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Pope To Visit Children At Palestinian Refugee Camp


Pope Francis travels to the Holy Land this weekend. He'll visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as well as Jordan. And between Masses and meetings, he'll also make a stop at a Palestinian refugee camp. It's called a camp but it's become more of a city over the past few decades.

NPR's Emily Harris reports on what the pope will see and what he won't.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The Dheisheh refugee camp has been getting prettied up in anticipation of the pope's visit: potholes were fixed, trees planted. And the community center, where Pope Francis will meet local dignitaries and children, got a bit of a makeover.


HARRIS: Fresh spackle and paint in the foyer, new tile in the bathrooms. The pope is not scheduled to get out on the roof of the building. But if he did...


HARRIS: ...he would see a jumble of grey concrete buildings below, and one painted purple.


HARRIS: Ahmed Lahham lives there. He chose the color.

AHMED LAHHAM: (Through Translator) It made me feel good. It's different from all the other houses. The standard in the camp is misery. The purple has made people laugh.

HARRIS: Lahham has lived in this camp all his life, almost five decades. His mother arrived here as a refugee of the 1948 war that followed Israel's declaration of independence. She first lived in a tent on this spot, then a shack. Now Dheisheh is a cramped city of the original refugees and their descendents, 13,000 people. Too many, Ahmed Lahham says.

LAHHAM: (Through Translator) The worst part for me is how crowded it is. You can't have a garden. You can't have a pet. You're not free.


HARRIS: Naheela Sha'afat also has no land. But she has a new rooftop garden. She is Muslim and as she waters, she tells her plants to grow for God. She didn't know the pope was coming. But if she could show him one thing, it would be the dozen tanks on the roof her family fills whenever water comes through the taps.

NAHEELA SHA'AFAT: (Through Translator) I would like him to know the difficult of water. We only have water like once every two weeks and this to us poses big difficulties.

HARRIS: The pope won't see that. But the chair of the committee welcoming him, Abu Khalil Lahham, says he doesn't have to.

ABU KHALIL LAHHAM: (Through Translator) This pope is coming from Argentina and South America, so he has experienced suffering, poverty and colonization. This is what distinguishes this pope from previous ones.

HARRIS: John Paul II was the first pope to visit Dheisheh camp, 14 years ago. Right after he left, clashes broke out between camp residents and Palestinian police. Six months later, the second Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation began.

Twenty-one year old Mohanned al-Khamour has confronted Israeli soldiers many times. But he says people in Dheisheh are less politicized now than when John Paul II was here.

MOHANNED AL-KHAMOUR: (Through Translator) People were very stressed then. People were suffering tremendously from daily incursions by Israeli soldiers. Now the soldiers only come at night, not during the day. There are fewer home demolitions, fewer arrests. So people have moved on.

HARRIS: But they still value even a brief visit from the pope, says Naji Odeh, an atheist and camp community activist.

NAJI ODEH: He will not change the system. I know that. He will not change the world by this visit. But at least, someone very important talking about peace, talking about justice, talking about the human in this Earth.

HARRIS: Pope Francis will go directly from Dheisheh camp on Sunday to Israel, for visits with religious and political leaders there.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.