ARUNDEL woman Anne Alidina visited the Holyland in October 2013 and found inspiration from a nation battling injustice, which ignited a passion for Palestine and its people.
Their warmth gave Anne a strong desire to live and work in the combat weary nation.
After 42 years working as a nurse, Anne, 65, of Kirdford Road, secured a job as a volunteer carer for a Palestinian woman with muscular dystrophy and flew to Bethlehem on January 20 this year.
She was worried when she arrived at Al Azzah refugee camp: “It was grey, dismal, shabby and rough looking. I wondered what I had let myself in for.”
Anne was pleasantly surprised when she entered Echlas Al Azzah’s home, the woman she would be caring for.
“It was spacious with a small garden and probably not how most people would imagine a refugee camp, although worn and shabby with no luxuries.”
Echlas, 43, is wheelchair bound, has only limited mobility in her hands and needs 24/7 care.
Anne added: “Echlas does not however let her disability stop her from achieving her goals. She travels around Bethlehem although many places are not wheelchair friendly, teaches Arabic to international students and has recently travelled to Germany to learn the language at great personal and financial cost.”
It is not surprising Echlas has great strength and courage. As a third generation refugee she and her family have endured and survived many challenges.
In 1948, when the Palestinians were forcibly driven out of their homes by Israeli forces, Echlas’ family had to move. Her parents lost three of their children to illness, her father was imprisoned for his political views and her mother struggled to pay the rent.
Eventually, her mother found a room in Al Azzah camp, set up by the United Nations, and gradually extended the room to create a family home.
Anne said: “Echlas grew up in a loving environment but was not able to go to school as facilities for disabled children were limited. She learned from her mother and siblings.”
Echlas recruits international volunteer carers as there is insufficient care available in Palestine. Carers are allowed only a three month visa, hence she has known many over the years and is well versed in helping them acclimatise to life in Palestine.
Living in an occupied refugee camp may evoke dangerous and distressing images.
Anne explained: “I generally felt safe as Al Azzah is not usually targeted by Israeli soldiers – unlike Aida camp, which adjoins the partition wall and suffers frequent tear gas attacks and night raids.
“The eight metre wall cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and Northern Palestine, necessitating passing through Israeli checkpoints which can involve humiliation and harassment from Israeli soldiers.”
Hearing Anne talk, it sounds like Palestinians, although not accepting, try to make the best of their situation.
“They have a can do attitude, a very relaxed way of living, very family minded and they don’t complain,” she said.
“They see the true value of life because their lives are so precarious and uncertain.”
Anne talks with passion and fondness of Al Azzah and Palestine: “You can see the history in the landscape. Hills tiered with terraces, ancient olive groves and wild flowers. In some ways it has not changed since the time of Jesus.”
Anne was made to feel very welcome during her stay and shared some happy moments with Echals, her friends and family.
“My 65th Birthday was a special day when I was woken early by Echlas. A friend had helped her into her wheelchair and I was given flowers, homemade cards and later a magnificent cake decorated with an olive tree.”
It is perhaps not surprising that Anne fell in love with Palestine and the people who showed her such warmth and generosity, despite having so little. However, what they have in abundance, said Anne is, ‘dignity, steadfastness, courage and respect for everyone’.
She was particularly moved when Echlas told her that refugees still keep the keys to the homes they were driven from three generations ago for hope they will return.
Anne, a practising Catholic, said: “My faith has been tested by what I have seen, but this will not stop me from doing what I can to help the Palestinian people.”
Anne is humble about the work she has and continues to do for Palestinian refugees. She has started giving talks about her experience and plans to set up a local action support group to raise funds and awareness about the plight of Palestinian refugees.
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