Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas is where your heart is...--122410, Ankawa, Iraq

Yesterday was Christmas Eve here in Iraq, (and in every other part of the world). A very different Christmas: a very hard, very special but a very meaningful one.... Christmas is a super special time for me, but this one comes at a different time on my life. I have been traveling for the past six months, and today, Christmas has another meaning, actually, many different meanings: it means to live with a PURPOSE, to know I am moving in this journey, but with each movement, I leave behind, smiles, tears, laughter, sorrow and happiness and the satisfaction of illuminating the lives of all those that I find on my way. It means to be out of my comfort zone, even when it means tears and sadness. The sadness that no one wants to feel, but that many people in Iraq experience, by being displaced, unemployed, widow, or orphan....... It means to INSPIRE, SUPPORT and to BRING LAUGHTER or to give ADVICE, to LISTEN or even just to SMILE. And not only I give, but I also receive many lessons. Lessons of humbleness, courage, perseverance, and strength from people that struggle everyday for living and sometimes for survival.

I've been feeling really lonely and sad and asking myself, after this, what, what is it that I am looking for by being here. I still have no answer. Many tears of loneliness, of helplessness, but I guess is the price to be paid to follow my heart, and I hope with each of those tears I grow stronger. Many thoughts and feelings, sometimes I feel that I want to stay here, make my life here.....in this area of the world, but sometimes when I see the inequality, the injustice, the corruption, my own helplessness, I just want to run away. But there is a sense of responsibility on me, something that says, I am here to be the eyes and the ears of people that will never get to see what really this part of the world is. Sometimes I just want to sit and cry, and sometimes I want to just be present. Sometimes I care, sometimes I don't.......

The Entrance of St. Joseph's Church

Yesterday was Christmas Eve in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A mix of development and modernity trapped in a very traditional society. A society that is evolving but that still displays very conservative norms. Where woman is still positioned in very traditional roles and with low representation in society and politics. Today, I went to the beauty salon to try to be pretty on Christmas and to take away my sadness, caused by being away from home. From there we had dinner and I started to prepare to go to church here in Ankawa, a Christian suburb next to Erbil the place I now live and work.

St. Josephs Cathedral is the oldest church in town. The church was full and we had to struggle to get inside. I've never been in such a full mass. People were pushing to get in, but after some time we managed to stay at the back of the church. There was a lot of noise, and people still wanted to get in, but there was really no place. People on the back where chatting and making a lot of noise, people were in and out of the church and I was very upset that the solemnity of the night was not respected, in the end this is "the most ancient Christian community in the world". We were standing for more than 1 1/2 hours as the priest sang the mass in ancient Assyrian. I couldn't even guess that part of the mass we were in,  except the alleluia. The homily and other parts of the mass were in Arabic. They gave the sign of peace to each other and then the priest came to the back giving the Holy Communion. There were like two songs I knew that are also sang in PR., the Loria In Excelsis Deo and the Adestes Fideles, so I was happy following the mass in the best way I like: singing.

Christmas Chaldean mass...
When we went out of mass, I noticed the armed security checking on everyone. When I was inside the packed church, I thought about the recent attacks on the Christians here and I reminded myself I was in Iraq. As a Christian I never felt threatened before, but the armed security guards reminded me of those 52 people murdered while attending mass, and how vulnerable Christian are here. The main entrance of the Ankawa was also closed. I guess also to prevent unknown people from entering and causing any trouble.

A beautiful Tree outside the Church
After mass we went to a festival here in town, there was Christmas music including the traditional jingle bells (which has become my Christmas anthem now), Santa Claus also visited the festival with some friends. After the live music was finished they played Kurdish music, giving Christmas the local touch. All the people started to gather in lines and circles to dance. I also joined in the dancing with some of my friends, both Kurd and Assyrian, reminding me that dancing and music bring people together.

At the Christmas festival, on Christmas Eve, with my Kurdish host brothers

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Christmas had a special touch after all, its own Iraqi flavor, and I had the opportunity to discover a different way to celebrate, and to give a meaning other than party and shopping. I didn't give any presents or receive any material things, but I gained a lot and strengthened my spirit, reminding myself that saying that home is where your heart is, and so is Christmas, and my heart is now here in Iraq!

Me and Pooh

A balloon next to the festival area
Merry Christmas.....in Assyrian (Arameic)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Turkey: Where East Meets West...on Christmas!!!! 121510--Istanbul, Turkey

For the past two weeks, I've been stationed in Istanbul. It's cold and gray. It snowed and has been raining on and of for the past week. I saw my first Christmas tree and lights last week in Bakirkoy. There was a little house with a Santa and a Christmas tree. As my curiosity grew, I came close to the house to look inside there was a chair and a bench with lights and the message of Mutlu Yillar or Happy New Year all this to the background sound of jingle bells. Eventhough it was not a typical aguinaldo (puertorican Christmas carols) I was nostalgic and my eyes watered.

Mutlu Yillar or Happy New Year!

My first snow of this winter

While here in Istanbul, I learned that a friend of mine, that I didn't see for the past four years was here. A Mongolian girl that I hosted in PR. She was studying this semester here. It's amazing!!!East and West meeting in the Middle (East). After catching up about the past four years, we decided to meet again before both of us left Istanbul. Such a great city, great history and a lot to discover!

East meets the West....in the Middle

It's been great to be here, to have a sense of being with family, sitting together for dinner, going to buy groceries on the market with my Kurdish mom, being taken home by Turkish police, going to a Turkish house to see one of my 4 Kurdish brothers performing and just hanging out with my little Kurdish brother. The Turkish house is a restaurant and they play folk Turkish music. So, I got to do a lot of non-touristic things. I am also eating a lot of delicious Kurdish food.

