Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunday's Activity

January 30, 2011  Back in Tulkarm
It’s the end of January which marks the beginning of the last half of my stay here in Palestine.  The time goes by quickly for all of us on Team 38 of EAPPI.  Even though Sunday is the start of the work week for most of Palestine, it is also a time when services are held at the 4 Christian churches in Nablus.  Our sending organization is the World Council of Churches and we are encouraged to attend services of our choice when there is an opportunity to do so.  
We took a bus to Nablus which is the second largest city on the West Bank of Palestine.  Then we took a taxi to Rafidia Street where there are four Christian Churches right in a row.  Today we decided to attend the Latin Orthodox Church.   The service was in Latin and so the connection for me was the music…..some of the melodies we familiar to me.  The order of service is also familiar and we were handed an English version of the Scripture readings for today.  As it turns out they use the same lectionary readings as what was read 8 hours later in my home church (Peace Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD).
It’s raining today and this is good for Palestine as they have not received the expected rainfall for this time of year.  We dashed between puddles and downpours as we found our way to the bus station for the trip back to Tulkarm.  Later in the afternoon I walked over to visit one of the Christian families as it is walking distance from our flat.  Mouna knew I was coming as we had talked earlier today.  A visit to her home is always filled with conversation and gracious hospitality.  My ability to converse in Arabic is limited to a few phrases and they only speak a little English.  We still manage to communicate and have a good time.  Mouna’s mother was sitting in a chair by their small open fireplace which is a very hot charcoal grill.  This is their only source of heat.

Several family members stopped by during the visit including her brother, Samir, another brother and sister-in-law and their 4 children.  The children age 6, 8, 10 and 12 study English in school so they were able to talk to me.   For dinner we had a meal of bulgar wheat and lentils.  We eat with our fingers.  We had several sweet taste delights and a banana followed by her delicious Turkish coffee.  They also have two cats who really like their spot underneath the little stove. 

Mouna (in red) and friend
Mouna was happy to have one of her little cats back after it was missing for the past month.  Besides being very kind to her pets, she is a loving caregiver for her mother as well as her extended family in this area and in the Gaza Strip.  

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sderot, Israel

The mid-term orientation for EAPPI participants also includes a bus tour.  Included in this tour is a trip through Israel on one of the major highways from as far South as we were allowed to the Northern region. As we rode on the smooth highway I noticed the difference in how these highways are constructed and maintained.  There are more dollars to build and maintain systems in Israel than in Palestine.
We met with Eric Yellin who is the leader of “Other Voice”.  He lives in the community of Sderot, Israel which is a village of 20,000 people living near the Gaza Strip.  A few years ago this village was struck by rockets from Gaza and an 18 year old woman died from this attack while protecting her brother as they were lying on the ground. 
Since that time her father has dedicated the building where we met as a memorial to her and it is used as a group meeting place.  The purpose of “Other Voice” is to build connections with the people living in Gaza.  He said: “we are connecting to the human side and know there are many who believe that way as well”. 
A woman named Roni from Sderot gave her perspective on life in this area and how it has affected her own family.  She gave us an example of building a relationship with another family when their two daughters were good friends from age 5.  While there were many cultural and political differences, they eventually trusted each other enough to establish a friendship between the two families.
We took a bus tour around Sderot and the surrounding area.  Eric shared with us a brief history of Sderot.  Eric said:  “people here remember Gaza as a wonderful place before 1987”.  There were many Palestinians from Gaza who came to work in Israel.  Then in 2001 the 1st rocket fell in the village of Sderot.  As many as 20,000 rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip over the past 10 years….sometimes as many as 50 in one day.  Because the residents of Sderot did not want to leave the area it was important to have protection.  They requested assistance from the Israeli government to “rocket proof” everything in the village. 

