Saturday, September 17, 2005

Growing up under occupation

We had a birthday party for one of the girls in the program on Wed, Chamila, who is Sri Lanken but was adopted and grew up in Denmark. The party was at a local restaurant, and Chamilia insisted on providing all the food, cake etc . . . While I was at the party I met an 18 year old Palestinian girl named Shadia who is ranked as the number two chess player in Palestine. She just started her first year at Birzeit and is studying computer science, although she really wants to study medicine. I guess there aren’t any good medical schools in Palestine and her scholarship paperwork got held up, so she’s studying engineering while she waits to find out if she can get accepted to a program abroad.

Aside from being incredibly intelligent, Shadia is also stunningly beautiful in the quintessential Arab way. We were talking about the situation in Palestine and she said something that really struck me. I don’t recall the exact context of the conversation, but it was something along the lines of: “There are no children in Palestine. We are all grown up our whole lives – we have to be.”

The long-term effects of the occupation on the children here are overwhelming. UN studies have shown that Palestinian children today are growing up with emotional and developmental problems; they are afraid to go to school, some of them afraid to leave their houses because of the violence they see. These kids are growing up seeing their friends killed, their father’s humiliated and their neighbors starving. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, they can see how the settlers live – in comfort with green grass, private highways, good schools and freedom of movement.

I was in Qalquila for the past two days visiting my cousin’s family, and the situation there is heartbreaking. The city, which used to be a big farming/ market area, is now completely surrounded by the wall. While we were walking around the city, B’s mother pointed out building that had been bombed by the Israelis, and she showed me pictures plastered on walls and building of children who had died during the fighting there. She pointed out one picture of a young boy, maybe 13, and said he had been her son’s best friend.

Two of B’s sister’s are handicapped, I think one has Downs syndrome and the other has a problem with her legs and although she can walk, it is with obvious difficulty. There aren’t any facilities in Qalquila for these children, so the family does the best they can at home. The younger sister, Areej, has a learning disability, but is fully capable of attending school and learning, or she would be if there was a school available for her.

It was obvious that B’s family is not well off. Although they were incredibly generous with me and wouldn’t let me pay for anything . . . it is clear that they are suffering from the occupation. Food that isn’t eaten is carefully saved, the girls sleep on mats on the floor. While we were sitting down for breakfast yesterday B’s father opened the refrigerator and a glass bottle of ketchup fell out and smashed on the floor. Her older sister carefully picked the glass out of the ketchup then scooped it into a small container, skimming the ketchup carefully so that she didn’t get any that actually touched the floor . . . I wanted to say something about the tiny shards of glass probably in the ketchup, but I didn’t dare for fear of offending . . .
B had asked me what my favorite foods are, and I said that Magluba was my all time favorite (which I happen to know isn’t too difficult to make). Her aunt’s had my over for lunch on Friday, and lo-and-behold, we had Magluba for lunch. Usually, Magluba is made with lamb or chicken, but we had it without meat. On the side, they served stuffed pigeon. Pigeon is a much cheaper meat than either chicken or lamb . . . and if there were serving Magluba without meat when a guest was present, I can only assume that the financial situation is not good.

Overall, I had a good time in Qalquila, although I was happy to return to my own apartment. It was certainly good practice for my Arabic, although I was exhausted by the end of each day from trying so hard to understand and communicate. Maintaining that kind of concentration and focus over a long period of time is difficult. Yup, definitely glad to be back in my little ejneby (foreign) haven.


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