Me playing with my little Kurdish brother Jiyan!

On the Thursday Bazaar buying some food!

The other night, we had family visiting us, so that means more food than usual The fact that I cannot speak Kurdish or Turkish does not affect or diminish the spirit and hospitality of my host family, it just help me learn some Turkish. I was speaking Arabic with one of the man and sign language with Jerran, one of the little cousins, she did everything possible to let me understand what they were trying to say. Also the fact that Turkish language has a lot of Arabic influence, helps...

Eating great Kurdish Food!

The most powerful thing was when I called my mom using skype! My mom in Puerto Rico in front of the computer talking with my Kurdish host mom, in Istanbul, one in English and the other one in Kurdish.....It was as if they both knew exactly what each other meant. Its just amazing how human beings can connect beyond words.

My sweet Kurdish mom....

Two days ago, I was taken home by three Turkish police officers after my inability to speak Turkish and theirs to speak English. I was just one street away from home, but I just wanted to know in which direction, because it was cold and was going to rain. I thought it was just a matter of confirming, but it was not like that. I guess it was easier to take me home than to explain to me how to get there.

Two of my Kurdish brothers

I've almost mastered the public transportation despite it can be complicated and there is no walking distance metro station here!. There are many different ways to get from point A to point B, subway, metrobus, minibus..except the police incident, I have managed to come back home safe and on time.

Getting back home.......

The reason I had to stay for almost two weeks here is that it has been hard to find a not-so-expensive in Iraq. Since the Baghdad bombing of the Christian church on October 31st, many christian families have been forced to look refuge in the Iraqi Kurdistan, due to threats of being killed. They have come mostly to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan and where there is a big Christian community called Ankawa, where the organization where I am working now is located. The house prices have escalated to between 500-1000 dollars. I will stay temporarily in the director's house so I will spend Christmas in Iraq along hundreds of internally displaced Iraqi families. I will spend my second Christmas away from home, the second Christmas in the Middle East, my second Christmas in an Occupied Land and my second Christmas without family and friends. Today, at the internet cafe, my family gave me a traditional "Parranda Puertorriquena" , both them and me in tears and sad that we are not going to be together, but firm and knowing that they are supporting me as I go, just continuing my journey deep into the struggle.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Land of trouble, but ımmense beauty--112310, Beıt Ommar, Palestıne

Sıttıng by the Red Sea, I would lıke that my pen expressed the nostalıga that my heart feels. Fıve months, fıve countrıes. The ınmensıty and the beauty of the sea helps me reflect about all the experıences I lıved. Egypt, Israel, Palestıne, Turkey, Irak. Beauty and conflıct, war and peace, smıle and laughter. All these at the same tıme and the same place. A place where culture, hıstory, polıtıcs and relıgıon meet.

Last week, my last one ın Israel/Palestıne was ıntense when I was ın Beıt Ommar, a vıllage on the south of Bethlehem. In only a few days I was lıved contrastıng emotıons. From beıng harrased by the soldıers and thrown tear gas and sound bombs and almost beıng arrested to the next day share a normal day wıth a young palestınıan mother and her beautıful 6 chıldren. Tryıng to lıve a normal lıfe ın the mıddle of a brutal occupatıon whose purpose ıs to steal the land and wıth ıt the dıgnıty of the palestınıans; stealıng the future of the palestınıan chıldren some of whıch are arrested at the early age of 14 years old. I was so sad that I was not arested ınstead of lıttle Mohamed only 14.

We cooked together, we played cards and we even danced dabke. Beıng woman has allowed me to enter the prıvacy where only women open to other women. Thıs after two days and after I had wın theır trust. They colored my lıps and eyes and put perfume on me. Insıde the house, wıthout hıjab and wıthout any fears the real women ıs shown, the one lıke you and lıke me, the same one ın Amerıca, Afrıca, Asıa or Europe. We are just women. In that space İ was able to experıence the sımplıcıty, the smıles and the beauty of these women, young mothers that were as fascınated wıth me as I was wıth them.

The chıldren laughed and were enjoyıng whıle they were teachıng me the dabke steps. Women here are always at home and there are few opportunıtıes to connect to the outsıde world. They are always takıng care of the house and the chıldren. One of the women told me how she met her husband on the engagement day so her marrıage was not out of love, but out of tradıtıons. Thıs fact does not gıve me the rıght to judge therı culture or to say that I am better than them because my culture ıs better and I am able to go to school abd to get an educatıon or because I have better opportunıtıes. At that moment we were all women enjoyıng the beauty of beıng so. After eatıng, dancıng, laughıng, and drımkıng tea (A MUST) ıt was tıme to go, leavıng a pıece of my heart ın Beıt Ommar.

The women asked me to come back when I come back to Palestıne. All the chıldren asked me only one thıng: please do not forget US(as I wrıte thıs My eyes water) and of course I wıll not forget YOU. I wıll never forget those beautıful smıles and beautıful eyes!

Mission İmpossible: How I managed to get out of Israel, İsrae/Egypt, 112810,

Recount on my last day in Haifa:

November 28, 2010

7:30am--Woke up. Still no money. My bank card, which I receıved after a month, didnt work to withdraw money since the bank sent me a new secret number that İ didnt get with the card!

8:00am--Police called re: taking fingerprints of the apartment to have as part of their investigation of someone breakıng out in our apartment and stealing my laptop and a digital camera. I gave him my roomate number because he didnt seem to speak English and İ was leaving Haifa soon.

