee gym. There was great celebration and sense of achievement when he made the walk in only 13 minutes.
The gym continues its close cooperation with Aclai Ireland, welcoming a group from Ireland in February to work on handbooks and coaching points for trainers in Lajee. Additionally, a group of Irish boxers visited and hope to start a boxing club in the gym in 2023.
The circus school holds training for two groups of children ages 6-12 every week, as well as three days of circus activities with the Zahrat al-Yasmeen kindergarten students. The circus activities give the kindergarteners a healthy and creative place to express their energy, and also encourages them to consider joining the circus after they finish kindergarten. Mohammad Romi, the school’s coordinator, also provided circus training activities at the Yasser Arafat and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) summer camps as well as for Aida’s girl’s school. Lajee also hosted two different Spanish groups for performances and training with the children.
Lajee Center completed a ten-day cultural tour in Ireland in September 2022. The tour included performances by the dabke troupe and music ensemble as well as photo ex hibits and speeches. The youth were accompanied by Lajee Center director Mohammad Al-Azza, Lajee’s board chair, Khaled al-Azraq, and Community Health Worker Aya Darwish. Cultural tours are an important platform through which Lajee youth, staff, and volunteers share about the reality of life in Palestine with international audiences. Lajee is currently planning a tour to the UK in 2023.
Word of Gratitude and Planning for the Future
There are many daily activities in the center not mentioned in this letter, and even more being planned for the future. This year, Lajee partnered with Balata Refugee Camp to replicate Lajee’s successful community health program. Three Community Health Workers and a coordinator were hired to accompany 21 patients in Balata. Lajee will continue this program in 2023. The center also plans to extend the physical space for the gym and circus school, and restart the Aida Celtic football program. The Zahrat al-Yasmeen Kindergarten will also be expanded to a third classroom.
As you can see, it has been a very full and busy year. We want to thank all of our local and international friends, supporters and partners all over the world. Without your support and solidarity we would not be able to continue our work in Aida Camp and the surrounding communities. Everything we do supports refugee families to remain steadfast. We will continue to work for freedom and justice until we can celebrate together in a free Palestine.