Sunday, March 18, 2018

Noor Aida: Cooking Classes as a Form of Empowerment

By Silvia Boarini - April 07, 2012
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [Aida camp] [refugee camps] [women‘s rights]

Photos by Silvia Boarini.
Islam sits upright on the edge of the sofa in her living room. “I was born in Aida camp,” she says, “but my family is from Beit Natiff, in 1948.”
To Islam, to the 5,000 refugees populating Bethlehem Aida Camp and to most Palestinians, 1948 is not a date. It is an impossible place, which ceased to exist but where everything is still better, greener and tastier.
A place called 1948
From the Palestinian perspective, it’s as if in 1948 Pandora’s box was open and from it jumped out the partition of Palestine, the declaration of the State of Israel, displacement, war, failed peace, occupation and intifadas. For refugees especially, everything that came after that date has been a temporary adjustment while waiting for the 'real deal’, the right of return to what was before: to pre-'48.
Significantly, Islam’s house is in the Beit Natiff neighbourhood of Aida camp, named after the village from which most of her neighbours were evacuated during the Nakba. Like most Palestinian refugees, Islam has never been to her family’s village, but memories painstakingly passed on by her parents and grandparents, keep images and sensations of it alive in her imagination.
Any memory of a better place remains a much-needed release in this densely populated 0.71 kilometer square area, where narrow alleyways and tall buildings try to carve out impossible spaces to glimpse at the sky. Refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza are home to the poorest section of the population and often also the youngest. Unemployment rates in Aida camp are reported to be at 70%.
Aida is one of many places neighbouring the Apartheid Wall, which went from being the gateway to work in Israel to being a prison virtually overnight. Following the construction of the Wall, which has not only drawn arbitrary borders on the land but has cut off entire communities from their financial lifelines, be it Israel or Jerusalem, households in Aida have literally seen their views of green fields replaced by dull concrete and their incomes shrink.
Despite the numerous fruitless 'efforts’ of the international community, and the PA and Israel at mapping a road that would lead to 'the end of the occupation’, the will to go on somehow never leaves a Palestinian. It still sits at the bottom of that Pandora’s box. Some call it hope; some call it Beit Natiff.
Noor Aida
Just like impoverished refugees the world over, in Palestine residents of camps are regarded with a mix of sympathy, mistrust and downright contempt. And even more so than life in towns and cities, life in the camps seems to happen in a parallel universe where time has stood still, society has remained more conservative and people struggle to move forward while waiting to 'return’.
In Aida, though, there’s a group of women who are advancing quietly along that fine line between a heavy past and an uncertain future. They are moving forward one meal at the time.
Traditionally confined to the home, women have been bearing silently much of the psychological pressure of the occupation and remain on the margin of the national political discourse. At grassroots level though, they are often the head of a 'home front resistance’, busy reviving camp life, improving their conditions and provide a better environment for their children.
“It was difficult at the beginning but we have all changed a lot since the project started,” explains Islam adjusting her kitchen apron as a small child hangs off one of her legs. “There is more unity among the women, there is better communication in the family and the children have benefited too.”
Islam is 32 and has six children, the oldest of whom is 12 and has cerebral palsy. The project she refers to is Noor Aida, a women’s empowerment effort which began 2 years ago and targets women with disabled children.
There are four foreigners sitting with Islam in her living room from Italy, Germany, Belgium and Holland. They are here to learn how to make Mujaddara - a typical Palestinian dish consisting of lentils and rice. Islam will teach the class with the assistance of Sandra, one of the international volunteers who helped set up the project.
“We wanted to help the situation in the camp,” explains Sandra on the origins of Noor Aida. Following the advice of the camp director, the volunteers looked to focus on women with disabled children. “They are the most vulnerable, they are tied to the home more than other women and are under a greater strain,” continues Sandra.
The project aims to carve out a space for women in Aida where they can exist not in relation to someone else, as mothers, wives or carers, but as 'women’ enjoying a little time for themselves.
Noor Aida started off as a simple mother’s club but quickly evolved to an income generating empowerment project. It was understood at an early stage that stable financing was key to ensure that progress made at the mother’s club could be sustainable.