9:45am--Met my co-worker from Kayan for breakfast because we didnt get a chance to say goodbye. I was supposed to meet her on Friday but couldnt because of the whole apartment robbery. Another policeman dıfferent from the first one called.

12:18pm--Took the train to Tel Aviv, after İ thought I lost the 12 pm and was going to be really late for the Egyptian embassy. Three İsraelıs on the train spent more than 40 minutes trying to figure out what was the best thing for me in case the embassy couldn´t gıve me the visa, meaning I would be illegally staying in Israel, in order to get the Egyptıan visa to fly out of Cairo vs. going to Egypt wıth a Sinai only visa and coming back to Israel to get a Cairo vısa (Unlike). After the 40 mınutes, they determined that I should stay in Tel Aviv and go next day to the Amerıcan embassy. They saıd it was safer to stay in Tel Avıv, close to my embassy where I could get thıngs solved, because of course this Arab people make things complicated.

1:45pm--In Tel Aviv, the taxi driver invited me to drink coffee ın hıs house. I polıtely refused for lack of tıme. He kıssed my hand goodbye.

2:00pm--Egyptıan Embassy-The embassy closed at 11am. It ıs only open for vısas from 9-11am. Thıs ınformatıon was not anywhere when I was lookıng for the embassy workıng hours. My Arabıc skılls got me to be at least consıdered. I knocked on the door and a guy talked to me over the ıntercom. He saıd ıt ıs closed and that ıt takes a couple of days to get the vısa, he asked where was my passport from and when I saıd Amerıca he soon he replıed, for Amerıca OK! he asked for a pıcture and a copy of my passport. Mıraculously I have both (strange comıng from me). He questıoned why I wanted to go agaın to Egypt. I told hım: Ì love Egypt and I am flyıng from there so I need to get there. He gave me a paper to fıll out. He asked me what ıs my occupatıon and I saıd that I am a student. He further ınquıred on that and ınstructed me to wrıte where I studed ın the applıcatıon. I showed hım my student ID. He looked at ıt and he saw the Husky and he asked me ıf my studıes have to do wıth anımals. He asked me where I am goıng to stay ın Caıro, I told hım I dont know sınce Im goıng to Dahab fırst. He was skeptıcal. He opened and closed the wındow several tımes, all the tıme askıng a dıfferent questıon. I started sıngıng a song from Tames Hosny, an Egyptıan sınger. He opens the wındow one more tıme and saıd Congratulatıons here ıs your vısa and he asked me ıf I was sıngıng an egyptıan song amd he started to mentıon other egyptıan sıngers lıke Um Khoultum. I smıled! It took lıke half an hour, but the offıcer told me very serıous to not tell anyone I got the vısa on the same day!!!

2:30pm--I have tıme to catch the 3:30pm bus to Eılat and get out of Israel before mıdnıght. UNBELEIVABLE!! I took bus 89 to the Tel Avıv central bus statıon.

3:13pm-- The turnstıle of the bathroom ın the bus statıon was not workıng abnd I needed to go before the 5 hour rıde. The guy was hıttıng the box where you put the 1 shekel. I put my one shekel and ıt worked. I got to the bus just on tıme to grab a snack before the bus left.

3:30pm-- the bus ıs leavıng and I can fınd my phone. A lady let me call my phone and the guy on the shop I got a sandwıch pıcked up my phone. The drıver refused to waıt for me to get my phone. So I told the guy to keep ıt for me. Thank god I dıdnt have credıt left.

8:50pm-- Got ınto the Eılat Border Crossıng. A group from Indıa took over Customs and the tax offıce. They were old poeple on a pılgrımageş now pushıng theır cars full of luggage through the customs lıne. I thought ıt was goıng to take forever to go through customs but ıt dıdnt. Ive never seen the ısraelı custom gırls smılıng and laughınş but there was just a chaos when all the ındıan ladıes where goıng all over the place. One of the customs offıcers had to ask them to be quıet! All that was heard on the termınal for about 20 mınutes was: Madame go back to the lıne, or Madame come forward.

9:15pm--Gooddbye Israel, welcome Egypt! Once ın Taba after walkıng a couple of meters the challenge was to fınd a cheap way to go to Dahab. Thew fırst bedouıne asked me for 300 pounds. Then I asked another guy, Albert, who happened to be a group bus drıver and offered to take me for free sınce he was already drıvıng through Dahab to take a group of Polısh to Sharm el Sheıkh. I waıted for about one hour for the bus to leave and I got a free rıde. My luck ıs gettıng better. Alhamdulıllah (The Arabıc for Thanks God)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Issawiya: One More Village Victim of Israel's Takeover--Issawiya, East Jerusalem 112410

Last week I attended a tour in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya. The meetingcalled by the Follow –up committee to expose to the public the situation on Issawiya. Hani Isawi and Sheikh Riad Isawi, of the Issawiya Follow-Up Committee, spoke about the history of the village and recent events in Issawiya and Jerusalem at large.

Over the past few weeks, Israeli military and police forces have entered Issawiya numerous times,demolishing structures, detaining residents and setting up flying checkpoints to target drivers and demand payment of outstanding municipal taxes and other bills.

Image Courtesy of AIC

Issawiya is located 2.5 km east of the Green Line and 3 km northeast of Jerusalem’s Old City. The village, located in the shadows of Hebrew University, straddles the Jerusalem border, situated between Mount Scopus, numerous Jewish settlements, the Ring Road and two Israeli military outposts.

