Olives for Hope

If the world is ever going to come to peace,
humanity can no longer be recognized 
on a case by case basis.


I Am A Human Being First

Posted on March 9, 2011 at 9:46 PM

Last week I had the privilege of writing about my conversation with Bana, a Palestinian teenager from Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem, Palestine). Over the last several weeks I have also enjoyed getting to know Billy [Nabil]. He is a Palestinian Christian who was born in Nazareth, Israel. Nabil’s family moved to the U.S. when he was six years old – his parents wanted Nabil and his two brothers to have the opportunity for a better life than what they would have had staying in Israel.


I must say that writing this entry is the most difficult of this series. The previous two entries had an obvious focus. Safi is being held in an Israeli prison and Bana lives under an ongoing, often brutal, occupation. It has been harder to find the voice of Nabil’s story. Even though the issues he wrestles are less immediate, they are no less important. I am very aware of the need to not allow this to seem trivial in comparison.


As we talked, Nabil related stories about his school in Nazareth, spending time with his grandmother as well as worries about family and friends still living there. The love Nabil has for his family, his faith and his heritage is apparent. 

There is in this horrible political mess that the world has put together, there are these spots that you see every day that are beautiful – with little signs of grace in them. As much as radical anyone wants to fight anyone else, you have to always remember that there are people in this world that remember that we are all born babies, and that we are not born this, or born that, or born to hate each other. We were born just to coexist in this world.

Although he was old enough when his family moved to the U.S. to have experienced the prejudice around him and directed at him, it was not until he was here that he more fully began to understand the reality of that innate racism.

Life was OK there, but there was always a shadow, though I didn’t really understand that we were second class citizens. When I was four or five there was a Jewish boy that lived next to us and we were friends, we were just two kids that didn’t know there was supposed to be hatred between us. His dad started pushing me away and he didn’t want me to hang out at his house – his dad would be yelling at me and always keep me under a watchful eye, like a four or five year old would do something to his family.  And then we just started not hanging out. But I didn’t really know there was anything really wrong with it till we moved here and I started to learn more about the situation.

But as I struggled to find the “voice” of this story it became clear that I would not find it in Palestine. During our second conversation Nabil was more relaxed and I realized that the heart of Nabil’s story is about how he can create his own identity which allows his life to speak while honoring his heritage. It is not uncommon for children of immigrants to experience a certain pressure to perform, to live up to expectations which spring from the family’s shared sacrifice. Nabil is also the oldest child in his family which adds its own dynamic to the mix.  That would be job enough for anyone, but for Nabil there is one more brick in the wall that he has to climb – the brick of negative expectations – racism.


Nabil moved with his family to the U.S. the summer prior to the September 11 attacks. He noticed “People started getting paranoid and I started to get racist remarks.”  Then during Middle School a Jewish student was giving Nabil a hard time, “He was horrible to me... using terrorist comments." – and Nabil reacted physically. Acknowledging that as a bad choice, he learned that  “...we need to be peaceful, if we want to prove we are not what people say we are, that we are not terrorists, we can’t make the same mistakes as those that fight back with violence.” Nabil now understands his role as an ambassador, the only Palestinian Christian that many around him will ever know.


Unfortunately, even amongst his peers, racist comments are not uncommon.

Sometime they just stay stuff out of ignorance. They don’t know they are saying something stupid but they are; and other times they’ll intentionally be racist. Sometimes when people go too far I don’t like it. Sometimes I’ll just shrug it off and I won’t make a big deal about , if they are just being ignorant.