Rocketproof school in Sderot

School Playground in Sderot
What that means is that every apartment, house, bus stop, public building, school, and playground has “rocket shelters”.  When the loud siren goes off everyone knows they have about 5 minutes to get into a shelter.  He told us his children slept in their own personal “rocket shelter” for 2 years before they decided it was safe enough to sleep in their own bedrooms.
We went over to an area close to Sderot labeled a Water and Military Area.  From there we could see the Gaza Strip which was only a couple kilometers away. 

Looking into Gaza
There is no entry of civilians into Gaza and there only a few Gaza residents granted permission to travel outside of Gaza.  Everything surrounding Gaza is controlled by the Israeli military including access to the Mediterrian Sea.  Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.   Eric said:  “Hammas does not like Palestinians to be in contact with Israelis.  It is also against the law for Israelis to go to Gaza.”  It was very sobering to see the outline of Gaza and know how much the people of Gaza are suffering.  It is a humanitarian crisis and will only get worse if there is no resolution to the current problems.
View of Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea

We stayed in Haifa, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean Sea to the far north of Israel.  Is is a busy city and the views were stunning.Our lodging in Haifa is at the guest house of the Stella Maris Monastery. 
EA's of Team 38
We were welcomed by a gracious staff who served dinner and breakfast.  It was very comfortable and even the middle bed in the threesome who shared my room was  o.k. too.  We plan to overnight in Haifa a couple of days before heading back to Tulkarm for the second half of my volunteer experience.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

It has been 15 years since I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C.   During our mid-term orientation I was again privileged to go with the entire EA group through another Holocaust Museum--the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  It is built on land set aside in 1953 to memorialize the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, and to honor those who tried to save them.  It is set on 45 acres on the Mount of Remembrance.  

It includes a history, a children’s memorial, an avenue of the righteous, a hall of remembrance, a cattle car memorial and a Valley of the Communities.  The effects of the Holocaust reverberate strongly in this magnificent tribute.  It speaks loud and clear of the shameful course of history and the lessons learned so that it will never happen again. 
Korczak and the Ghetto's Children
The sculpture pictured above memorializes the Polish pediatrition, Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto who went to his death in the Treblinka Extermination Camp with "his children" in August of 1942.
Today all of us were expected to meet with the various consulates from each of our countries.  Ruth, Wayne, Nader and I met with Matthew Welch of the U.S. Department of State.  His office is in Jerusalem and he is the political officer for Human Rights and Religious Affairs.  This particular department has been in existence for 150 years.   There was an exchange of information concerning the present responsibilities and priorities of the U.S. State Department.   We each shared information about our placement areas and we also shared concerns we hear from the Palestinian people in the areas where we serve.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday in Bethlehem

After a restful night at the Bethlehem Inn, Esther and I went to the dining room for breakfast.  We were the only guests at the Inn and the manager graciously prepared all the dishes that make for a delicious breakfast.  He brought out little dishes of olives, hummus, jelly, jam, fresh cut up tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers.  Then he brought us fresh eggs and bread.  We enjoyed all the wonderful taste delights.
We packed up our belongings and found a taxi to deliver us to Christmas Lutheran Church for the service at 10:30 a.m.   Since we had arrived early, we were able to sit 3 pews from the front in the sanctuary.  We were given a bulletin printed in English even though the service is in Arabic.  There was some historical information about the church and we were able to follow the order of worship.
The Christian Church in Palestine is comprised of three main groups:   Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical (Lutherans are in this group).  Christmas Lutheran Church, the oldest Lutheran Church in Palestine, was started in 1854 by German missionaries.  Today, it is one of the 6 Lutheran Churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan  (and Palestine).    The present structure was built between 1886-1893.  The tower reflects the typical Bethlehemite woman’s hat of the 19th century.  The 14 original stained glass windows tell the Christmas story, the life of Christ, the flight to Egypt, the crucifixion, and other biblical history.  The writing on the windows is in German and the copula “glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will to men” was painted 20 years ago with Arabic calligraphy.  The pipe organ was originally manufactured in Berlin in 1890 and rebuilt in 2000 with funding from the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis, MN USA.