In 2006, Issawiya had a population of approximately 12,000, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Together with the neighbouring Shuafat and the Shuafat refugee camp, Issawiya's land area (together known as the village of Issawiya) is 5,489 dunams.

Here are the issues exposed at the meeting and village tour:
- Annexation and division: Immediately after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, Israel
divided Issawiya by illegally annexing 3,000 dunams to the Municipality of Jerusalem while designating the village’s remaining 7,000 dunams as being outside of the city and part of the occupied West Bank.

- Confiscation for settlement building: In 1968, the Israeli government confiscated 400 of the 3,000 East Jerusalem dunams of Issawiya land to build the settlement of Givat Shapira (French Hill). This strategic settlement connected Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital, located on Mt. Scopus, with the rest of West Jerusalem.

- Designation of "green areas" as tool of control: Additionally, Israel designated 2,000 of Issawiya’s remaining dunams as “green areas” on which construction is prohibited.

- The reality today is thus that the 12,000 residents of Issawiya, can legally build on only 600 dunams of their own land.

- Confiscation for road construction: The Ring Road, built to link Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem to each other and to West Jerusalem, was constructed on Issawiya’s land. 310 dunums of village land have also been used for Israeli by-pass roads (numbers 437, 60 and 1) that extend for a total length of 10 km, breaking up the village cluster and separating the village from its agricultural lands.

- E1 settlement bloc: A portion of Issawiya’s land in the West Bank has been slated by Israel for construction of the E1 settlement bloc. The development of this illegal settlement has been placed on hold due to consistent international pressure.

Israeli human rights violations in Issawiya, July 2010-present:

- Death: On 24 September, 18 month-old Mohammed Abu Sneneh died from tear gas inhalation, after Israeli police officers fired large amounts of the gas at protesters in the village.
- Demolitions: Israel has demolished at least 16 structures and homes in Issawiya since July 2010 to date, including livelihood-related and residential buildings.
- Harm to environment: Over 440 trees have been uprooted.
- Raids, detentions, closures, roadblocks: In October-November 2010, Israeli police and soldiers raided Issawiya at least 8 times, detaining some 10 residents, setting up road blocks in the village entrance and targeting residents for allegedly unpaid municipal taxes and utilities.

The facts were taken from several articles from the Alternate Information Center and the tour sponsored by AIC. More information about the situation in Issawiya can be found on AIC website.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beit Ommar: Bitter and Sweet, 112110, Beit Ommar, West Bank

I just wanted to write some impressions and what happened after yesterday's demonstration in Karmei Tzur. After it was over and we returned back home, we ate together. We were tired and frustrated since we had 6 people arrested by the Israeli soldiers, especially the Palestinian kid, who I learned that was 14 years old. We now needed to wait until they were released. We didn't know how long they were going to be detained, we just knew from a couple of days before that the people arrested previously were detained for 7 hours and later released. So, that's what we were hoping for .We knew they took them to the Karmei Tzur settlement and later into the Qyriat Arbaa settlement.

I was so tired from running so much, trying not to get harmed by any tear gas or sound bombs. I just wanted to go to sleep, but I knew that it was going to be a long night. We watched the protest in the local news, and waited without any news from the people arrested. Later I went with the two Israeli girls in their car to Beit Sahour to sit in a cafe and relax a little bit, there we met the rest of the internationals. Me and the two girls were stopped by the PA police in the entrance to Bethlehem, so they pretended they were tourists and not Israelis. They were not supposed to be there. On the same day we were close to be arrested by both the Israeli army and the PA!!!

Later in the night, we received a call that the guys were soon to be released. Mohammed the little kid was not going to be released because the soldiers claimed that he threw stones, which was not true!!! It was around 11:30 pm, so I drove with Moussa to the Qyriat Arbaa settlement, so when they were released we were there waiting for their call. We waited, and waited... first in the gas station, and then we moved to the entrance of the settlement. We were very tired and frustrated that we didn't get any news. I decided to take a nap, but it was impossible, as there were cars constantly going in and out of the settlement, and I was just too anxious that the soldier in the entrance could come and ask us what were we doing there. Plus there were other soldiers patrolling in military vehicles. The fact that I was with a Palestinian made things not so favorable for us. I can imagine what I was going to say to the soldier: "I am just waiting for my friends that are coming soon". He would reply,"Where do they live, and me: they are just doing something in the police station and they will be right back!" (Big Smile!!!!)

After two hours we decided that we were in a potentially vulnerable situation and returned to Beit Ommar. It was like 1:30 am and we were really exhausted. The second we got to Beit Ommar, you guessed it; they called! We returned back to the settlement and brought them home. At which point it was around 2:30 am. Eric, our 82 year old roommate and brother in the struggle was awake waiting for the guys! He refused to go to sleep until the others were safe home.

Tygh, our roommate from Holland, who was one of the arrested, was eating a half shawwarma that was on the fridge! He started to check the footage of the demo while eating his shawwarma. At some point I saw Eric eating some of the shawwarma. I thought that Tygh was finished with it! Before I went to sleep, Tygh said: "I think Eric stole my shawwarma." I thought to myself: "Yes I saw him eating some of it", I smiled and said to Tygh: "Yes, maybe he thought you were finished". So, this is how a day deep into the Palestinian struggle looks like.Bitter and sweet, with its ups and downs, some days I feel so powerful, I can change the world and some others, so little and insignificant, but I guess that that's why it is called a STRUGGLE!!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

OUR Struggle for the Land--112010, Beit Ommar, West Bank

I am now in Beit Ommar, on the southern West Bank, between Bethlehem and Hebron. I came here to spend my last week on the West Bank before leaving the country. I am staying and volunteering with the Palestine Solidarity Project, a Palestinian project dedicated to opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land through non-violent direct action. It was founded in the village of Beit Ommar in the Southern West Bank during the Summer of 2006. I was here last January and learned about their situation and the non-violent resistance to their land's occupation. Beit Ommar and the adjacent Saffa valley have recently witnessed a tide of suppression by Israeli soldiers.

