Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Small Miracles

Two wise people have told me to be on the look out for small miracles. It's good advice because Palestine has become a place where one has to search for hope.  I've been feeling discouraged lately, so the task of finding miracles, even small ones, has seemed daunting.  Daunting, that is, until I realized every day I am in Palestine I do meet small miracles in the form of children.

"Hello!  Hello!  What's your name?"  Just five minutes ago I walked through the old city of Beit Sahour passing through a group of boys sucking on purple popsicles.  Like seemingly every child in Palestine, these boys shouted greetings at me and asked my name more as a ritual mantra than a question.  I responded in Arabic "Ahlan shabab," Hey guys.  The boys erupted into a flurry of Arabic that made me break out laughing.  I think that by the time I leave Beit Sahour, every child living here will have yelled at me "Hello!  Hello!  What's your name?"  I'm honestly looking forward to answering each of them.

I dearly love Palestinian children, but I'm often surprised by all that they endure as they live under Israeli military occupation. Palestinian children are incredibly vulnerable, as much as their parents may try to protect them.  Their very childhoods are occupied.

Last week in Abu Dis, I met a kind, respectful boy named Saleem.  Saleem made me smile when he told me that I looked like his cousin, expect that I was very short.  Saleem told me that he was eleven years old.  Then he said that a few years ago an Israeli solider stopped him while he was playing on the street and asked him what he was doing. Saleem answered that he was visiting his uncle. Then, Saleem told me, the soldier slapped him in the face.

I've heard many stories like the one that Saleem told me and witnessed a few incidents myself.  Let me share a few of them with you.   Then you can understand what life is sometimes like for these beautiful children.

  • Last week I met a boy named Abdulhaddi who lives in Aida refugee camp, one of the three camps here in Bethlehem.  The Wall runs through Aida camp and has cut the children off from the field where they used to play.  Now soldiers enter the camp nearly every night.  The children are angry and sometimes they throw stones and often soldiers shoot tear gas, or worse, at them.  Most children are suffering from physiological trauma.
  • Too many schools in Palestine have been disturbed by the arrival of soldiers or by harassment of children on their way to school.  In Hebron, internationals must accompany children and their teachers as they pass through checkpoints and as Israeli settlers throw rocks at them.  When I visited Hebron last summer, girls had been sexually harassed by soldiers at a checkpoint.  In the village of at-Tawani, settler attacks have become so out of control that the Israeli army has to escort the children to school.
  • My friend Mohammed (name changed out to protect his privacy), a teenager from Marda, is a medic with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society but also occasionally throws stones at Israeli soldiers as they help to construct the Wall on his village's land.  Last summer,he was arrested and beaten.  During interrogation, the officials insulted his family and made him sign a statement in Hebrew, which he could not read.  He was then released in the middle of a settlement of ideological settlers, where he had to run for his life.  Mohammed knows that I don't approve of rock throwing, but I hope he also understands that I know this punishment was out of proportion to his actions and is illegal under international law.  During this second intifada, at least 2,200 Palestinian children, 17 and under, have been arrested like Mohammed.

I could share many more painful stories with you.  In light of what these children face, their survival seems miraculous.  But instead of telling you more terrible stories, let me list for you more about what Palestinians children have given to me.  These are some of the reasons I still have hope.

  • I have hope because of Taher and Athena, two students at the Ramallah Friends School, and all of their friends who taught me my first words in Arabic and made me feel like a visiting movie star during my first two weeks in Palestine.
  • I have hope because of 11 year old Hamoodi who refused to believe that I don't speak Arabic fluently and showed me how to sit down in front of the Israeli army while they as threatened to enter Marda, the village where Hamoodi lives.
  • I keep hope alive for Moncade, Homoodi's 4 year old brother, who opened his arms wide when he saw me and said "asalam ayalkum!" like a television host welcoming me onto the Tonight Show.
  • I have hope because of Shams, a young woman with so much talent, who was one of the first Palestinians I knew I could count as my friend.
  • I have hope because my new friend 8-year-old Agnes who can dance like nobody's business and who informs me that my new name is "Ju-Ju."
  • I have hope because of every child who has ever ran through a meeting, played soccer with me, sat on my lap, or shouted "what's your name?"

There is still so much life here, thanks to these children. In light of everything they go through, every smile, every laugh, every child is a small miracle.

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