The order of the service was familiar to me.  There are some Arabic words that are quite similar to English such as Amen is Ahmeen.  Psalm 107 was read together and I said the words that were printed in English.  The hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour” has been one I’ve sung since I was a child and there again it was easy to sing the familiar words in English along with the congregation singing in Arabic.  The Gospel Lesson was Matthew 8: 5-13 which was about the faith of the centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his servant, sight unseen.  A version of “Rock of Ages” was sung after the sermon.  After that 3 men and 2 women came up to the front and were installed as members of the Council.  It was wonderful to attend the service.

After walking around Bethlehem a while longer we decided to head for Jerusalem.  We found a taxi to take us to the huge checkpoint to get out of Bethlehem.  It includes long walkways, turnstiles, screening devices and long waits.  A Palestinian women, with a baby about 3 months old, handed me her baby as she took off her boots, coat, earrings, necklace.  All the packages she was carrying were also screened, fingerprints verified and identification shown.  I enjoyed holding her tiny baby and she expressed her thanks and appreciation with her smiles and gestures as she did not speak English.   My moment of inconvenience is nothing compared to what the Palestinian people face every day.  I wonder so many times why all this is necessary and what purpose it really serves other than to cause humiliation and frustration.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bethlehem Again

There is a very structured approach to the EAPPI program in order to adequately provide service in 6 very different locations throughout the West Bank of Palestine.  Included in this careful plan are opportunities for the EA’s to see and experience many places in the area.  We are encouraged to go on 2 placement visits and take the equivalent of 12 days off our time as an accompanier. 
Esther and I decided to return to Bethlehem for a couple days before we have a week of mid-term orientation in Jerusalem.  We rose early to make the most of our days off.  I realized I’d be away from Tulkarm for 9 days this time.  I have a small backpack which when full is basically the weight I can lug around.  Since I was also taking my computer this time what I basically took was the computer, all the electrical attachments and adaptors, my camera, rain suit and one change of clothes. (I forgot my camera charger!!)  We also have to have two mobile phones, our passports at all times, money for transportation in our pockets, water and whatever else the EAPPI vest will hold.  The rest I was wearing as it is still pretty cold in Palestine.  However, I can’t complain about the weather compared to what I hear people are going through back home.  Each day warms up to at least 50 degrees.
When I arrived here I wondered if I would be able to negotiate all the different modes of transportation.  As it turns out, everyone is very helpful and so I eventually got on the right bus, Service or Taxi heading the right direction.  Service (pronounced Serveece) vehicles hold seven passengers plus the driver. 
Sign in the Service Van
They are comfortable, very well constructed and able to be driven in all sorts of circumstances.  The drivers all are excellent drivers with pleasant dispositions.   It’s really hilly throughout Palestine which requires good driving abilities. 
Bethlehem Street--Lots of Steps!!
They maneuver through the most impossible of situations to get where they need to go.  Even though my Arabic is very basic…….a few words and phrases…..I am always able to manage to figure out what it costs with the rest of the passengers helping me and pass my shekels up to the driver.  He makes change while he is driving which really calls for good multi-tasking abilities.  The buses hold many people and stop whenever a passenger wants to get on or off.
As we approached Bethlehem I thought of a beautiful anthem our choir at Peace Lutheran Church has sung.  How Far Is it to Bethlehem?
                How far is it to Bethlehem?
                Not very far.
                Do you see the little light
                Led by a star?
                Do you see the Christ Child?
                Is he asleep?
                Here in his manger bed
                Sleep baby sleep.
It’s inspiring to be in Bethlehem and walk along the old streets that have been so meaningful to people of faith throughout history.  There are many Palestinian Christians who would like to come here to see firsthand the birthplace of Christ.  Many have applied for permission to do so and have been denied.   In Occupied Palestine, there is no freedom of movement for Palestinians and access to Holy places is most often denied.
At sundown we joined a group of people who regularly pray at the Bethlehem wall.  We walked along the huge imposing structure in silence or to the words of “Hail Mary Full of Grace” and the Lord’s Prayer.
At the end we sang a short plainsong melody and closed with a word of prayer.  May the people of this land find love in their hearts and peace for their souls.
Tomorrow Esther and I will worship at Christmas Lutheran Church.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I did a bit of reading about Hebron to try to understand what is going on there that makes it so confusing to visit.  In spite the fact that it is almost a totally Palestinian city of over 150,000 people it is very strictly controlled by the Israeli military.  To find out why I did a bit of research and reading and now I think I am beginning to understand.

