"Karama Means Dignity"

At the Deheishe refugee camp – founded in 1949 within the city limits of Bethlehem in the West Bank – German students are trying to offer residents a new perspective through education. Christina Bramsmann visited the project.

Children in Deheishe, photo: Christina Bramsmann
Children in Deheishe

​​The road leading to the Karama House is filthy. Rubbish, leftover food, pieces of fabric, cardboard boxes and plastic containers lie between the gray houses on this narrow street. A broken refrigerator stands outside one of the houses.

Suddenly, children's voices can be heard. The visitor enters through a steel door and after mounting a few steps, he stands amidst a group of children, painting. They have just discovered that watercolors can also be used for face-painting.

In the room next door, an English lesson is in progress. In another room full of pillows and blankets, two female volunteers from Germany are preparing a theater project.

"Karama means dignity"

When Stephan Lanzinger and Jasser Al-Haj first thought about founding a project for children and women three years ago, their ideas weren't yet very concrete.

But they did have a specific goal, and the name Karama recalls that goal today. As Stephan Lanzinger explains: "Karama means dignity. We chose that name because this project is about giving the people back a certain measure of dignity, or to enable them not to lose their dignity."

The 25-year-old student from Berlin wanted to create an organization that could work independently without being influenced by political parties or other groups.

In Germany, students working for the German division of the organization – Karama Germany – try to raise funds for projects such as summer camps or to pay the salaries of teachers and social workers. To that end, they submit requests to institutions like the EU or the UN, or collect private donations.

German volunteers

But it's not just with money, but frequently, by actively working at the project that volunteers help the refugee camp at Deheishe near Bethlehem.

Tom Eickhof, a geography student, is in Palestine for the first time. Previously, he had supported Karama's work from Germany. Now, he's busy painting cardboard houses with the children, giving English lessons, and developing ideas for new projects along with other aid workers.

The impression he once had of the Middle East vanished quickly: "What we see on the evening news deals with fighting in the streets and attacks in Israel. Once you're here, you experience the very real poverty that exists, and the small everyday problems.

"And the hospitality of the people, too, which is simply astounding. The courtesy with which one is greeted, and accepted into people's homes or invited to dinner or for tea."

On the other hand, the time he spent living with a Palestinian host family also made him familiar with something not noticeable at first glance:
"It's true that after a few weeks, you get cabin fever. There's simply not a lot of room here. 12,000 people live within one square kilometer."

Keeping kids away from war

Above all, children suffer from the lack of space. There are no playgrounds here, not even an open field where they could play soccer. Large families share small houses that are often unfinished.

Tamer, a 17-year-old student from the camp, views Karama as, more than anything, a chance for the children: "This way they get off the street and don't get involved in fights or in the war."

Jasser AL-Haj, the head of Karama Palestine, is also happy that children have this alternative: "Now we have children who can learn, who want to learn, and this gives them hope. I think that many of the parents here at the camp are simply happy that their sons and daughters can learn and experience new things here."

Karama wants to try to give the people at the refugee camp a new perspective through education. For example, women also have the chance to educate themselves, through lectures for example, says Lanziger:

Further education for women

"The problem is that many women are still relatively isolated. Life at the camp is still very tradition-oriented, and traditionally, a woman's place is at home. That's not only because of the way men are, or the way the family is, but because the women themselves are not accustomed to attending any kind of gathering outside the home."

Lectures on topics such as raising children, domestic violence and dealing with traumatized children are designed to give women an opportunity to
share each other's experiences.

The Karama team dreams of starting additional projects in other refugee camps. But the next order of business is moving into a bigger house in
Deheishe so that more women and children can participate.

And in the summer of 2005, for the first time, students in Berlin hope to welcome fellow students from Bethlehem to Germany.

Christina Bramsmann

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Mark Rossman