Existential fears, Hope and Solidarity: Coping Under 30 days of Quarantine in Aida Camp

07 April 2020
Abdulrahman Abu Srour holds up his medications for diabetes and blood pressure that he receives from the UNRWA clinic in Bethlehem. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Yumna Patel

It has been one month since the city of Bethlehem was shut down due to a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the city and its residents were put on lockdown, including thousands of Palestine refugees. The lockdown could not have come at a worse time for the residents of Bethlehem, who largely depend on tourism for their livelihoods. In the matter of a day, thousands of people were unemployed, not knowing where their next paycheck was going to come from or how long it would take before things returned to normal.  Entire communities, like the Aida Refugee Camp, immediately felt the impact of the shutdown as their workforce were suddenly at home, schools were cancelled, and the bustling streets of the camp fell silent.

For people like 56-year-old Abdulrahman Abu Srour, one of the first things that came to his mind when he heard the news of the outbreak was his health. Like many of the older residents of Aida, Abu Srour has a number of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.  “We were seeing on the news that the virus was severely impacting people with chronic illnesses, like myself, so this was very worrying,” Abu Srour said.

But when he saw a post on Facebook from Ibrahim Abu Srour, the Community and Camp Services Officer (CCSO) in Aida, offering to pick up people’s prescriptions from the UNRWA health center in Bethlehem and bring them back to the camp, Abu Srour said his spirits were lifted.  “It was such a relief that Ibrahim was going out of his way to do this for people like myself, so that we don’t have to go out to the city and potentially expose ourselves to the virus,” Abu Srour said, adding that the decision of UNRWA to give beneficiaries two-month prescriptions as opposed to one has also “been a huge help.”

With the help of UNRWA and its staff, as well as local community health workers who provide weekly at-home checkups, Abu Srour has been able to put his mind at ease despite the fears surrounding the growing COVID-19 pandemic.  “Even though everyone is stuck at home, and trying to distance themselves from one another, this community is still taking care of people like me, and I am very grateful,” he said.

Mohammad Lutfi helps his children Ahmad and Dalia do their homework sent to them via Facebook by their teachers from the UNRWA boy's and girl's school in Aida Camp. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Yumna Patel
Mohammad Lutfi helps his children Ahmad and Dalia do their homework sent to them via Facebook by their teachers from the UNRWA boy's and girl's school in Aida Camp. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Yumna Patel

Mohammed Lutfi, 39, a father of four, says that being stuck at home has been a tough adjustment for his family. “When you have four kids and your routine suddenly changes, it can be really difficult to adjust,” he said, particularly when it comes to studying and distance-learning.  Lutfi’s two older children, 7-year-old Dalia and 6-year-old Ahmad, are enrolled at UNRWA Boys’ and Girls’ schools in Aida camp. If it wasn’t for their UNRWA educators, Lutfi says, he wouldn’t know how to manage. “Their teachers have been amazing during this time, and I can honestly say that they are the best teachers in the world,” he said, adding that the UNRWA educational Youtube videos have also been a great resource for his kids.  “The teachers also send homework assignments and lessons to us over Facebook messenger, and are in constant communication in case the kids have any questions,” Lutfi said.  “We are grateful for the efforts of our children’s teachers and people like our CCSO Ibrahim Abu Srour, who are really trying their best despite the lack of international funding for UNRWA,” he said.  “We hope that people around the world can see us as an example, and donate to UNRWA, so they can continue to give us the essential services we need, especially during this time.”

Volunteers from the Aida Youth Center put together food parcels to deliver to needy families around the camp.
Volunteers from the Aida Youth Center put together food parcels to deliver to needy families around the camp.

Despite the uncertainty and fear that has come along with the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Aida Camp are still finding ways to help one another and lift each other's spirits. An emergency committee set up by the local council has been using its resources to purchase canned goods, fresh vegetables, rice, flour and other essentials, and create food parcels which young volunteers from the camp distribute around to families in need.  

Young girls from the camp put together flowers to deliver to women around the camp for Arab Mother's Day on March 21, 2020.
Young girls from the camp put together flowers to deliver to women around the camp for Arab Mother's Day on March 21, 2020.

The young men in the camp have organized “rooftop parties”, blasting music from their loudspeakers throughout the camp to lift people’s spirits, while a group of young women --wearing masks and gloves -- distributed flowers to women across the camp for mother’s day. “We might be out of jobs, and suffering during this pandemic, but we know that our community and our neighbors will never abandon us,” Sajida Allan, 26, said. “People are scared, but we know that we don’t have to worry about going hungry.”

Allan and her husband were both born and raised in Aida, and are now raising their young daughter, 6-month-old Lea, in the camp. Their lives were turned upside down when COVID-19 reached Bethlehem and shut down the city. “My husband Mustafa is a tour guide, so if there are no tourists, he has no job, and we have no money,” she said. “It’s been really difficult and stressful, because I quit my job after I had Lea, and Mustafa is the primary caretaker of his parents and siblings and their families.”

Sajida Allan, 26, and her 6-month-old daughter Lea.
Sajida Allan, 26, and her 6-month-old daughter Lea.

Like many of the residents of the camp who work in the tourism and service industry, Sajida and her husband were highly anticipating the arrival of spring, the peak season for tourism in Bethlehem. “We recently bought a car using all of our savings, thinking that we would be able to pay it off with the money Mustafa made this season, but now we won’t be able to,” she said. “Had we known before that coronavirus was going to arrive at our doorsteps, we would have held onto what we had.”

No matter how stressed she is, Sajida said she finds comfort in seeing the community solidarity that has been going on in Aida. “As Palestinian refugees, we have lived through lots of hardships over the years, so in a way we are used to living on less, and helping the people around us,” she said. “I think that this virus has brought out the humanity in people around the world, and especially in Aida.”