When we first met, I asked Nabil about his hopes for the future and whether or not he would move back to Israel. Although he wants to continue to visit and spend extended vacations there his “aspirations are here”. During that first conversation Nabil spoke about becoming a doctor or lawyer (but hopefully a professional football player). Then when we met again I asked him about those choices [doctor or lawyer], and if his heart would choose either. Quietly, he said "no". At that point Nabil confided;

I want to be something more than… I want to be something different to show that I don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, something popular just because I am an immigrant. Jesus didn’t do the popular thing. He was the opposite of what everyone thought he was….I’m not sure though - Do I have the will power to stay away from material things….People always say you can’t - I know sports are a hard thing to get into. You never know though and, but there are always other options like a teacher or I could also be a missionary….I was also thinking maybe a psychologist or psychiatrist. I think I could help people because I’ve been through a lot of stuff. There are a lot of things that could be helpful to other people, because I want to serve other people too; something that most people don’t think ‘I want to be that when I am older’.  We should all have some part in helping others and reaching out because no one can go through life alone.  

I want to share with Nabil a Quaker advice to “Let your Life Speak”; to encourage Nabil to, as Parker Palmer, a Quaker author and educator, said “....remember sooner than later, who you were when you arrived here.”


I asked Nabil how he identifies himself and he answered by saying

I’m a human being first, that was what I was born; second is my religion, so I am a Christian; third is my heritage, I am a Palestinian [Being Palestinian means that I know persecution, it means I should always have pride in my heritage not arrogance; it means that I have something in me that a lot of other people here don’t have…I know that there is more to life than what we have here.];  fourth I’m a teenager living in America just trying to make my way through life.

This is where my stereotype of the typical American teenager crashed head on into my experience with Nabil and Bana, as well as what I learned about Safi - Three teens facing very different challenges yet sharing a sweetness and maturity that is uncommon in the “typical” teenager, but that is borne of their mutual struggles [different but rooted in the same weed of racism]. This brings me back to where I started this series - the strength “of the Palestinian heart” is definitely beating in the children of Palestine.



My Fears Make Me Stronger

Posted on February 28, 2011 at 8:22 PM

A little over a month ago I received a message from one of my Facebook friends. He is the Director of the Joint Advocacy Initiative which is a program of both the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA in Palestine. I met him while there for the olive harvest.  He sent me a message letting me know that his daughter, Bana, is currently an exchange student at a high school near me, here in West Michigan. After "friending' her on Facebook, an idea began to germinate. I thought it might be interesting to write about Bana's insights as a West Bank Palestinian living in the US for a year. Then I began to wonder how her experience might be similar or different than the experience of another friend’s son who is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. His family moved to the States when he was six years old and became citizens here. I contacted their parents and received permission to speak with both of them.  First I will introduce you to Bana and next week you will meet Billy [Nabil].

I met Bana at a local Middle Eastern Restaurant - she had not had falafel since arriving in August and was hungry for a taste of home.  She was very energetic and charming, and obviously very intelligent. Any stereotypes westerners have about Palestinian girls would be dispelled after just speaking with Bana a short time.  This is a young woman that knows her own mind and is not afraid to share what she believes. Her love for her land, her people and her heritage was very apparent. I asked her what she enjoyed about being in the US and what has frustrated her. She spoke about the bigness of everything and the opportunities that teens have here which they do not have in Palestine. But, as she spoke I noticed that the heart of the story was the opportunity to "just be a teenager", to 'breathe'. When you live in a conflict zone, you do a lot of holding your breath. When will the next night raid happen, will my friend be arrested, will my family member be killed, or just can I get to school, work or the doctor? I wished I could package that feeling of freedom for her to take home like sweets to share with her family and friends.  As an ambassador for Palestine she has made an effort to speak openly about her experiences, but is frustrated by the response of many who think her situation is very sad, but do not see any way to help. She tells me, "We don't come here to ask for money. We don't ask for your soldiers to come liberate Palestine. We just want you to tell Israel to let us live, on our land - to stop killing us. We just want to live." I don't know how to respond.

On the one hand I see a typical excited happy teenager, but on the other I know that not far below the surface there is a special kind of sadness that a 15 year old should not know.   It is normal for a teenager to wonder why this person or that person,  doesn’t like them  – but not, “why does this entire nation want me and my family to disappear from our land?”.  She speaks of bombs, and shootings and checkpoints as easily as my neighbor’s 15 year old speaks of soccer practice and the latest Kanye West CD.  It is not even a matter of whether or not she should be protected from these things. The only protection available for her parents to offer from this reality is to help her find her own strength.

