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.



Categories: POV, Children