Originally published on Turkish Daily News, 23 February, 2007
A rose garden surrounded by barbed wire… A nation stuck in the middle of anger and patience…A country has been under occupation just for so long…
I was in the West Bank for the last ten days to see what is actually going on there. I am not a journalist, I am not a diplomat, not a businessman either. I am just a simple human being who naturally cares about what is happening in the world and believes that anybody can make a difference.
Although Palestine consists of two parts, West Bank and Gaza, there are actually more than that. Every city has its own rules, regulations, ideologies and culture. As the cities are isolated from one another by check points, many people are not allowed to travel among the cities. If you are from Ramallah, you cannot go to Nablus, if you are from anywhere in West Bank, you cannot go to Jerusalem or Gaza Strip. If you are from Gaza Strip, this is the worst; you just cannot go anywhere.
When you are a foreigner, things are a little bit easier. As long as you are patient enough to wait at check points and be subjected to questioning by Israeli soldiers, it is quite safe to travel in the West Bank. Gaza Strip is strictly prohibited for everybody.
All cities have an old city that has a souq and historical buildings, mainly from Ottoman period. All cities also have refugee camps from current Israel period. Most of the cities have universities that offer short term programs for internationals, particularly in Arabic and Palestine- Israel conflict. All cities have NGO’s working in various fields from education to health, conflict resolution to home demolishment.
It is so usual to see volunteers from Europe and U.S.A. whereas there is nobody from Middle Eastern countries or Turkey. It was such a shame to be the first Turk in the cities and refugee camps I have been to. Turkish youth seem to be adopting Western lifestyles, traveling is on the rise but mostly to the west. There has already been enough written and commented on the region, but nobody actually does anything. It is not easy to turn the situation overnight, but politics is not the only way. By teaching children English or handcraft, or just singing with them, volunteering as editors, organizers, and many other different positions in various fields, we can show them that we care about them and we can give the children hope.
Martyr or Murderer?
In Jenin Refugee camp, streets were full of posters of ‘al-Aksa Martyrs’ who kill themselves and many others in Israel as suicide bombers. An 18-year-old boy who killed 41 Israeli soldiers in Tel Aviv 3 years ago, is also considered as a martyr by his family and community. His mom, who does not want to reveal his name, never knew he would do such a thing. He never gave a sign about it, except looking mom in the eyes for a long time before he left home to commit the action. I ask the mother, what would she say if he told her, would she try to stop him? She gets confused, she has been asking the same question to herself, what would she do? As he did not kill any civilians but the soldiers of the ‘enemy’, she does not think it is wrong, therefore she is proud of her son. But when it comes to her feelings she feels very sad losing her 18 year old child and says “I would stop him.”
Walking in the city with guns, having pictures with guns, even suicide bombing are considered normal if not honorable in Jenin. As they don’t have an army or any official force to resist the occupation, as they all have been to prison for involving in politics, as they don’t get paid for 11 months, as they are not allowed to leave their city, and as they are labeled as terrorists, they don’t seem to have many options. The youth either involve in politics and other organizations, or they go for the education and express resistance in more humanistic way, even though they are not treated humanistic most of the time.
Choosing the Hard Way
Another example is a 35 year old education professor from Nablus. Ashraf Sayegh went to prison for throwing stones to the soldiers during first intifada at the age of thirteen. His father died while he was ‘inside’ and he couldn’t complete his primary education. While in prison, he had a long time to think about what to do in life and he decided to continue study by the courage of his older fellows. After release, people of Asqar refugee camp supported him and he completed primary and high school. After that he went to university in Amman, and now he became a professor in education. He says that he saw it wouldn’t go anywhere only by politics so he chose the more difficult way, education. Instead of going to a dead end for himself and his country by guns, he studied and now letting others to do the same.
Later on, other residents of Nablus Asqar Refugee Camp were also released and they founded Asqar Social Development Center. The center offer many classes and activities for children, a public library, computer training center and rehabilitation for the disabled people. Amjad Rfaie, director of the Social Development Centre says, “the occupation and the hardship it brings to our lives, should not take our culture and hope away from us. We had to make a choice between being ignorant, potential prisoners or martyrs, or keep up hard work and fix our problems by solidarity to give our children hope. We chose the third way, and we are happy about it.”
In order to keep the new generation away from guns, there needs to be more social/ educational activities for children. Current organizations welcome anybody from all nations to make a difference. Most of the case they provide food and accommodation, if not it is easy to find places in refugee camps and they welcome foreigners who share the hard times with them. The hospitality is indescribably sincere and welcoming. We may not change the ideologies or regimes, we may not remove the guns from the world, but we can easily ease people’s lives who don’t have the privileges we do. It seems more realistic to offer alternatives rather than becoming violent or waiting for peace.