Bethlehem, West Bank - The Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem is hard to miss. Built in the shape of a castle, its pink lime stones lie in stark contrast with the mammoth grey cement wall Israel erected to separate the birthplace of Jesus from its environs.
But somewhere between the pink-stoned palace and the gargantuan wall lies a humble home belonging to a woman named Islam. Getting to her house is easy: one follows the small streets snaking through Aida refugee camp, with potholes and peppered trash guiding the way.
Everyone in the camp knows Islam, not just because she hails from a family of martyrs, but also because she is a bit of a celebrity chef. Every other Saturday, Islam hosts small groups of visiting foreigners, beckoning them to knead dough and guiding them through the art of cooking.
For 60 NIS ($15), groups of five to 10 can spend about four hours learning to make meat and vegetable pies, known here as sfeeha and kras, Mutabal (eggplant dip) and Helba (a dessert made out of fenugreek seeds). In addition to yogurt and a small Arabic salad as side dishes, tea and coffee are also served.
No other options
A few years ago, the thought of having strange men and women at her home learning how to cook Palestinian food seemed unfathomable to Islam, but as her financial situation worsened, her family was running out of options. Some of the difficulties started in 1999, when Islam was blessed with a baby boy named Mohammad. He was born healthy, but due to a doctor's negligence, he was not attended to properly after he suffered from asphyxia, which left the boy mentally and physically handicapped.
|The separation wall built by Israel snakes along the edge of Aida Camp [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]
Islam's five other children were born healthy, but her husband - who has been in and out of Israeli jails for many years - suffered from epilepsy that made him incapable of working as an electrician as he once did. With six children, one of them completely dependent on Islam, and a husband who worked odd jobs that brought in about 50 NIS a day (approximately $13), Islam found herself with her back against the wall.
Before Israel built the separation wall in Bethlehem in 2002, Islam's husband used to work in Israel, earning about 200 NIS (approximately $51) a day. These days, and with a 43 per cent unemployment rate plaguing the dilapidated camp, her husband is lucky to get 50 NIS for odd construction jobs. The camp itself grew to a population of 5,000 registered refugees, up from 2,000 in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, forcing thousands in villages surrounding Jerusalem and Hebron to seek refuge in Aida.
Five years ago, a 30-year-old Brazilian woman moved to the camp to work as a volunteer. Sandra, whose name and face is familiar to most of the camp's children and adults, began to help Islam by looking into the idea of creating an income-generating project that would be completely run by the women of the camp.
Islam was married at 16; despite holding a diploma in childcare, she had never worked a job outside of her home. Her passion and skill were cooking - from there the seeds for "Noor Aida" were planted.
The project started out with Islam and her sister-in-law Rania, a widow whose husband was killed by Israeli soldiers inside Islam's own home. "At first the women were sceptical. They didn't understand how people would pay to make their own food," Sandra said. "They also felt that charging people for food would be against social norms in Palestine."
But as customers came and went, the women in the camp grew more comfortable with the idea and started pooling the little money they received into a fund, which they used for a common goal. So far, they have used the money to secure clothes and diapers for an entire season; they also managed at one point to take a trip to a pool outside of the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
The birth of 'Noor Aida'
|Islam always had a passion and skill for cooking
[Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]
With time, "Noor Aida" grew into a group of 10 women, all taking turns to host visiting foreigners, always at Islam's house because - despite its humble size - it remains the largest. All the women except two have disabled children. One of the women has a disability herself and another is a widow raising five children.
In addition to being an income-generator, the project meant providing the women with English classes to help when people came to the house for the cooking classes. In the past year or so, the group introduced home-stays for visitors who wanted to have a more hands-on experience learning about Palestine.
"This whole thing started because I was ashamed by the fact that my boy wanted things that I couldn't afford to buy for him, including basics such as diapers and medicine," said Islam, now 32. "I was also sad because other camps like Dheisheh nearby had centres where disabled children could play. We don't."
Islam said the project has so far brought in more than money. "Many of the women with disabled children were embarrassed to take their kids outside. They didn't even get them gifts for Eid [a Muslim holiday] because they think these children don't understand," Islam said. "These children are wronged by society. They are wronged by their own families too. But these days, because of this project, many of the mothers are coming out and allowing their kids to play with others, especially when we take them on trips."
Laughter fills the house despite the constant slew of tragic stories being told. The neighbourhood Islam lives in is called the Martyrs' Quarter, and one can easily see why. Her brother- and sister-in-law were killed in her house at different times. Her own brother was killed back in 2000, and her uncle is serving a life-sentence in an Israeli prison. Her son, Mahmoud, who was three at the time, witnessed his uncle's murder and has had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)-induced mood swings ever since.
Still, Islam's home is filled with life: the infectious laughs of the six children whose ages range from 4 to 13, the wisdom of Islam's elderly mother-in-law, the help of her sister-in-law Rania, and two cats that seem to be attracted to the constant smell of cooking.
"It would be a great way to create jobs in the camp, have our children play and not be ostracised, while also giving mothers some room to breathe."
Last Saturday, as a group of four Germans huddled around the kitchen table, effectively overcrowding the room, Islam, Rania and their mother-in-law churned balls of dough and pounded them on the table, flattening them before they were filled with meat and spinach. The visiting group replicated the moves, with a steady mix of German and English echoing across the room. Islam laughed and her children peaked from the top of the staircase, intrigued by the visitors' presence.
The project, however, doesn't come without its own set of hurdles. Water is a precious commodity in the camp, and the municipality pumps it into homes once every 20 days. Islam's family, like most in the camp, struggle to store as much of it as possible in black plastic containers they keep in the yard or on the roof of the house. Running out is not an option, especially because it costs 100 NIS ($26) for every cubic litre of water bought privately.
The women are also at a loss with what to do with their handicapped children. The UNRWA-run schools in the camp don't have the skills or space to teach children with disabilities, especially with overcrowded classrooms of 40-50 students. There are only private schools in Bethlehem and the nearby town of Beit Jala, but these cost 350 NIS ($90) a month, a small fortune for many families here. In Mohammad's case, a group of visiting Belgians decided to sponsor his education, and so every day, except Fridays and Saturdays, Mohammad goes to one of these schools in Bethlehem that caters to the needs of disabled children in the area.
So far, cooking at home has brought in some semblance of a steady income for Islam's family. But she is not stopping at that. Her ultimate goal is to turn an unused room in the back of her house into a school for disabled children.
"It would be a great way to create jobs in the camp, have our children play and not be ostracised, while also giving mothers some room to breathe," Islam said. To help bring that dream one step closer to reality, Islam is working with Sandra on writing a cookbook with the recipes tested in the class. The idea is to have each of the women of "Noor Aida" contribute to the book with their own recipes and their own stories, bringing a more personal touch to this unique collection.
As the kneading and pounding continued, one of the German women participating in the class chimed in. "We don't just come here to give charity," said 24-year-old Johanna.
"It's inspiring to see one of the most marginalised groups - women, who are refugees with disabled children - working to help themselves. They want jobs, not money, which is often what NGOs give out here. This is a very different project. Islam is doing it all on her own, without foreign aid or help. I can't wait to see what she will do next."
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa