Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mostar, Bosnia

The small city of Mostar has been a tourist destination since the 19th Century, drawing visitors from  around the globe to revel at the 16th Century architecture and Ottoman charm of the city built alongside the banks of the Emerald green Neretva River. But in recent years, visitors who leave Mostar's romantic Old Town encounter the visible scars of a devastating war.

While I was a four year old playing Evil Knievel on my bicycle (some things never change), the most fortunate children of Mostar had escaped to refugee camps. Those left behind, saw their streets turned into battlegrounds, and bore witness to, or themselves perished in, the mass executions, ethnic cleansing, and systematic rape that plagued the historic city during the  Bosnian war. Much of Mostar was reduced to rubble during the nine-month siege that began in April 1992, including the famous Stari Most bridge commissioned by Suleman the Magnificent in 1557.  

Today, while the Old Town has been restored and a vibrant modern strip houses street caf├ęs, boutiques and restaurants, much of the city continues to lay fallow under the posted signs "Beware of ruin." Some apartment building and shops plastered over the bullet holes and replaced the stones damaged by mortar attacks, while others chose to keep portions of the war's destruction visible, reminding those within of all the building and it's inhabitants have endured. Many homes are still abandoned--perhaps their owners fled, were expelled, or fill one of the hundreds of gravestones marked "1993." The siege was so intense at its height that all of the parks within the city were converted into cemeteries to enable quick burial amidst the flying gunfire. 

Graffiti throughout Mostar reads "remember '93," with other messages displaying the persistent ethnopolitical complexity in Bosnia. Graffiti touting one ethnocentric political party's slogan are crossed out and replaced by another  party's message.

In college, I studied the Yugoslav Wars, but as is always the case with visiting war-torn regions, written histories do little to convey the depth of human suffering. Walking the streets of the city and seeing the destruction firsthand, I wept for those who lost their lives and those who survived, having witnessed the numerous acts later deemed "crimes against humanity."  

It's hard to imagine what it means to have nothing left, to have one's whole livelihood robbed by war or ethnocide, but seeing a decimated community attempt to rebuild serves both as a testament to the utter devastation of war and the indomitable spirits of its survivors. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Peace-building where “Peace” is a Dirty Word

Working in the West Bank and Israel afforded me an opportunity to test out my hypothesis that peace is what our world needs most, and empowering and inspiring children to believe in and work for peace will help us get there.

In the West Bank, I worked in what was once “the eye of the storm,” the largest refugee camp in the region known during the Second Intifada as a hotbed for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and infamous for the number of suicide bombers it produced.  Today, the Balata Refugee Camp houses nearly 30,000 inhabitants in .25 of land. The narrow streets of the camp are alive with the activity of shop owners, street venders, young men and children, making a walk through the camp a crowded and chaotic event.

When I first expressed interest in partnering with a local organization to bring a peace curriculum to the children of this camp, the idea met resistance. “If you pacify the youth, you will crush the Resistance.” I was told. “How can you work for peace without first working for justice?”

I explained the basic premises behind my work with children. I believe all children deserve to know peace. I believe children growing up in particularly chaotic and violent environments are in need of special attention to help cultivate their own peace, and I believe the actions of children can lead to more peace in their communities and the world.

With an explanation my partners deemed satisfactory and weeks of curriculum negotiation, I was allowed to begin my work.

The first day of any Kids for Peace meeting begins with the simple inquiry “What is peace?” I typically ask children what peace means to them, when they feel the most or least at peace, and what they do to create peace for themselves and others.  When I asked the attentive group of children how to create peace, a little boy’s hand shot up in the air. “Fight the enemy!” he shouted, bursting out of his seat. Trying to redirect my line of questioning, I continued, “What do you do to create peace for yourself when you don’t have any, for example, when you’re feeling angry?” I paused, waiting for my typical answers of “Read a book,” or “Go for a walk.” A little boy enthusiastically replied, “I beat my little brother.”

