Lajee Center shines a spotlight on Palestinian culture

Children playing under a parachute

For Sara Ghabbash and Jenan Ajarma, music and dance are more than pastimes.  

Through an MCC-supported project, the two Palestinian teens are taking lessons in traditional dabka dance and the oud (a round-bellied lute played across the Middle East). The classes, which they have taken for two years, provide a sense of cultural identity — and have empowered them with a creative form of resistance in the face of their country’s occupation.  

“When I dance, I feel like I’m part of my people, my heritage,” says 14-year-old Ghabbash.

Jenan Ajarma, 13, is learning to play the oud (Palestinian guitar) in an after-school music program at Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.
Jenan Ajarma, 13, says that the songs she and other Palestinian youth are learning to play on the oud are ones older residents of Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine, know by heart. MCC photo/Melita Rempel-Burkholder

Both girls grew up loving the oud’s sound and were encouraged by their parents to take lessons. “Oud, for example, is a part of our culture and we can keep it alive by learning how to play,” Ghabbash explains. She says that the oud “proves that we exist and have a culture and traditions of our own, despite the colonization of our country, and they cannot take that away from us.”  

Lessons take place at the Lajee Center, a community hub located in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In addition to music and dance, youth can learn life-giving skills like hydroponic gardening, circus acrobatics and various sports. Its popular summer camp, also supported through MCC funding, brings joy and purpose to many children.  

Sara Ghabbash is learning to play the oud (Palestinian guitar) in an after-school music program at Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.
For 14-year-old Sara Ghabbash, dabka and oud classes at the Lajee Center in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine, are powerful ways to celebrate Palestinian culture and keep it alive. MCC photo/Melita Rempel-Burkholder 

These offerings, and Lajee’s range of social services, help offset the trauma and fear sparked by regular military incursions into the neighborhood.  

Aida Camp lies right next to the 435-mile separation wall and fence, the barrier known as the “apartheid wall” to Palestinians. It keeps Palestinians cut off from Israelis, and from other Palestinian cities that have become surrounded by Israeli settlements. Stories of imprisonment and death, determination and hope, are told through the graffiti and posters adorning the wall and homes throughout the camp.

The formation of Israel in 1948 came at the expense of some 710,000 to 950,000 displaced Palestinians, according to various United Nations estimates. Those forced out of their homes found themselves in refugee camps scattered throughout Palestinian territories and across the Middle East. Aida started as a collection of tents on a hillside and has, over seven decades, become a maze of narrow streets and hastily built apartment buildings. Today, over 5,000 people are packed into the camp. Many older residents still have the keys to their houses and dream of returning. 

From left, Jenan Ajarma, Elena Bilal and Sara Ghabbash all participate in the Dabka dance program at the Lajee Center at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, West Bank. They are pictured here in front
Jenan Ajarma (left) and Sara Ghabbash (right) stand with fellow dabka dancer Elena Bilal in the hydroponic greenhouse at the Lajee Center in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine. Dance, oud and eco-friendly gardening are just a few of the skills Palestinian youth can learn there. MCC photo/Melita Rempel-Burkholder

Ajarma, 13, notes that while these older residents know traditional Palestinian songs like “Wein a Ramallah” and “Zarif el Toul” by heart, such compositions are often new to her and her peers. Ghabbash adds, “These songs usually talk about Palestine in the old days, and about different cities or different traditional practices being done.”  

Within Palestine, the girls have performed at various cultural events and during holidays like Mother’s Day. And in September 2022, the girls got to share their dabka talents during a trip they’ll always cherish. They visited Ireland, sponsored by Lajee supporters there.  

Ajarma remembers how surreal it felt to travel — her first time outside of Palestine. “First we had to go through three checkpoints on the way into Jordan [Palestinians are not permitted to fly out of Israel], then we spent two weeks driving around Ireland with no one to stop us.” 

MCC Seek* participants help children with English learning and engage in fun learning of traditional Dabke dancing. 

*Seek is a six-month intentional discipleship program which encourages young adu
Participants from MCC young adult program Seek join Palestinian children in a dabka dance class at the Lajee Center in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine. MCC photo/Marc Falconer

Was she nervous, performing in a foreign land? “I thought I would be, but I wasn’t. I was just so confident and proud when people wanted to know about our culture.” As the group learned, many Irish feel an affinity with Palestinians, given their history of colonization by Britain.

The girls hope that other Palestinian youth can connect with their heritage through the arts. Ghabbash says, “Other than oud, you can learn other traditional instruments like tabla [a small hand drum] and qanoon [a trapezoid-shaped zither] that are important in our songs, at weddings or even to just change the mood in a gathering between friends. That’s why it [is] nice to learn how to play these instruments, because it all goes back to our culture and our roots.” 

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