In Beit Sahour there is a place that was used by the Israeli military and then abandoned several years ago. The municipality has built a park there.  In recent years Israeli settlers have been trying to confiscate the land for an [illegal] outpost. This has been a site for ongoing demonstrations. Currently, there seems to be an uneasy détente. The park is being enjoyed by the residents of Beit Sahour, under the watchful eye, however, of the Israeli military which has built a watchtower nearby. Bana related her story of participating in one of the demonstrations for the park.  

 I remember one time they [Israeli soldiers] took this place Oush Gurab. Me and my mother and my father and my sister, we went to protest [Bana was 15 years old at the time of this protest], not with any weapons, but with our pastors of our churches and they were in front of us, the pastors, and we were going through singing and praying the prayer. Then they [soldiers] started shooting bombs, like gas bombs and sound bombs and they didn't want to kill anybody because there were priests there; and you know if people outside know they had shot priests, they would have been mad and so they didn't.  I should have been screaming, and running away but I didn't. I was staying there, and put my hand on my mouth as big as I could make my hand and put it on my mouth and just walked and the soldiers were screaming "Go away, go away, or we'll kill you."

People were still praying, the priests did not stop, they were still praying. And then this guy was just looking at me to make me afraid but I was walking and they brought this jeep and they closed the gate and they started to shoot at the sky. I didn’t want to run away but I thought I should get back, but from my heart though, as scared as I was, you know I might get killed, I just didn’t care and I didn’t want to run. My feet were just moving and I was praying. My hands were crossed; and my hands were killing each other because I was pressing so hard, and I was walking as fast as I could. They were in front of me; I was not that far from those soldiers. I was praying loudly, real loud --I was looking at them and they knew they wouldn’t do anything to me. I was terrified but I knew in my heart though nothing would happen because I was praying so hard and I had my cross.

So then they gave it back to us [Oush Gurab] -- we didn’t kill anyone, we were just praying and protesting we went through their wall of soldiers. That day, I thought I can actually do something. At first I thought I was helpless because if I could do something, everyone would be doing something. But actually, I could do something -- why should I wait for someone to do something that I should have been doing for a long time? If they kill me I don’t care; I am going to speak up for my rights for who I am and I am going to speak up for those people that can’t because maybe they are afraid.  Fear makes us strong, my fears make me strong. I am always afraid of stuff but when I face them they make me strong. When they [fears] come to me it is not just me that I am fighting for but for other people. (A video of another protest at Oush Gurab is posted to my video gallery - I recognize several friends in the video, including Bana's father and my host dad.)

Bana does not just challenge us to look at what we believe about Palestine and Palestinians. She challenges us to look at our own lives differently; “The least of what you have – we would love to have.” So, while I wish life for Bana and her friends could be easier, I also wish that teens here could understand better the responsibility imparted by living somewhere of such privilege. As Bana said, “Everyone is responsible to know the truth.”

The last thing Bana said as she left the West Bank to Jordan (as a Palestinian she is not allowed to fly through Ben Gurion airport) she said "Palestine, I will make you proud" - I think she already has.



Silent Tears

Posted on February 17, 2011 at 10:05 PM

A cultures greatest asset is also its greatest weakness – children. They invoke our greatest sense of hope and our greatest fears. Who will they become – where will they go – what will happen to them along the way? For most of us, protecting children, all children, is a high calling. The awful reality though is that for many children there are no protectors; or at least none strong enough to hold back the evil that lurks in some of us. And evil is the only word that can describe a system that uses our love for children to exert control and domination of people whose only real crime is to be born to a land coveted by another. That is the reality for children and their families in the occupied territories of Palestine.

There have been increasing reports of children taken in night raids in the villages most active in the struggle against the apartheid wall.  Most are taken on the thinnest of reasons based on unsubstantiated statements by other children, also taken from their beds in the middle of the night. They are promised that if they give names they will be able to go home. There are no parents or other advocate present while they are questioned. No standard rules of evidence are required. In fact, many are never actually charged with a crime, but are held in what is called administrative detention as “security risks”. I cannot think of a better way to pressure a family than to take advantage of the most vulnerable members.