Today there was a peaceful demonstration against Karmei Tsur, an illegal Israeli settlement built on Beit Ommar land. Five people were arrested including one 8-year-old Palestinian boy, two internationals volunteering with P.S.P., and three Israeli solidarity activists were arrested by Israeli Forces during

Around two dozen Israeli soldiers and border police blocked the path of the demonstrators, we sat on the ground, chanted against the occupation, and made speeches on the injustice of denying Palestinians access to their own land.

After half an hour of peaceful demonstration, one of the soldiers, apparently the commander, lost its patience when a group of small kids, who were not scared or intimidated by the Israeli soldiers, moved closer to confront them. The soldier pushed one of the kids and the hell got loose.

The protesters came to the front to defend the kid and the soldiers responded by trying to arrest demonstrators. Later they started firing sound bombs to disperse the crowd.

I was previously trained on what will was likely to happen, so I knew what to expect, but still was very confused and was running and trying to cover my ears to protect myself from the bombs. Everything happened really fast and now I try to reconstruct things but I can't really tell what came before and what after. I know that we tried to reach the small kid to prevent the soldiers from arresting him and they were holding me and other girl and didn't let us get to him. He was about 8-10 years. It was really scary, especially, the sound bombs, because I felt that they were going to hit me. So I was running as fast as I could away from them, but also looking back to see that I was running in the right direction.

We came back to face the soldiers and stand in solidarity with those arrested. We were then repeatedly shot with tear gas and chased up the road to the village.

Last Thursday, November 18th, thirteen Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists were arrested accompanying farmers to their land in the Saffa valley, near the illegal Bat Ayn settlement. Tomorro,w I am going to accompany the farmers to Saffa, and I will get to experience one more day deep into the struggle

Friday, November 12, 2010

Waiting for Justice in Elarakib--Part II, Elarakib, Israel--073110

This post is a continuation of the story of the Elokbi tribe of Elarakib. It is about my experience spending the night with the people of Elarakib after the first demolition of the village in July 27th. As I was editing this post, three months later, the village was already demolished for the fifth time, as per Al Jazeera.

The Bedouine hospitality is amazing, they don’t even have a roof on their heads and yet they offered us tea, coffee, and one man was walking with a box of tomatoes and also bread. I had a tomato! The kids from the village were painting a big banner with the village’s name. I stood by one of the girls that was painting and showed her how to put some color on her hand and print it on the big banner; next, she had like 20 hands on the banner. I was so excited to see all the kids having fun that I started to paint also, but I put more paint into myself than on the actual banner.

Warda and other kid painting the big banner

After all the speeches and a hot afternoon cracking, the buses were ready to leave the village, but me and my friend Rachel decided to stay the night. We wanted to be an international presence in the village in case the government decided to appear again, which they had promised. Everybody was worried, offering water and food to keep for our stay. To our surprise, after everyone left, the guys were serving ice cream, which is a very unlikely dessert to have in the desert, but which we were craving for, so we were very, very happy, like two little girls. Then we chilled out a little on the tent and our hosts brought some tea. We were just talking and watching all the dynamics in the destroyed village.

Having ice-cream in the desert after all were gone....so nice!

Later one of the men came and invited us to eat. The men were sitting by a big plate of chicken, salad, olives fries. There was plenty of food. After that we were chatting and the kids were playing chess besides us. Then one of the men suggested that we go with the women into the other tent. It was hard to read the customs, as we had never been among the Bedouines before. So we did. There were some children with the women. I asked one of the girls if she wanted to draw. And she nodded, so I gave her my notebook and a pen. Her name was Warda, she was the girl I showed how to paint her hand in the banner before. Then another one came, Safa’. They also wanted to use my camera to take pictures of each other and the things around the village. After that we went into one of the ruined houses, there, the girls were looking for things under the rubble. They found a lipstick, some perfume bottles, and a bottle of sunscreen.

Safa' and Warda wandering on the rubble of a demolished house

Me and sweet Safa'

I forgot to mention that after the people that came for the visit left, we were walking around the village and we found a kid in a bicycle looking to a big pile of furniture and different stuff. It was stuff either that was saved before the evictions or maybe stuff that was donated for the families. He found a pink bottle and started to spray his bicycle as if it were WD-40 for the wheels. He had a wound on his head. There was a man from the village that was showing us the construction that was going on, he told us that the kids had had an accident recently where the car he was in had flipped upside down. Two guys from Anarchist Against the Wall where talking to the same man in Hebrew. The man was explaining what happened when the soldiers came.

Back to the girls in the rubbish, they were climbing the remnants of a demolished house. Warda was wearing the red lipstick she just found while she was writing a name in the shattered mirror. The name was Nari, I asked who Nari was and she replied that it was the woman that lived in that house. After playing for a while, I told them to climb down; I was worried that they could get hurt.

Playing with the camera on the rubble, who is worst, me or them....

We went back into the big tent, this time two new girls joined us, Bayan and Ana3am. They were very outgoing and were talking to me in Arabic and explaining everything carefully to make sure I understood. They asked everything about me, my family, they also asked me if I was a journalist. I could only understand Ana3am only after Bayan patiently explained things to me more than once, of course in Arabic. Anam said that she livd with her grandmother and that her mother lived in Jordan. After a long conversation, and three more girls that joined, we went to the kitchen tent. The women were cooking and we stayed there ans listened to some music on my phone and played with the kids all night.

