For Refugees Culture is Resistance and Solidarity

by Zeiad Abbas Shamrouch

Survival is a daily struggle for refugees.

I grew up in Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, so I know firsthand how hard life is in a camp in the winter. U.N. tents or cement rooms don’t prevent the cold from reaching refugees. The cold sneaks through the doors and windows. Many times my family would wake up in the middle of the night because the rain had invaded our room, soaking us on the floor where we all slept.

My mother used to say, “In our own villages we loved the rain and felt good in the winter because we were farmers and we needed the rain. Now we hate the rain and the cold because we are refugees, and far from our homes and land.”

Palestinian refugees are no longer an exception. Millions of people in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have become refugees in the last few years as a result of the wars in the Middle East.

I know what they are going through. Day by day, the desire to go back home grows inside every refugee. For us, the hope of going home is an individual and collective need. It’s as basic to our survival as warm blankets and food.

My mother sang to herself while she was cleaning the house, preparing food, and when she gave me a bath once a week. I say once a week because there was never enough water to bathe even twice a week. The songs she sang were about how much she missed her land, her trees and the home where she was born:

              It has been a long time
              My fig tree hasn’t died
              Soon I will get back to you
              We will live together
              We will survive together
              We will enjoy the rain
              We will grow up together.

Years later, when I visited my mother’s village for the first time, I met some of her trees. My mother had passed away, but the fig tree and her songs still lived.

I grew up listening to songs like this. At weddings, we listened as the generation of the Nakba (catastrophe) sang about our land, our trees, the harvests, and love. My generation learned these songs and stories before we learned how to read and write. We memorized them deep in our spirits. 

And we danced the debka, the national dance form of Palestine, as a way to express our dream of returning to our villages. The first time I danced the debka as a child, I felt like I was flying back to my village. In the dance, we were sharing our dream of returning to our homes and bringing our villages into the room with us. As we danced together, all the barriers between the generations disappeared, and we were together making beauty from the pain of exile and the love of our homeland.

Now a group of youth in my refugee camp is carrying on the tradition. Shoruq is a MECA partner, and we are very pleased to announce that the Shoruq Dance Group will be touring the U.S. in March 2017 to share their songs, dances, and stories. We from the camps are very proud that this show is a collective effort. The dancers and choreographers were all born and raised in Dheisheh. The song lyrics were written by people in the camp and reflect their desire to return home and to document their lives under Israeli occupation. The music was recorded in Shoruq’s studio—the first time a Palestinian refugee camp has had a professional music studio. The tatriz (Palestinian embroidery) on the costumes was sewn by Palestinian refugee women using traditional patterns. Together they have produced a show to bring you the creativity, the commitment, and the heart of generations of struggle in Palestine.

During the most difficult times, our songs, our dances and our stories keep our dreams and resistance alive and our culture growing.

There is a cold wind blowing in the U.S. right now. The chill seeps into the rooms and through the doors and windows of our movements, our communities, and our dreams. In the coming winter darkness, it will be easy to lose our way, to lose our collective voice for justice. We at MECA hope that through their dancing, the children of Dheisheh will inspire those living in the U.S. to survive and fight for their rights. We hope Shoruq’s stories, dance, and music of resistance will inspire people in the U.S. to unleash their own creativity, to struggle together to build strong communities and a better world. We hope that Shoruq, which means “sunrise,” will help light the way. We’re counting on you to join us.