It was going to be a long and bumpy road to cultivating peace…

As the days went on, I worked with the children participating to develop skills to prepare them for facing future challenges. We learned and practiced nonviolent communication, conflict resolution techniques, and ways to ease anger and experience peace personally. They planned days of service and prepared to make a recycled trash herb garden as a project to improve their community’s environment.

The happiest day for me was The Great Kindness Challenge-Balata Camp Edition, a day dedicated to blanketing the camp with kindness and altruism. For three days preceding, the children made preparations for their day of kindness. Guided by a checklist of kind acts translated into Arabic, the children wrote thank you cards, made “Kindness Matters” posters in English and Arabic, designed “Pinwheels for Peace,” and strategized about how they could reach the most people possible with their good deeds. I proudly watched the seriousness with which they pursued service to others, and shared in their delight when the clock struck 5pm and they ran out into the camp’s streets, marking the start of their 24 hours of kindness by sharing smiles with at least 20 people.  

The Great Kindness Challenge was a beautiful day which left my heart full of hope. The next day, however, I was confronted with the realities of promoting peace in a sometimes hostile environment.

A photographer had visited my children’s group a few days before the day of kindness, documenting the children’s work. Unbeknownst to me, the photos were posted on a Facebook page with a sizable local audience under the simple title, “Peace-building Project in Balata Camp.”

The response was immediate from furious viewers.

“How dare you allow a white girl to teach our children about peace. All Americans think Palestinians are terrorists,” one angry commenter wrote. “If her goal is achieved, the resistance to occupation will be over,” wrote another outraged individual.

Quickly, I saw the fragile threads upholding the fabric of my peace program unwind before my eyes. Was that it? Was my chance at working with children to promote peace in the refugee camp over?

I immediately responded with a PR campaign, believing that the outrage arose from a misunderstanding. People were not against the values of kindness, respect, and altruism, but rather, they were afraid of the word “peace.” I drafted a carefully worded explanation for the photos posted on the internet describing the groups’ goals of providing children with a safe space to foster peace for themselves and serve their community.

The storm fortunately passed, and the peace work was permitted to continue.

My experience working with children in the Balata Refugee Camp was equal parts inspiring, educational, and frustrating. The program was very popular with the children who loved the crafts, fun, and games of the Kids for Peace curriculum and confirmed my belief that all children desire to be good and to do good. At the same time, the realities of working in an ongoing conflict zone necessarily transformed my work.  The reason Kids for Peace targets children is because of the deep biases that sometimes inform adults. With one simple word--“peace-building”—months of work was nearly derailed, underscoring the fragility of peace in tense environments.   
A young boy draws his idea of peace for our Peace Puzzle. His image include the Al Aqsa  mosque, the symbol of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and a continuing point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Palestinian flag and the word "hope."

Girls write the script for a skit on conflict resolution, sitting in front of the boards made with the  Peace Pledge in English and Arabic. 

In preparation for The Great Kindness Challenge, a girl shows of her thank you card to a camp volunteer. 

Me helping girls make "pop-up" thank you cards for The Great Kindness Challenge.

Kindness Matters

Pinwheels for Peace

The West Bank's Refugees

Refugee camps are designed to offer a temporary home to individuals rendered homeless by crisis or conflict, or for whom insecurity requires evacuation. Ideally, camps serve as a safe space to offer solace to the vulnerable until they can return to their homes.  

For those living within the West Bank’s camps, there will likely be no return. They are permanently displaced people. Many had family members who first left modern day Israel in 1947. Since then, they have lived through several wars and incessant confrontations, witnessing few signs of progress toward finding a sustainable solution to end the land dispute that has long plagued the region.

In May and June, 2012, I worked in the West Bank’s largest refugee camp leading a peacemaking group with children. Simultaneously, I listened, asked questions, and read. I learned about the UN Resolution 197 which guarantees uprooted peoples the right to return; I spoke to people who explained that allowing this would mean the end of Israel; I read the opinion of Alan Dershowitz who accuses Palestinians of not integrating refugees in order to perpetuate anger and foster terrorism; and I learned firsthand from the children of the camps how their life experiences inform their understanding of the conflict that impacts nearly every aspect of their daily lives.

When faced with an uncertain future, humans tend to lose hope or commit themselves to an idea and work tirelessly towards its fruition. In the camps I worked in and visited, I saw a people who were tired, but hadn’t given up hope in their conception of justice, met individuals with regrets about tactics used in the past, but who ultimately wanted what would bring their people peace.  

I saw firsthand how life within the camps might impede a sense of personal peace. Most camps are over-crowded with schools strained to their maximum. “Palestinians are the most paranoid people in the world,” I heard several Palestinians joke, a sentiment rooted in the distrust that develops after decades of warfare and instability. During my time in the West Bank, periodic security missions by IDF forces took terrorist and opposition suspects out of their homes in the middle of the night, further contributing to the pervasive sense of unease within the camps.

As much as meeting Israel’s settlers is critical to understanding the complicated dynamics of the West Bank’s wars, so too is meeting the land’s landless, the refugees who persist without a home. 
Murals on the walls of the Balata Refugee Camp describing the camp's history

Mural in a Bethlehem refugee camp

Coming Face to Face with the Men on the Walls

Martyrs'  Square in Old City, Nablus

Upon the walls of the ancient corridors of the West Bank’s city of Nablus hang banners of young men pictured holding machine guns. These are Nablus’ martyrs, men—often only months out of adolescence—who died for the cause of establishing a Palestinian state.

To many Palestinians, these men are heroes, making the Ultimate Sacrifice in hopes of establishing a free and just land, bidding a final farewell to this world with the pull of a string and the detonation of a belt. Some see their cause as noble, affording them a special place among God’s chosen.

In my country, government leaders have shown no hesitation in calling the acts of violence committed by these men “terrorism.” Their targets were usually civilians, their tactic to breach security at the Israeli border and find a crowded place with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible. Terror reigned. Men, women and children died.  

Yet in the streets of Nablus, I met some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever known. I was daily beckoned by shop owners to share a cup of tea and discuss life in the West Bank and beyond. From the people I met, I developed a nuanced understanding of terrorism and terrorists, peaceful Muslims who want to live a righteous life, as well as those who explain “just” warfare in religious terms—a tactic utilized by different religious peoples for centuries. I learned that many Palestinians see the actions of the Israeli military in the West Bank as “terrorism.” I looked up the definition of “insurgent”—the term most often used by the U.S. media to describe Iraqi and Afghani militants—and realized that in these countries, rebels probably justify their behavior by calling U.S. efforts "terrorizing" as well.

Terrorism does not arise out of nowhere. It has its basis in ideas, ideas formulated over time that inform the way one views the world.

As I left Nablus behind to begin my work in Israel, I wondered what ideas informed those young men pictured on the posters. What did they grow up hearing? What ideas informed their thinking?

It took me a while to post my final entries from my time in the Middle East in part because I needed to process all I had seen, experienced and learned. I realize the issues I am discussing in my blog posts are controversial, and that no one is without biases in how they interpret "the facts." My primary aim is to introduce those reading this blog to some of the complexities of the conflict, ideas espoused by locals and the international community, and—ever important to me—the prospects for peace.

I left the Middle East with more questions than answers, as I imagine you will notice in this short essay and the ones to follow. I hope these entries will provoke thought and discussion rather than offer generalizations about complex problems. I traveled to both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, worked for peace with Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis, and made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. This was a unique opportunity afforded by my American passport, and one I do not take for granted as most living in the midst of the conflict never get to experience “the other side.”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Peaceful Resistance, One Pitcher at a Time

On a rocky hillside in the ancient village of Taybeh, the fragrant smell of roasting barley emanates from an inconspicuous factory.  Inside, the Khoury family is busily overseeing several tanks of brewing liquid which will eventually be bottled and packaged as the Middle East’s only microbrew.