After some time we ate and people started to leave the village. We went to an improvised toilet which was a box with a hole in the floor, it was pitch black (Reminder: we were in the middle of the desert), so I was using my phone, hoping not to drop it in the hole. When it was time to sleep, Bayan, one of the girls insisted to sleep with us. All the other children had left. So when we were going to turn the lights off, which were powered by a generator, Bayam didn’t want the lights off and she started to cry, she was afraid of all the insects, ants, flies and some other visitors t including 5 or 6 geese that came to our ten. So we were attempting to sleep for at least 2-3 hours without success. She was so scared and couldn’t keep her eyes closed. After several attempts to sleep, we decided to leave Bayan and move to the other big tent, the one we were during the day, away from all the species of insects from the desert. It was around 3 o'clock in the morning. In the end I don’t know if she slept, but I doubt it. We were so tired that we just wanted to sleep.

In the morning, Sheikh al Turi woke us up speaking in Hebrew, I think he thought we are jewish activists…..and when I asked what he was saying, he was kind of frustrated that we didn’t understand him, and I said, (bil arabiyya- in Arabic) and then he repeated in his deep voice, what he was asking was if we needed something or if we wanted to eat. There was no-one in the village, just a couple of people. We went into the kitchen and Bayan’s grandma prepared breakfast for us and one of the older kids that spoke English sat with us. By the end of breakfast, people started to arrive, among them Bayan’s mom and sister and they brought supplies for the day and started daily cleaning. Nothing seemed to be unusual, just the fact that when you looked around, there were destroyed houses all around you. The big kid said that if everyone works together they can build a house in 5 days. They put up a structure in a couple of hours, so I think they are not worried about the reconstruction, they just want to live in their land, which the Israeli government wants to convert in the Ambassador’s park. We saw a sign on the highway, when one of the Bedouines from the village was giving us a ride to the bus stop.

The land they received was smaller than the one they had, their farming land was reduced and they only allowed the men older than 40 years to farm the land. Now, since they refused to leave this land, they live in an unrecognized village, this means no services provided by the state, no trash collection, no schools, no water, nothing, so on top of that, the government has the right to destroy everything???? That, despite the court has yet to give its final decision in this case. I can’t believe that the government can do this to their own citizens just because they are Bedouines (Palestinians). Isn’t it the government’s duty to protect their children and ensure its security and welfare? Then what kind of government from a developed western country comes like a thief, when people is sleeping and destroy their homes and leave the most vulnerable (women and children) homeless so they can reforest the desert????

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Waiting for Justice--The demolition of Elarakib Village--073110, Elarakib, Israel

View of the destroyed village as we entered

This is a post that I thought I had published--but I didn't--from my visit to Elarakib last July when it was first demolished. Last article on Al Jazeera talked about the fifth demolition......

I wanted to visit the unrecognized villages on the Negev since I first came to Israel. I heard about them when one of its Bedoiun representatives came to the Tree of Life conference last Fall in CT. Then the (un)expected happened, and the news that the village of Elarakib had been demolished,were all over the media, so I wanted to go and help as I could, reconstruction or just being there for people to know that they were not left alone. The weekend of my birthday, I joined a delegation leaving from Jerusalem that went to the Bedouin village of Elarakib, located in the Negev desert. The village was completely demolished by the government earlier this week. About 160 thousand Bedouin citizens of the State of Israel currently live in the Negev. Over 80,000 of them live in 45 unrecognized villages with populations ranging from 500 to 5,000 residents, which Elarakib is one of them. These villages do not belong to any regional council, and their residents do not have any water, electricity or sewage infrastructure, paved roads, garbage disposal, etc. Many of these villages have no clinics, schools or kindergartens.

Safa'a, one of the girls playing in the rubble of one of the demolished houses in Elarakib

The men of the village work all day to put up structures to put families back under a roof on theri land in Elarakib

Reports said that around 1500 soldiers came into the village early in the morning, when everyone was sleeping. That represents a ratio of 5:1 soldiers to Bedouines. I was very sad to see all that but happy to be there in solidarity. Our bus, from Jerusalem was full of people that brought water and supplies. The people from the village welcomed us and were very happy that we were there. In the same tent that we were received, there was a display of pictures from the day of the demolition. The local people showed us around the village and explained the situation that they face now, which dates from the creation of the state of Israel. There is a court dispute over who owns the land. The Israeli government claims that the land does not belong to the Bedouines, that it was confiscated land, but the question is from whom? You guessed right, from the Bedouines.

The man that was showing us the destruction of the village said that when his son woke up, to the sound of bulldozers, he asked why they were destroying his house. How can a father respond to a question like this? He paused and replied that they did it, “so we can build a better home”. He kept explaining that the Israelis just want to keep the land only to declare it state land, because according to Israeli law if a land is declared a green area, it cannot be claimed for anything else.

This was how it looked the first time when the village was demolished in July 2010

This is an extract from a book that I found on the rubble of one of the demolished houses in the village. The book is called “Waiting for Justice: A document of the story of the Elokbi tribe in Israel”.

Representatives of the military government had been coming every morning with summons ordering the sheikh to come to the governor’s office in Beer Sheva or to his office near Elarakib. For four months, in all these meetings the military governor cajoles the sheikh to abandon his dwellings and go somewhere else.