Hebron is an ancient city which has been continuously inhabited since its founding by Canaanites.  The city has its’ fame tied to the fact that Abraham, spiritual father of Jews and Arabs, bought a piece of land near Hebron for the family burial plot after Sarah died.  Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were all buried there.  Later Joseph and other patriarchs were buried there.

The area has gone back and forth between Jewish and Arab control since then with buildings built by kings and rulers, both Jewish and Arab.  From the 13th century until modern times the area has been under the control of Arabs and during that period Christians and Jews were prohibited from visiting the tombs of the patriarchs.

When the United Nations drew boundaries in 1947, Hebron remained in Palestinian control and is its largest city.  But the struggle over the area continues to this day.  In 1968 Rabbi Levinger and a group of his followers rented the main hotel in Hebron and then refused to leave.  It created a political crisis and violence which was resolved more than a year later when they were allowed by the Israeli authorities to establish a settlement town on the outskirts of town in an abandoned military base at Kiryat Arba.

First Urban Settlement in Hebron
In 1979 a group of forty women and children, led by Rabbi Levinger’s wife, took over and settled in a former hospital in central Hebron.  The takeover created severe conflicts and much bloodshed.  But the settlement was finally approved the the Israelis and at the present time there are five urban settlements which involve about 90 families.  Each settlement is protected by the Israeli army.

In 1997 the Hebron Agreement was established which divided the city into two sectors:  H1 and H2.  H1 is home to 120,000 Palestinians and is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and they have authority over 20-30 square kilometers.  H2, which is inhabited by 30,000 Palestinians remains under Israeli military control and has approximately 500 Jewish settlers.  However, since that time there has been an outflow of Palestinians because of the strict restrictions on movement and the presence of 16 checkpoints as well as the forced closure of many Palestinian businesses.

As you can imagine, Hebron has been a powder keg of tension and has involved violence on both sides.  The mayor of Hebron invited the Christian Peacemaker Teams help and they have been there since 1985.  According to Human Rights Watch, there has been a pretty consistent harassment of Palestinians in H2. An international unarmed observer force—the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was established to help maintain a buffer between the Palestinian Arab population of the city and the Jews residing in their enclave in the old city.

Jean Fallon of the Christian Peacemakers
These settlements within the West Bank, which escalated after the “Six Day War” in 1967, are against the Geneva Convention which states that an occupying force cannot establish permanent residences with the occupied territory.  But Israelis refuse to recognize this international law.  Virtually all of the tension that we experience here is related to settlement activities and the army protection of settlers within the recognized Palestinian areas of the West Bank.  Linked with the building of the "Separation Barrier", life in Palestine for the average citizen, is a struggle for survival as family life, education, the economy, and normal human interaction is all affected by the milieu created by the harsh rule of the occupiers.

One of the reasons that we have five EA’s in Hebron is that we have been invited to help document what is happening here.  I have tremendous respect for the team that is here.  I am not certain that I would have had the physical and emotional stamina to be Hebron for three months, no doubt a consideration of EAPPI in my placement in Tulkarm.

