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Berkeley-funded cultural center destroyed

By Jia-Rui Chong Daily Planet staff
Thursday April 04, 2002

The building had been destroyed three times before. Each time, Palestinian refugees in the Dheisheh camp in the West Bank rebuilt it with the help of Berkeley’s Middle East Children’s Alliance.  

This time will be no different. 

The Ibdaa Cultural Center, whose name means “something out of nothing” in Arabic, was attacked two weeks ago by the Israeli Army. The building that housed a children’s library and a computer center was destroyed, but the guest house is still standing, though the roof was used as a sniper’s nest by the army. 

Barbara Lubin, Executive Director of MECA, said that MECA has worked in the refugee camp for 14 years and is not about to give up now. She left Dheisheh two days before the cultural center was taken over.  

“Getting the building back together will probably cost us $50,000, but we will do it,” she said. 

She said there was no way to take precautions against the Israeli army, but felt that MECA had to keep trying. 

“There’s not much for kids to do in Dheisheh. So it’s important to the heart of the community.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington praised MECA’s efforts to get Berkeleyans involved in international issues. 

“The wonderful thing about Berkeley is that people are willing to get involved in human rights and peace issues all over the world,” said Worthington. 

Ziad Abbas, Ibdaa’s director, said that he and other refugees that grew up in Dheisheh vowed in 1994 that the next generation of Palestinian refugees would be better educated and better connected to the wider world. They set to work on a building that used to be a health clinic and transformed it into a cultural center through the MECA partnership. 

“I learned to throw stones before I learned to read or write. They should learn to read and write and use computers before they learn how to throw stones,” said Abbas, who is currently in San Francisco. 

“We built the cultural center as a challenge and if they destroy it, we will build it again,” he said. 

Abbas and 16-year-old Kayan Alsaify had come to the U.S. to attend the Academy Awards presentation in Los Angeles because Alsaify is in the Oscar-nominated film “Promises.” 

“Since the Israeli incursion, it’s extremely dangerous, if not impossible to go back,” said Alsaify, through a translator. “We called our families and they said the army was shooting everyone, even international people and journalists. They said we would most likely get killed.” 

But Alsaify said she hopes to make the most of her extended stay in America. “I came here for the Oscars, but my main goal is to bring the message about the reality of life in the camp.” 

“What we see is killing and blood,” she explained. “What we hear is guns, shooting and Apache helicopters. What we smell is the tear gas they throw in the camp.” 

The confinement that limits their everyday movements and continuing, disheartening violence make the Ibdaa Cultural Center so much more important to them, she said.  

“It’s the only outlet for us in which we are exposed to the outside world, where we’re exposed to other children in the world we live. It allows us to travel, meet other children, perform in other parts of the world. It opens up our personalities and gives us hope and strength,” said Alsaify. 

Alsaify had first come here three years ago on a MECA-sponsored dance tour of the U.S. to raise money for their cultural center’s activities. She was most recently in Berkeley on Friday and Saturday, talking to KPFA and visiting Lubin. 

“I’m pleased to be in the U.S. to talk to the media and to get my voice and my people’s heard,” she said. “I hope we can join hearts with the people in the U.S. and put pressure on the U.S. government to stop the Israeli violence.”