The sheikh asked, “Why should we be displaced, since we have become citizens of the state of Israel? We are on our land, and this is why we remained under Israeli rule!” His honor picked up his pipe and announces with a smile as he blew smoke in every direction: “Your region is needed for military exercises for the next six months and afterwards you can return to it. There are no grounds on which you can oppose this order”. The military governor acceded to the sheikh’s request and has one of his representatives scribble a note to the effect that the Elokbi tribe will receive a large tract of land which they can farm during the current year until they are returned to their own land. The substitute lands they received actually belonged to other Bedouin farmers.

Days and months passed and the impending disaster was becoming real. Members of the tribe and its sheikhs were sure they would have to evacuate their lands. Indeed on November 11, 1951, army trucks move the tribe from the Elarakib region to the Hura region. The Hura region was defined as “Sayag”, an area that cannot be entered or left without permission of the military government.

Historical Background

Up till 1948, the Elokbi tribe lived in two areas: Zhilikha and Elarakib. The land possessed and farmed by the Elokbi tribe who remained and became Israeli citizens was approximately 19,000 dunams. The tribe lived on these lands from time immemorial, dwelling either in tents or in stone houses. Both the Turkish rule and the British Mandate recognized their ownership of the land

From 1948-1951, the Bedouin lives the life of Israeli citizens, farming their land, raising sheep, goats, cattle and camels. Those owning land were requested to pay taxes and they did so. The state even recognized the authority of the tribal court that was convened in the home of the Sheikh Suleiman Elokbi, as an heir to the mandatory Beer Sheva tribal court.

In reality the “promise” given by the representatives of the military government turned out to be a trick:

a) The land the tribe receive in Hura was much smaller than what it was uprooted from Elarakib
b) The alternative land, which was supposedly given to the Elokbi tribe in Hura, actually belonged to other local Bedouin farmers, which made it impossible for them to make use of it.
c) Living conditions in Hura were much worse than in Elarakib. For example, formerly, they had a school; here, there was none. The tribe’s children did not go to school at all from 1951 until 1966. There was no water supply in Hura, thus they had to endure years of water shortage.
d) The return to Elarakib, which was supposed to take place within six months, has been blocked until this very day, and the tribe still lives in Hura, denied all services, in an area allocated by the military government.

In 1954, the sheikh returned to his home in Elarakib, he was arrested and his house totally demolished by the military government, nothing has changed since then, as the same story repeats itself in 2010.

When the Israeli came to Elarakib, despite the demolition orders where for the homes, they destroyed trees, water cisterns and animal houses, even they warned the family that they will confiscate expensive electronic equipment that the families could not take out of the homes, because of the demolition short time notice (sometimes they gave families about 15 minutes to leave the home). The Bedouines we talked to said that they didn’t care about the houses because they could be rebuilt, but what they cared more were the trees. They destroyed trees that were planted 10 years before, when the previous demolitions were carried in the village. After the tour, we sat in the big tent all together, and some of the village elders and representatives were talking about the struggle of the Bedouines in the Negev. One member of the Arab Islamic Party spoke and he said that the struggle is not only about the Bedouines, but is everyone struggle’s, because as he said, here, we never know who is going to be next.

This story sounds familiar, right? It’s the same Palestinians struggle, all over Israel, a story of discrimination, racism, injustice and misery. And this is the story of ONE village! We haven’t heard the story of the more than forty other unrecognized villages that struggle to survive in the Negev desert, but go unnoticed to the rest of the world.

Elarakib Sheikh Sayah Al Touri addressed and thanked the people for coming and suporting Elarakib

In a mesage from Sheikh Sayah after he was prohibited from entering the village he said:
The Bedouins are citizens of Israel. We want to live in dignity; we are not intruders. These lands are not state lands. These lands are the lands of the tribes in al-Arakib, and those calling us "invaders" should answer the following question: Did the State of Israel bring along all these lands with it when it was founded, or were these lands here before its establishment?

I will split the post, and continue the story on the next post, because otherwise it would be extremely long. This was just a background and history of the Elokbi tribe’s struggle to “stand for their right to live as free and equal citizens, to farm their land earn their livelihood and build their homes without fear; to be full partners in the drawing up of plans and policy that determines their future.”

Children paiting a big banner with the name of the village in Arabic

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hope, Creativity, Freedom......10-08-10--Bethlehem, Palestine

Many contrasting feelings: happiness to see my girls, but anger to see the environment they are living in. Anger because I cannot promise them that it will be better soon. They are beautiful girls and they will soon grow to be strong, but who has the luxury to be weak living under occupation, it hardens your heart. It hurts me to see this covered systematic violence,many times physical, but here expressed in lack of opportunities, while our kids in America and even here in Israel have sports, music, art and have to be involved in all sorts of after school activities. Here, there is little of that, whatever the UN and other NGO's provide, but it is not their responsibility to raise kids and they can do all but give them the freedom that they need.

It breaks my heart and I feel like crying in front of them and telling them that it is my fault, because my government is supporting the occupation. My government is supplying weapons and billions of dollars to sustain the occupation. I wish I could tell them that this is why I am here, to show that there is people who care!!!I wish I could tell them that me and many others in America do not support our government but are not enough to break the corrupted system that just wants to occupy land (in Israel) and minds there (in the US). That our government claims to be fighting the "war on terror" on our name and with our money. That along with Israel they claim that the West Bank and Gaza are one more school for terrorists and that ending the occupation, will mean another Al- Qaeda haven to breed terrorists.