Well, this a very basic explanation of what I could understand.  It helped me to understand my confusion after spending a few days with the Hebron EA team.  Please pray for Hebron and for peace in this area of the world.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Reflections on Hebron

All Ecumenical Accompaniers (EA's) are encouraged to visit other locations on the West Bank where EA's are located.  The Hebron team of five graciously hosted two of us from Tulkarm.  During the placement visit we stayed with the Hebron team and shadowed the team as they went about their daily activities.  A very important activity for them is to be present in certain areas when the Palestinian children go back and forth to school.  This is because the children have to walk from their homes through an area patrolled by Israeli soldiers to get to their school.  One of the accompaniers from Norway, Nikolai, is a good soccer player and the children love to play with him as they are on their way to and from school.  

Accompaniers meet the children again for their return trip home.  Of interest is the fact that the children of settlers are transported directly to and from their schools in modern buses with darkened windows.
Some of the settlers occupy the tops of buildings in old Hebron.  To protect themselves from having garbage thrown on them, Palestinians have put up fencing to cover the street in front of their shops.

Everything in Hebron seemed very complex and confusing to me.  The old city used to be a thriving marketplace.  Now it still has some shops but hardly any customers.  The shop owners are used to seeing the Hebron EA’s as they daily walk to the city and they welcome them with offers of tea.  There are shops with beautiful handmade Palestinian products carefully crafted by skilled Palestinian women.
There again…..lots of products but hardly any business. 
There are four Israeli settlements in the middle of the older part of the city.  Due to this, there are lots of checkpoints and Israeli military presence. 

There are portions of the city where Palestinian people are not allowed to be and streets that are clearly divided as to who can walk on a certain part of the street.  A few years ago many Palestinian businesses were closed up and sealed off by the Israeli military. 
It looks like a ghost town with only a few Palestinian families living in flats above the closed business section.
We were invited to visit the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron.  They work cooperatively with EAPPI and share responsibility for accompanying Palestinian school children.  They have provided service in Hebron since 1985.  When there are problems, EA’s regularly contact other organizations for assistance and planning.  It was good to learn about the cooperative efforts of many people in this very vulnerable and  complicated area. 
Another focus of the Hebron team has been to maintain contact and provide a presence in the Hebron Hills.  Two of the Hebron team had just returned after spending a couple days in a village close to Hebron.  The team spends considerable time each day walking around the area, talking with the Palestinian people and standing in solidarity with the them.  It’s not uncommon for soldiers to arrive in a village and use tear gas even for a non-violent demonstration.  Tear gas is shot from a gun and can be harmful if a person is directly hit by the container full of tear gas.  It was an unreal feeling to watch this being used for no apparent reason.  One of my EA friends took the picture of tear gas being shot  and gave it to me to use in my blog.

The week before we visited Hebron seventeen Palestinian homes and a school were bulldozed in the area of the Hebron hills. 
73 year old villager next to his bulldozed home
Photo by A Skaardal of EAPPI
Here is the website of the EAPPI report on this event.
I will write more about Hebron.  But this gives you a little glimpse of what the EA's do in Hebron.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Schoolchildren in Hebron

Earlier this week I spent a couple of days in Hebron.  There is much to say and I will have to give greater thought to it.  I think I will begin my reflection by sharing a story.
It’s called A Palestinian Schoolboy in Hebron
“Mama, I don’t want to go to school today.”
“Why, my son?
“I don’t know…….I guess I just don’t like it anymore.”
“What… don’t like it?  You have always told me when you go to school, it’s very good.  What happened?”
“Well Mama….as you know….we go by the soldiers with the big guns.  I like how they look in their nice uniforms but they sometimes don’t seem to look very happy.  Sometimes I am afraid of them but my friends tell me not to worry and that they won’t hurt me.”
“Oh, I see.  Tell me more my son.”
“Yesterday as my friend and I were walking some other people came and started throwing stones at us.  You always told me that it is wrong to throw stones so we didn’t throw any back.  We just kept walking like you told us to do but I was really scared.  I wondered why the soldiers didn’t tell those people to stop throwing stones at us but they didn’t do anything to stop them.  I was very afraid and I really wanted to pick up a stone and throw it back at them.  And Mama that’s why I don’t want to go to school today.”

