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Bittersweet Ramadan in Palestinian refugee camp

Palestinian refugees preparing for the Iftar, a meal to break the Ramadan fast, say that despite the hardships, the holiday brings them closer together.

JALAZONE REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — As the sun begins to set, men run to pick up last-minute desserts and crowds of children playing with plastic guns start to get antsy — it’s almost time to break the Ramadan fast at the Jalazone refugee camp, north of Ramallah in the West Bank.

There is little business in the refugee camp during the Ramadan fast, and all day men have been sitting outside the empty shops waiting for the Iftar, the moment when family and friends will gather to break the fast.

It is hot and dusty in Jalazone, yet despite this — and the fact that they haven’t eaten or drunk water since three that morning — residents of the camp say they love Ramadan.

"I wait and long for Ramadan," said Mohamad Zbeide, a 34-year-old office worker. "In the camp, these days are different than other days — life is brighter when you gather friends and family."

Family gatherings are often difficult for those living in the refugee camps. “We invited our grandparents and uncle to come and eat with us, but they couldn’t come because they were stopped at the checkpoints coming from Jericho," Muatasm, 12, said. "It's difficult — the last time I could see them was months ago."

Nasser Subarene, 39, an office worker at the Palestinian Ministry of Education, has not seen most of his family for a year. "This Ramadan, my family came to visit me and stayed with me for 30 days. I am blessed," he said. "When I see my nephews and nieces playing with my children, I feel happy and renewed."

The sun sets, and the men gather on Zbeide’s rooftop, where tables are set with plastic plates of spiced chicken and rice, with cups of fresh yogurt, dates and cans of cherry cola. Afterwards, the men form lines for prayer, and begin to kneel and rise in unison on the roof deck.

“Never in my life did I think that I would pray on the roof of somebody’s house,” Nazeeh Ramaha said. “That was the first time I prayed on a roof — when I stood, I could see the whole neighborhood. I was able to connect with the simplicity of life.”