Initially, it was private donations that kept the project alive. For example, money from friends in Europe bought a commode chair to bathe disabled children. But private donations are erratic in nature and may create long-term dependence, so it was agreed that the women should take control, become entrepreneurs and generate enough income to run a self-sufficient project.
The cooking classes were the answer. These are enabling women like Islam to contribute to the family income, improve the lives of their disabled children and better their own position within family and wider society.
The fee for the class is NIS 60. The women pay themselves NIS 50 for a day’s work and the rest is poured into the project. Every three months the women meet and set a goal for how to use the money saved up. So far they have been able to pay for a group trip to a spring near Hebron and buy winter clothes for the children.
The power of Mujaddara
In Islam’s kitchen, the 'students’ are busy chopping onions and learning the secrets to a perfect Mujaddara. Soak the rice for a couple of hours and the lentils too in hot water. Then cook the lentils until 'al dente’. This, Islam explains, will later reduce the lentils cooking time to match the rice’s. Islam imparts her instructions in English and is helped by her sister in law, Rania.
The project has offered them a space in which to be leaders, practice English, grow confident and bring about change. Sandra explains that the women have changed dramatically. “Take Islam,” she says, “she used to be shy and not confident around other people. Now her whole appearance has changed.”
Despite the fact that the project started with 15 women and now is down to an active core of 5, it is the women who have stayed on who now own this project and run it. It has become sustainable empowerment. The women, the men and the 150 people who have attended cooking classes in Aida over 2 years, can attest to that.
Back in the kitchen, rice, lentils and spices are covered in water and the pan is put on a medium fire. In another pan, the onions are fried in plenty of olive oil. Meanwhile, the students get to try their hand at making flat bread. While Rania stretches the dough in mid air with movements made perfect by practice, the students quickly realize the importance of the table in front of them. Results are nonetheless impressive.
Given the benefits reaped, slowly but surely the project has also been pushing husbands to shift, however slightly, their perception of traditional gendered roles. Sandra confirms that some husbands have come a long way by simply allowing their wives to be part of this.
“At the beginning we thought we might not be able to start with the classes,” reminisces Sandra. “Husbands were talking on behalf of their wives and taking decisions for them. It was a long process but we have manage to build a trusting relationship.”
In the midst of the preparations, Islam’s husband makes an appearance and cites the fact that the project is good for his children as the factor that swayed him in favour of allowing his wife to take part. “People are one,” he says, “we are all the same and we can all work together and exchange experiences.”
“If you see the results of this project,” he adds, “you understand that it is good. Other husbands may not like the idea simply because they have not yet had a chance to see the results.”
Whether last year he would not have allowed a male student to take part in the cooking classes, now he looks forward at meeting foreigners. “It’s all work for humanity,” he says, citing building bridges as a way to peace. “It’s about connecting with people and nations. Insh’allah it will bring peace.”
Aurelie, a student from Belgium, agrees. “This project is a great way to meet locals and learn how to cook,” she says. “It also offers a more relaxed setting in which to discuss the political situation.”
As lunch is served, content silence descends upon the living room. The rice with lentils is accompanied by homemade yogurt, and salad. The bread, made by the students is an undisputed success.
Islam proudly looks over the fruits of the day’s work. Four internationals are enjoying a traditional Palestinian meal in a traditional Palestinian house, her house.
She is still amazed by this and she is extremely happy to play a part in a foreigner’s experience of Palestine. “Most of the people who come here have only seen Palestine on TV but have had no experience of daily life,” she explains. “Here they can see with their own eyes what life is like. And at the end they do this,” she says raising her thumb, “and always say 'Palestinians are ok’.”
She is already looking forward to the next lessons because, she says smiling, “they give me space.” Noor Aida has opened a new window for her in the crowded camp. The view is not of Beit Natiff but nonetheless of good things to come.
Classes in Aida take place on Saturdays, twice a month. For further info visit the project’s website:

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