One of the responsibilities of the EA's in Hebron is to accompany children to school.  Israeli Zionists have occupied some buildings in Hebron.  In order to "protect" them from the Palestinians, the Israeli army has erected barriers and stationed soldiers within the overwhelmingly Palestinian city.  In order for Palestinian children to go to their schools they have to walk past settlers and soldiers.  The EA's accompany the children to and from school to provide a supportive presence to them.  These pictures I took will give you an idea of what they face on a daily basis. 

I will write more.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Palestinian Political Prisoners

The EA flat is located close to the International Red Cross building.  Every Tuesday morning around 10:00 o’clock a.m. many people hold a Prisoners’ sit-in.  This is organized by the Prisoners’ Club.  We walked over this morning as we do each week to show solidarity with them. 

On a sunny day they also sit on chairs brought over from the Red Cross.   Since it was raining we wore our rain suits as today it meant standing out in the rain for an hour.  There is an awning by one of the buildings to shelter them from the weather.  Families of prisoners are usually holding enlarged pictures of their loved ones who are in prison. 

Every week there are members of the press who come and take video recordings and they are interviewed individually.  Today there were several members of the political party attending as well to make special appeals at the start of a new year.

It is interesting to note that during a demonstration the men take the lead and the women follow.  They do not walk together.

I was standing beside a young Palestinian woman who spoke some English.  When I asked her about the picture she was holding she said:  “this is my Father who has been in prison for 8 years.”  She went on to tell me that she was 10 years old when her Father who is a pilot was arrested and put in prison.  He is serving a life sentence.  The Red Cross has prioritized the visitation rights for families of prisoners and they provide advocacy on their behalf.  She says she feels fortunate to be able to visit him every two weeks. Then she added:  “but I would like him to be released so he can be home with his family.”  
Several times a week, the Red Cross supplies buses so that the prisoner’s families can go visit their loved one in Israeli prisons.  Those buses are waiting on the other side of the checkpoints like the one we monitor at Taybe –Irtah.  For the people visiting their family member in the prisons, it means getting up very early to stand in line at the checkpoint and  getting through that so they can get to the bus.  If someone is detained for some reason at the checkpoint the whole bus waits and that means less visiting time with their loved one when they get there.

This website is a good resource for information concerning International Law and Palestinian prisoners.

“Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. This forms approximately 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).”             Palestine Monitor


Monday, January 17, 2011


One of the delights about being in Tulkarm is the accessibility of fresh food. 

As noted previously, the fruits and vegetables are fresh and grown in the area.  And the eggs are very fresh and tasty. 

The taste is far superior to those eggs back home which are often stored for months before we get them. 

One of the more pleasant experiences is to smell the aroma of fresh bread while walking down the streets of Tulkarm.  We have one particular shop where we buy our bread almost daily.
My husband and I love to make lefse.  It is a tradition in our family that is Norwegian in origin.  It is what I would describe as a “potato tortilla” made with riced potatoes, flour and butter/margarine which we put on our Bethany grill.  Of course bread made here is made with olive oil and one type is made on a hot grill which reminds me of the way we make lefse.  

The men who “grill” it use only their fingers and are very deft at shaping and cooking it.  It looks a lot like pizza dough and it is very popular here.  This bread is  put on a very hot grill for only a few seconds on each side.   