The brewery occupies an interesting position in Palestinian politics, history, and economics. Its founders, David and Nadim Khoury had escaped the violence and instability of the West Bank to attend college in Boston, Massachusetts. There, David fell in love with brewing beer. When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994, the brothers decided to move back to their home village of Taybeh and support Palestinian people by bringing business: beer business.

Alcohol is forbidden under Islam making Taybeh’s position in the majority-Muslim West Bank a precarious one. The beer is produced in Palestine’s last remaining entirely Christian town, but this fact alone has not dissuaded extremists from targeting the Khoury family and the town of Taybeh in acts of violent protest. David’s car has been torched, someone has shot at him, and the factory was nearly burned down in 2005 during a period of religious riots following the honor killing of a Muslim woman from a nearby town after it was discovered she had engaged in a relationship with a Taybeh villager. Fourteen homes were destroyed and the West Bank nearly lost its only brewery. 

Explicit violence is not the only challenge the family faces. The occupation of the West Bank results in stringent regulations and policies that dissuade business and make life particularly hard for beer brewers. The water for Taybeh comes from only two miles away, but this water source is under Israeli control. The water is prioritized for the Israeli settlements built on the hilltops surrounding Taybeh who receive a constant flow, while Palestinian villages in the region are pumped water half of the week, and only after they purchase it from Israel. After the production of the beer, it must be transported through several checkpoints to reach distribution sites within the West Bank, and particularly stringent checkpoints to enter Israel for local use and export abroad. Brew Master Madees Khoury explained that several times, shipments have spoiled while awaiting inspection or have been refused entry into Israel, impeding all foreign export.

Despite the many challenges facing the small operation, the family produces one terrific set of beers earning their moniker “The Finest in the Middle East” (my personal favorite is their “Dark,” a rich and smooth stout). The business remains viable, surviving its greatest challenge yet during the Second Intifada and becoming a point of Palestinian pride in more liberal cities where alcohol is legal. Their billboards often read: “Drink Palestinian, Taste the Revolution.” 

More than anything, the Khourys see their business as a form of civil resistance. Born in a moment of hope after the historic Oslo Agreements, the family dreams to someday see a free and prosperous Palestinian state.
“The Christians of Taybeh have lived through countless occupations since the time Jesus entered this town,” Maria Khoury explained to me, “and they have always responded through peaceful resistance. This is a matter of great pride in our village. We are not a violent people, and we will support Palestinian independence not by strapping on bombs, but by brewing beer, providing jobs, and investing in Palestine.” 

Cheers to that.

Apartheid’s Witnesses

 “When I was young, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand seeing the injustice of apartheid in my home country of South Africa. It became so bad that my husband and I decided we had to leave. We didn’t want to be a part of a country that oppressed its own people. That was 1968,” Rosemary told me. 

“So you decided to come to Israel?” I asked.

“Well, we considered many places—the United States, Europe—but my husband thought it was important that Jews have a state to live peacefully and prosperously. Even then, we were pretty secular, and I felt less strongly about it than him, but we decided to give it a try for a year. We left South Africa, had our first daughter here, he started a law practice…and we stayed. Now, my grandchildren are here and I couldn’t even imagine leaving.”  

Rosemary and I sat on the porch of a Palestinian souvenir shop and sipped sweet tea the shop owner brought us. Across the street, we watched one of Hebron’s 16 urban checkpoints as Israeli soldiers repeatedly turned Palestinians away, forbidding them from crossing into the Israeli part of town where we now sat. Rosemary played with her glass with a forlorn face. 

