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“I have a right to play”, “I have a right to live in a clean environment”, “I have a right to express myself”.
Those were some of the signs and slogans carried by children at a recent protest at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Some of these young protesters were barely five years old.
Some protests do not aspire to end a dictator’s term or achieve basic human rights, they can also be launched to save a playground. The basic demand of these children was for their swings and slides to be saved.
Due to the crowded living conditions in the camps, there is not enough open space for children to play. Their parents cannot afford the high prices of summer trips and recreational summer camps.
Instead of strolling in the camps’ alleyways and running the risk of getting run over by cars, this playground was the only outlet for children to fool around and enjoy being kids.
The children are participating in a summer camp that is part of the Laji Center in Aida camp. The children told us that they learned that they have rights and have to fight to gain them.
Palestinians, especially those who live in refugee camps, have established educational and recreational centers for children all over the Palestinian territories.
Almost every refugee camp in the West Bank and Gaza has at least one cultural center. The main goal of the centers is to empower children and teach them different subjects to develop their skills.
Laji Center in Aida is also a place which enhances the concept of the right of return in the children. When we asked some of the children from the Laji center about their origins, they said: “I am from the destroyed village of Ajjor”, “I am from the destroyed Beit Nattif village”.
These villages were places these children’s grandparents were from.
A 4 year-old-girl approached us shyly, and we asked her about the sign she was carrying.
“I want to play”. What would you like to play with, we asked. “The swing”, she replied. She added that someone is trying to pull out the swings and prevent her and her friends from entering the playground.
Near Laji Center there is a piece of land that used to be a dump for the camp. It also separates the center from a cemetery which the Israeli authorities have confiscated.
The land belongs to an investor who has allowed the children to play for many years.
Children used to say: “There is a kind man who allowed us to use this piece of land, take off the garbage, plant flowers and play here instead of playing in the streets where we could get run over by cars”.
We got a clearer picture of the situation after conversing with some youths who were guiding the summer camp in Laji Center. They explained that the owner of the land allowed the children to play there, because there were no other space for them to play inside the camp.
The children’s efforts in planting and taking care of the land prevented Israel from confiscating it with the wall, they say. However, serious problems began with the landlord and he closed off the playground anyway.
One of the directors of the summer camp, Muhammad, told us “the landlord has supported us for years by lending us and allowed the children to use the land, so we appreciate it.
“We used the land and never denied that he was the owner, however, setting up swings and slides made him angry and perhaps made him think that we’re trying to take it over, so this complicated things.
“The landlord sued us we’re still waiting for the court’s decision”.
Muhammad confirmed that negotiations took place with the land lord to either buy the land or exchange it with a similar amount in either Bethlehem or Beit Jala. The landlord refused to do so.
Muhammad, Safa, Ahmad, Raghad, Mu’taz and other children (the oldest one is 13 years old) looked like they were about to cry trying to explain their simple needs and efforts to save their playground.
The children’s hope is strong. They are urging President Mahmoud Abbas to intervene and make their wish come true. Who protects the children and their right to play? Who saves the children’s only playground?