Palestinians fold into this bread all sorts of food.  I like it with humus or with avocado.  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Conversation Classes / Tulkarm Prisoner's Club

Today we had two interesting meetings.  The students at the Khaddouri University (also spelled Kaddori) had exams and then a break until Jan 29th.  However, the group that regularly meets with us wanted to hold conversation classes even though they were on break.  One student named Bassma assists us in coordinating with the others about when we are coming.  It was quiet on the campus today so she also gave us a tour of the campus before we met with the conversation class.  A large mural in one of the hallways caught my eye. 
It showed a couple with an infant gazing up at the sky.  All around them was ash and beyond that was the barb wire fence that is everywhere in Palestine.
The conversation class consisted mainly of young women today.   We shared about feelings and what we do when we are sad or angry.  Many of the women said they either keep to themselves or sleep.    The expectations for women are to be home and they are restricted in what they are allowed to do.    They said:  “boys can go anyplace they want…girls only can be at home.  A woman’s life is very boring.”  Another woman added:  “I love my life….I love my parents.”  She went on to say she could talk to them and that they weren’t too strict. 
However, when it was almost finished a young man who has been there also showed up.  When he arrived he talked about how men have complete freedom to do what they want when they want. He added:  “men are not allowed to cry.”

Later in the day, Abdulkarim Sadi, our contact in Tulkarm, met us at a familiar restaurant from where we walked to the office of Halima Irmilot, the director of the Prisoner's Club in Tulkarm.  We introduced ourselves and shared our backgrounds.  Sadi said that Halima is like a sister to him and that they have worked together on many projects.   
Halima grew up in Palestine in a family of 5 brothers and 4 sisters.  Their land was where the Ben Gurian Airport is now located.  In 1948 they were forced to flee from their homes and like many other Palestinians ended up in other areas.  Several members of her family including four brothers, her father, and Halima herself have been in prisons in Israel.  Halima commented that all the years since 1948 have been difficult but the years between 1950 and 1972 “were horrible.”  One of her brothers was arrested and sentenced for life imprisonment because “he was an activist.”  She remembers that there was a great deal of pressure put upon her father to get him to cooperate and reveal the activities of his sons.  Consequently the whole family lived in fear and uncertainty.  Another brother was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison in Jordan. 
She said:  “in 1990 at the age of 64 my father was imprisoned and sentenced to 15 years.  Another brother was imprisoned and in 1991 Halima was incarcerated for 6 months in an Israeli prison as well.  She was 37 years old at the time of her arrest.  The reason for her imprisonment was because she was assisting other Palestinians.  She said:  “it was a very bad time for me to be in an Israeli prison.  I had little ones at home who needed me.  They were pressuring me to sign papers and cooperate with them.”
We asked her how she was able to survive the prison experience.  She said:  “I believed in my God and I believed that justice would come to our people.”  Her coping mechanism was to try to ignor the reality of her situation and to look beyond the pain to the time when she would be reunited with her family.
After she was released from prison she decided to form an organization to help the Palestinian prisoners.  On Sept. 27, 1997 the first Prisoner’s Club became official in Ramallah.  It has been operational since that time throughout Palestine.  She was instrumental is raising necessary funds by going to local merchants, farmers and individuals and pleading her cause.  The money came in and they were able to provide support and service to prisoners and their families.
Halima said she’s worked with many families of prisoners.  She added:  “when you enter their home you feel the sadness.”  A secretary came in and Sadi and Halima signed another letter on behalf of one of the prisoners.  He said about Halima:  “she is known as the Mother of the Prisoners.”  Helima added:  “I am all the time optimistic but like a mother, I worry about my family.”   Slowly there have been improvements made in the prisons.  Because of the work of the Prisoner’s Club each prison has a library.  She said prisons used to be like tombs but she credited Arafat for his assistance in helping the libraries became a reality.
According the the Geneva convention prisons are supposed to provide adequate food for the prisoners.  Halima remembers “the food was unfit for human consumption.”  Has the situation improved?  She answered:  “now the prisoners have to buy their own food so families send money to the prisoners.  They pay a high price for food products sold by Israeli companies.”  How about their medical needs?  That also is often neglected.  She told us about one prisoner who needed surgery.  But instead of getting the medical care he needed he was just transferred from one prison to the other before any surgery could be scheduled.
She outlined three major tasks of the prisoner’s club.  1)  providing assistance including legal support for the prisoners and their families and arranging regular visits.  2)  providing support for educational opportunities while they are in prison, 3) providing support, educational opportunities, counseling and job opportunities upon their release from prison.  Halima is a guest speaker at many schools to increase their awareness of the prison situation.  Of the current 8,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli prisons, 550 are from the Tulkarm area.  Nearly every family in the area has or had a relative in prison. 
Susanne and "Mother of the Prisoners"--Halima
As we were saying our good-byes,  Halima told me I was the first American EA she had met in this area.  She wanted me to tell people back home “that we are not terrorists and we just want a peaceful end to the occupation.” 
Please add Halima and her 8,000 "children" to your prayer list.  Thanks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Experiences of Mr. D