“It’s awful,” she said, “It makes me sick. I came to Hebron today because I felt I had to see it for myself, and it’s even worse than I’d imagined. People in Israel just don’t know. They don’t allow themselves to know."
Rosemary was one of several Israelis I met during my time in Hebron who felt the military presence within the city, the presence of sometimes hostile settlers, and the imposition of road blocks and checkpoints unnecessarily oppressed Palestinians and infringed upon civil liberties. Another woman, Rebecca, played with the golden charms of the Star of David and Hamsa Hand dangling from her neck as she told me why she regularly visits Palestinian families in the city to check in on them and draw attention to abuses that occur. Despite her conservative religious and Zionist beliefs, she felt a moral obligation to bear witness to the violent abuses committed by Hebron’s settlers.  Her decision has drawn great criticism from her religious community in Jerusalem, yet she still visits Hebron twice per month, sometimes accompanied by a friend, often alone.
Rosemary and Rebecca are part of a larger movement by Jewish Israelis to oppose the most blatant abuses of Occupation. Several Israeli organizations work to draw attention to human rights abuses in the West Bank, including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, yet the number of open Israeli dissenters still remains a minority. In many parts of the West Bank, Palestinians have still never met a Jewish person who wasn’t working for the Israeli Defense Forces or living in an illegal Israeli settlement,* perpetuating mischaracterizations of all Israelis as unjust aggressors.
As was the case in segregated America and apartheid South Africa, Occupied Palestine has created 2 distinct classes of people with different laws determining freedom or oppression. Resentment seethes in the archetypical city of Hebron, and patiently waits for the right moment to boil over.

*All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes the International Court of Justice’s ruling.
Note: All names in this post have been changed.

Aisha, Alive and Well

Aisha watching a game of soccer belo
From behind a barred window, chained for added protection, seven year old Aisha watched outside. In the small sports gymnasium two stories below, young boys wearing kippa with face-long payot played a game of soccer, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. 

The boys are children of Jewish settlers living in Hebron, a city with roots predating the biblical era and archaeological records as old as the Bronze Age. Their parents are some of the most extremist Zionists in the West Bank, choosing to live in the only Israeli settlement located in the heart of an Arab Palestinian city. In order to discourage violence between the 500 settlers and 165,000 Arab Palestinians living in Hebron, Israel maintains a presence of an estimated 4,000 soldiers who oversee 116 roadblocks, closures and checkpoints and man several military stations for each home inhabited by settlers (TIPH). The enforced segregation of the city has resulted in the closure of 1,829 Palestinian businesses located near settlements, 77% of the Old City’s Palestinian-owned markets (ACRI).

Aisha’s walk home through the Old City requires her to pass through two Israeli checkpoints where armed soldiers have the choice to question her extensively or allow her to pass. On this day, joined by her foreign friend, travel was a breeze. 

The Old City’s ancient corridors are full of life, with vendors beckoning passersby to buy their fresh produce, fragrant spices, colorful ceramics and tapestries. Above the open-air market, Palestinians have installed a roof of nets and fencing to protect themselves from propelled objects and waste thrown by settlers living in apartments above. 

Aisha running through a checkpoint
Aisha held my hand while flitting through the market, propelling me quickly through the ancient streets and tunnels, dodging food carts, donkeys, and pedestrians. 

As we neared Aisha’s house, her older sister Sundus pointed out their uncle’s home, located in the shadows of a Palestinian home illegally taken by Israeli settlers who have ignored Israeli eviction orders for months. Her uncle’s roof now serves as a permanent home for Israeli Defense Forces who have built a watch tower over the family room. Sundus whispered to me that two days ago, the soldier in the tower yelled explicit profanities at her. 

Without warning, little Aisha picked up a stone and threw it toward the tower.

“Aisha, what are you doing?!” I screamed, knowing how many children are shot and killed in the West Bank for throwing stones. 

For a moment, I thought she had understood the fear in my voice. Then, I saw her bend over again, pick up another stone and throw it. 

“Aisha!!” I yelled, as I saw the soldier turn toward us with his gun, “We have to go now!” 

 As we retreated from the soldier’s post, Aisha closed one eye and formed her arms in the shape of a rifle. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” she mimicked, pointing her arms back toward the soldier and the settler’s home behind.

When we finally made it to Aisha’s home, her mother greeted us, “alHamdu lillah,” “Praise God.” 

In Arabic, I later learned, Aisha means “alive and well.” Born during the Second Intifada and raised in an environment of incredible tension, everyday Aisha makes it home safely is a day worthy of giving thanks to Allah.