When I said it, the taxi driver just stared at me and said nothing. Daring me to say it again with his eyes, but hoping he heard me wrong. "I want to go to the refugee ca..." He cut me off before I could repeat myself with a firm "no!" That's when I went to reach for the door handle to get out. He hit the lock. I looked back at him, one eyebrow raised... Pausing to see how this was going to go before I forced the door open. His hand on the lock, my hand on the door handle. He blurted out, "I fucking hate Americans!" And put the car in drive. I smiled and said, "Yella."
The entire way to the refugee camp he lectured me in broken English. Telling me why it was stupid to go. Why I should just go to the churches like everyone else. Why I shouldn't even be there on that day while the city was burning. By then, we were reluctant friends so I told him to look at the bright side, if I was kidnapped or murdered, he got to keep my iPhone. He wasn't amused but he gave up on trying to convince me not to go. We drove in silence the rest of the way there, the sun had set and it was almost completely dark. He pulled up to a huge wall, shrugged and said, "This is as far as I go. I care more about this taxi than you seem to care about your life." I opened the door and got out. When I reached back in to get my purse he put it on his lap and shook his head. I thought he wanted me to pay him so he could leave but he said I shouldn't take in anything valuable, especially my american passport. "Besides," he said with a slightly worried smile, "I need your passport to take to your Embassy when you go missing." Cool story, bro.
With no phone, no money and no identification, I walked into the camp. I don't really know what I was expecting, but the image I had in my mind was completely different. It wasn't like I was picturing tents and campfires, but I wasn't prepared to see complete buildings with satellite dishes either. These people weren't in transition from one place to another, like most refugees. They were settled. This was their home. As I walked through the streets I got a lot of stares, but people left me alone for the most part. I was building up the nerve to talk to some locals when all hell broke loose. The quiet neighborhood came alive with shouting and the sound of people running through the streets. Again, a familiar glow. Light flickering off the stone wall. A fire. I ducked into the shadows to make way for a group of young boys to pass me, running toward the smoke. I followed them, slowly, pausing to let men run past me, each time making sure my scarf was still covering my head. The groups got bigger. People started to notice me. Some cat calls and whistles had me pressing my back so hard against the wall it's as if I thought it would just absorb my body if I applied enough pressure. I wanted to disappear, but I couldn't. Onward.
Once I got to a clearing I could see the flames. The Palestinians had set fire to an Israeli watch tower on the wall. I was mesmerized by the flames, I watched them climb the wall, turning the sandstone black. When I looked back down at the ground, all eyes were on me. The glow from the fire was shining a spotlight right on me. I looked at the ground and made my way back into the darkness. Several men followed me, asking me questions in arabic. They weren't angry, just curious. I didn't speak, I didn't have to. I didn't belong there, and they knew it. I felt a hand on my arm and swung around to find a young Arab girl standing in front of me. She grabbed my hand and walked me back the way I came in. We didn't speak to each other. She pointed beyond the wall and let go of my hand. "Taxi," she said. She had been watching me. She knew where I got out of the cab and where it was waiting to pick me up. Clearly she thought I had seen enough and decided to step in and help me make my way back.
When I got back to the taxi, my new friend looked happy to see me. He asked if I found what I was looking for. I shrugged and we drove back to the border in silence. Before I got out to cross back over into Jerusalem, the taxi driver took my passport of out his center console and said, "you're going to need this." He had obviously gone through it. "Why didn't you tell me your name? Why didn't you tell me you're arabic?" I didn't say anything so he just kept asking questions until he got to one I felt like answering. "Is that why you wanted to see the camps? Are those your people?" I wasn't ready to talk about what I had seen yet, I was still in process mode. So I just said, "No, but they could have been."
My grandmother is from Jaffa, in Tel Aviv and my grandfather lived in Haifa, in the north. But when they lived there, it was Palestine. When shit went south and Israel was created, my grandparents fled the country and ended up in Jordan, where they got married and started over. But what about everyone else? It's been more than 65 years since the Palestinians left what's now known as Israel. Surely that's enough time to settle somewhere else. But it depends on who you talk to. My grandparents left on their own, before things got bad, they made it out. But for a lot of Palestinian refugees, settling somewhere else wasn't an option. The surrounding countries wouldn't accept them so they were stuck, forced to live in refugee camps like the one I walked through and many more like it in other areas.
If you strip away all of the politics and hate, the Jews, Muslims and Christians are all just looking for a place to call home. Since I have family and friends on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East, it's difficult for me to take a position on the matter. I feel for the families displaced by the conflict but I can understand why Israel doesn't want to let the Palestinians back in. After what happened during the holocaust, they certainly don't want to be a minority in their own country. And maybe that's why my family moved on. Why they were able to start over. As Christians, they were a minority in the Palestinian territory, home to mostly Muslims and again a minority when it became Israel, home to mostly Jews. They adapted. They didn't sit around in refugee camps holding onto their keys from the homes they lost, fantasizing about one day living there again. For them, it's over.
Despite all of the adversity I faced at the border and beyond... I still enjoyed my time in Israel, even staying on a Kibbutz one night. Each region was like its own country. The North, although seemingly religious, was untouched by the conflict in the West Bank. And even though Tel Aviv is just an hour drive from Jerusalem, the gay friendly beach city remains in a bubble. You could walk for miles without seeing even one person wearing a kippah. The young people appear to be fairly left wing, not outright Palestine supporters, but understanding of the fact that it's a messy situation and a lot of peaceful people are caught in the middle.
I've been traveling for six months straight now, going country to country with little to no problems, effortlessly driving through parts of Europe. Few things have affected me more than seeing families split up by the conflict in the Middle East, children who will never get to see where their parents or grandparents grew up, just because of where they were born. But Americans don't have a free pass either. I was standing at the border to Lebanon and wasn't allowed to cross. A Christian country that uses the American dollar as its main currency does not permit anyone, even Americans to cross the border by foot or car. If you want to get to Lebanon you have to fly. Imagine if the same could be said for Europe? It's a scary thought for Westerners, but it's a sad reality for the people here.