|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.