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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.

Across the narrow street, other people are on their rooftops. “The houses are so close together, we can speak to each other,” said Ramaha, an officer serving in the Palestinian Preventive Security Force.

Rooftop dinners often have an extra purpose in a refugee camp, he said: “If we had a siege, we could see when they [the Israelis] are coming.”

He said that in recent years, Ramadan had become easier than it had been during the first and second Intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings, from 1987 to '93, and in 2000 respectively. “During the second Intifada, no one was allowed to work inside Israel," he said. "People were not allowed to travel, and there was much sadness when family members were separated.”

Zbeide said that during the Intifadas, Ramadan brought people closer together. “So many people were killed that there was not so much joy in our hearts, yet Ramadan cleansed our souls,” he said. This same sentiment remains, even without such extreme political times. “If you knock on any door in the camp, every family will have someone who has been to prison, who has been injured, kicked out of the country, or their house demolished,” Ramaha said. “Me personally, I have a bullet in my chest.

“This shared experience creates a family unit in the camp that’s only enhanced in Ramadan. We have all suffered from the same suffering,” Ramaha said. “We share meals at the Iftar, but we have all eaten from the same dish of occupation. We all know each other’s pain, and it fuels our own.”

The global economic crisis has also reached the camp, which was already in financial trouble. According to the U.N, before the crisis, the average monthly income was only $290 dollars per month for a family of 4.7.

For a holy month of abstinence, Ramadan is very expensive. “One hundred shekels (about 25 dollars) brings your family one meal,” said Freal Sheikh Kassam, a 37-year-old housewife with seven children.

Her husband, a handyman,  can only find work one day out of 10, which is not enough to feed their large family the traditional decadent Iftar meals.

“With seven children, one says, ‘I want to eat this,’ and another says, ‘Cook me that!’” Kassam said. “They fast the whole day, and what I put on the table is the only exciting thing in their day.”

Kassam's  sister-in-law, Atidal, is 35 years old with five children. Her days during Ramadan are filled with cooking — according to her economic situation.