One of our contacts in Tulkarm is Mr. D.  I choose not to use his full name.  He is a freelance journalist involved in many community activities.  He also works with the UN Committee to register the disruption and damage the separation barrier is causing the Palestinian people.  He has graciously worked with every EA team since EAPPI first started maintaining a presence in the Tulkarm area.  He and his wife live in the Tulkarm area with their 5 children. 
Besides being aware of the pulse of the community he travels to the Jordan Valley and other places when necessary.  Our team was invited to his home the other day to share food and wonderful hospitality.  His home is built partway up the hill so they have a nice view of Tulkarm.  Their land has been in the family for a number of years and they live next to his mother who is in her 80’s.
Mr. D has been married over 20 years.  Their engagement and wedding pictures were willingly shown to us and the story of their life evolved.  Both had been born and raised in Tulkarm.  They were introduced through Mr. D’s sister.  Right after the engagement party he was arrested and put in prison.  He didn’t go into the reasons why he was imprisoned but he was one of the 20% of Palestinian men who have been in prison.  There are many people arrested for political reasons alone.  Since he was well educated and able to speak his mind about things, that may have been enough of a reason for imprisonment. 
In his life, he has spent a total of 5 years in prisons.  The first time he was arrested was right after his engagement party.  When he started describing the conditions he endured while in prison it is quite remarkable that he survived at all.  Many times there were 10-20 men in a very small cell with one toilet for everyone.  Other times when there wasn’t a building to house the prisoners in they were put in tents.  Palestine is generally a moderate climate but in the winter it is cold and rainy.  It’s pretty miserable on some days even though the temperature may still be above freezing.
I have read stories about how someone survives a harsh situation by their ability to consciously  ignore what is happening and  reach a higher level of consciousness completely removed from the reality they are facing.   Mr. D did that in two ways….by writing and by etching on small pieces of limestone.   He wrote  letters to his beloved and the rest of his family whenever possible.  The Red Cross supplies a blank postcard for prisoners to send notes home.  Looking at the small space allowed on a postcard, he decided to try it his way.  All this had to be done secretly when he wasn’t on work duty and when the guards weren’t watching.  In beautiful Arabic script, he wrote pages and pages in as small and beautiful  handwriting  as I have ever seen.  The paper was very thin like airmail stationary.  Whenever a prisoner that he knew was released,  a very small letter  would be given to the man and smuggled through.  The friend in turn delivered the precious letter to Mr. D's family and his future bride.  All those letters were saved and cherished over the years.
He took out a small leather pouch that is kept in a cabinet in their living room and showed them to us.  Several  folded papers with tiny but perfectly crafted handwriting tumbled out.  There were also 3 beautiful necklaces that he had made for his future wife.  When asked how he etched the designs and the lettering on each one he said:  “I used either my fingernails or another scrap of stone and just worked away.”  He also said of everything he has in his possession this is by far the most valuable.
I will write more about prisoners next time.