In 2000, the second intifada erupted in West Bank and The Gaza Strip. The conflict resulted in 4,300 fatalities over the course of five years. Located in the heart of the conflict, Palestinian refugees residing in Aida Camp were subjected to frequent military attacks and their inexpensively built houses were exposed to land and air raids.
Israeli forces occupied their houses and commandeered their camp for military purposes all while schools were destroyed and roads were severely damaged. In the midst of this chaos, 11 young refugees of the Aida Camp assembled a group where creative arts help the poor in Palestine.
Starting The Lajee Center
Within the year, these creative members secured a 70 square meter garage for their place of operation. Their goal was to create a space in which Palestinians could creatively address their enduring struggle to secure their rights. They called this space The Lajee Center, a place where the creative arts help the poor on a daily basis.
Today, The Lajee Center is a cultural center that provides “refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and developmental opportunities.” It services not only the roughly 39 percent of Aida Camp residents living on less than $2 a day but is also open to all Palestinians.
According to the organization’s website, “activities are organized with the goal of fostering in participants a wider understanding of the world in which they live, focusing on issues relating specifically to their own society, culture and history, as well as the global context.”
Lajee Center Programs
The programs of Lajee Center reflect the increasing reliance on the creative arts in order to address situations of extreme poverty. In fact, UNESCO has launched several initiatives in which the creative arts help the poor in various impoverished communities.
The organization recognizes that publishing, music, cinema, crafts and design play a role in allowing for freedom of expression, cultural diversity and economic development. The group also recognizes that the arts have the ability to address emerging inequalities that have resulted from the development of new technologies and international trade.
A Therapeutic Escape
The therapeutic benefits of creative outlets are well-known — children in the camp are guided in arts and crafts in which they are encouraged to visually express their greatest aspirations. Some partake in weekly dance lessons in the traditional Palestinian folk dance while others participate in the camp’s choral group or individual music lessons. The children report that the music not only connects them to their history but it also provides them with welcomed escapes from their harsh surroundings.
Perhaps, most importantly, the creative arts are a source of identity formation. The residents of the Aida Camp continue to be subjected to military violence as a result of the Israeli occupation. Members of the dance troupe have been injured and detained while others have been banned from travel.
Healing Powers of Art
A group of 50 was once detained in a building without ventilation and then targeted with tear gas grenades; however, the troupe has continued dancing because they value how dance is a part of their identity. It instills them with a sense of belonging and strengthens their claim as a distinct people deserving of basic human rights.
The Lajee Center has earned international acclaim for its many artistic endeavors. The Lajee’s Center’s Palestinian folk dance troupe has performed not only around West Bank but has also toured to both The U.K. and Syria on several occasions. The organization has also participated in two cultural tours around The U.K. which exposed members’ photography, film and dance to over 3,000 members of the British public.
Furthermore, Lajee Center has organized 30 international photography exhibits showcasing the work of the camp’s youth. These exhibits took place in 9 different countries covering 4 different continents. In addition, 4 books written by Aida camps residents have been published internationally in both Arabic and English.
When attempting to find solutions to cases of extreme poverty in the world, it is easy to focus on economic barriers, access to education and lack of basic utilities.
Humanitarian groups readily assist in building wells, providing new agricultural technology and renovating schools. In all the frenzy, the cultural and artistic components are oftentimes overlooked; however, in order to most effectively implement these developmental measures, it is essential to understand the daily lives and beliefs of the people’s expected to adopt these new measures.
It is essential to address not only physical needs but also the emotional ones. Recognizing this importance, the Lajee Center has put culture and the arts at the heart of its grassroots humanitarian efforts and recognizes how creative arts help the poor in ways that traditional relief efforts cannot.
– Joanna Dooley