Contrary to the International Convention on the rights of the Child, which Israel signed in 1991, Palestinian children are considered as adults at age 16. This results in the criminalization of a large portion of the Palestinian population where youth are nearly 50%, creating a large pool of potential collaborators. And those that don’t collaborate, their scars provide a fertile landscape for radicalization. I find hope, however in words spoken by a friend recently – “You will be surprised by the strength of the Palestinian heart.”

As I seek to know that strength, I have recently had the privilege of getting to know three Palestinian youth, who each come from very different places, literally and figuratively.  One, a beautiful, energetic, 15 year old girl from Beit Sahour, is studying as an exchange student at a high school near me. I met her father while in Beit Sahour for the olive harvest. The other two are boys living very different lives. The first is currently in an Israeli prison, I have come to “know” him through the words of another olive harvest volunteer.  My friend met and interviewed him while there for the harvest – he chose the name “Safi” (which is Arabic for clear or pure) for her to use in the book she is writing. The second is the son of a friend, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. My friend moved his family to the United States and they became citizens, in order to provide a better life for his sons - a life without the discrimination that he knew too well in Israel.

I want to tell their stories over the next couple of weeks so that others can know them, and learn, as I have, that the strength “of the Palestinian heart” is beating in its children.  It is Safi’s story that I will share now.

Photo by: C.T.Jarrah 2010

Safi was arrested on November 19, 2008 – he was 16. Soldiers came and took him from his home at 2:00am. He was accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. He told my friend that he had not thrown the stones, that he was not even involved in politics, that he only wanted to finish school so that he could become a doctor.

He told her [C.T. Jarrah 2011], “One soldier yanked me out of bed demanding to see my ID. They shackled and blindfolded me and threw me outside—dragging me across the ground like an animal.”

“I didn’t know where they were taking me, I was wearing only pajamas. It was cold. My wrists were bleeding because the plastic shackles were squeezed too tight.  They took me to a compound where I was interrogated and beaten. I told them I never threw stones at Israeli soldiers. I never once thought of throwing stones at anyone. One of the soldiers recorded my statement in Hebrew. I didn’t have much to say, a few sentences, but the statement he later wanted me to sign was pages long. I wouldn’t sign it so they beat me and threatened to arrest my older brother who was about to travel to Jordan to get married if I didn’t admit to throwing stones. I refused to admit to something I didn’t do. They beat me some more.”

“Two months later I was taken to a prison in the Negev. Ashkenon. It had eight large tents surrounded by a twelve meter electrified fence. It was near a cattle farm and the smell was unbearable. Each tent had 22 prisoners; beds were stacked above each other. We were treated worse than animals. Winter nights in the Negev are cold. We were often shackled in contorted positions for long periods, often deprived of food. Or they put worms and cockroaches in our food. Or they would put something in our food to keep us awake. Or something to put us to sleep. I never knew what I was eating exactly or what I was drinking. I got a bad skin infection and allergies”

“Others had it much worse. You could cry for them, some were serving life sentences, old men. Some died there without their families even knowing of their whereabouts. And there were boys younger than me. Israel prefers twelve and thirteen-year-olds. They scare easier. There was sexual abuse. The older prisoners took care of me.”

He was in prison for 14 months and released just before the olive harvest. Because he missed two years of school, his dream of becoming a doctor has been left behind. Safi now has set his mind to becoming an engineer. However, on December 31, 2010 my friend received word that Safi was arrested again.  Her understanding is that he is expected to be released after four months, but his mother does not know where he is held.

I am not sharing this story to make you feel sad, to cry silent tears; but to hopefully inspire you to action. According to the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur each year around 700 youth as young as 12 years of age, are arrested and detained in the Israeli Military Court System.  It is my hope that you will be moved to call on the State Department or Foreign Ministry in your country to pressure Israel to abide by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Safi, and too many more, need you to do it today.

Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”