On the other hand, I am so happy and humbled to be here and to share the simple, but sometimes crazy daily life in Palestine. The refugee camp I stayed is a labyrinth, many ways to get in and out. It can intimidate you with its graffiti and paintings of people whom you might not know, but every Palestinian knows well. Its narrow allies, where not more than one can pass at the same time or even cannot open your arms wide can scare you. When you walk, you can see your neighbor's living room and smell their food, there's no such thing as privacy.

I feel lucky and ashamed at the same time, that I can be in Bethlehem and next I can show my blue passport and next thing be in the Old City of Jerusalem, something not every Palestinian can do. I didn't ask for that, I didn't even chose that, I was born with it, as the Palestinians are born under occupation.

I wish I could take my girls in a car and go to the sea, they have asked me..... They have never been to the sea, even though it is a 45 minute drive. I know that it is not going to change anything, but at least I know that I will see the most beautiful smiles in the world. That is something, and they will see beyond the Wall, they will know there is something else....


Now I am in the bus on the way to Ramallah. I can see rain falling on the windshield, it's smell is unique. It has been a long time since I saw rain falling, last time, I was home so it reminds me of Puerto Rico. We drive by Maale Adumim,is an Israeli settlement. With a population of about 34,000 it's a city on its own. Ma'ale Adumim was established in 1976 on territory occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. It was built as a planned community and suburban commuter town to nearby Jerusalem, to which many residents commute daily. They have big recreational spaces, an irony that is built on occupied land and that Palestinians cannot enter.

Everytime I am in a bus in Palestine and I see an Israeli settlement, I look to the side at the Palestinian sitting next to me and wonder what are they exactly thinking, living in this land, that they love so much and watching powerlessly how everyday they are stripped of more, and more land while Americans and Internationals come and go, curiously taking pictures, listening to stories, while the occupation is still here taking more land, more young people into jails and robbing children of their childhood. But then I go somewhere and I listen to someone's story and reflect on the 62 years that they have endured in jails and refugee camps with resilience. Or simple see the kids on the street playing and when I pass they start saying: What's your name? That gives me hope that one day my girls will be going to the Mediterranean and watch the most amazing sunset.....One day.....we'll all be free.

Sunset in the Mediterranean Sea

My sweet girls....how can you not love them and want to end the occupation so they have something to live and hope for...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Three cups of tea in the camp....

This morning I woke up around 9 am and everyone, except Najah was gone. I escaped of having to wake up really early after promising Tamara I will take her to school if she went to sleep. Lara's house seems to be a sweet spot, as neighbors come and go all the time or maybe is just part of the Palestinian culture. While having breakfast Najah was telling me how blessed she was to have a job. She has been a nurse for around 20 years in the children's area of the hospital, here in Bethlehem. She was thanking God for having healthy children because she witnesses every day how children and their families have to struggle when they go to the hospital, and how she feels for them because she is also a mother. She said there are a lot of cases of cystic fibrosis, which affects children gastric system when they are very young and later, it affects their respiratory system. She explained that sometimes the children have to spend up to three weeks in the hospital in order to receive treatment.

She was recalling 15 years ago, when she used to go to Jerusalem with her friend and do shopping and sitting and having lunch and after spending the day, coming back to Bethlehem. That was before she was married and of course before the wall prevented them to go to Jerusalem. I stopped counting how many cups of tea we had......

In one of the camp streets, you can see art everywhere

She told me stories of people that left Palestine and went to the gulf countries to work. Now they have money, but I chose to stay " why should I leave my country". " We don't have too much work, but alhamdulillah (thanks to God), we are happy."She also told me how she would like to go back to study a specialization in neonatal nursing, but: "I would like to study more, but I don't have time because of the children".

About life in the camp she told me that "when someone is sick, even if I don't have time, I make time to go and visit, if my neighbor goes out of the hospital, I go to visit him and take something to him, and if I don't have money, I borrow some to get something to him. This is Palestinian culture. Here in the camp we are really close, joining here hands and fingers as to show me how close.

A look from Lara's bedroom

After the nice conversation and an Arabic lesson, she had to go to work, and I stayed in the house. After half an hour Tamara came.....she is just so sweet, but Oh My God, she can drive you completely crazy in 2 minutes! She was taping her mouth and everywhere else too. Then, Lara came and the rest of the troop. it was like 1pm.

Me and Tamara, guess who is the four year old....
I don't know how I survived the next 3 hours until we left the house. It was almost madness, I don't know how could you possibly survive with 5 kids! The two small boys, fighting to use the computer, Tamara, jumping all over in the kitchen while I was trying to teach Lara how to cook lentils. She was literally walking on the counter...and putting her hand inside when I was preparing the soup....

Then we got to Bethlehem and Lara showed me her little secret spot where they had all sorts of things for only 1 -3 shekels, wow, like a Palestinian version of a $1 store but better. I got a wood spoon for cooking!!! Then we took a service taxi to her grandmother, it was close to Bethlehem but it was in the mountains, a really nice view of Bethlehem. There I met some of Lara's aunts, They asked the same questions that people here always ask: 1.Where are you from? 2. How old are you? 3. Are you married? And then they look at me as wondering what am I doing here! I guess sometimes amazed and sometimes skeptical. They could not believe my age and the fact that I was not married. Then one of the other aunts came from work with grandma and started talking to us, she works in Bethelehem in one of the NGO's. she was the twins Raneen and Haneen's mother. After a while, we left back home to the camp. Everyone including grandma came into the car, Lara's uncle was driving us and the two young aunties were also in the car. The was some music playing and me and one of the aunts were dancing. I don't remember the name of the singer now, but it was so nice.
Grandma and some of the kids...

Now we were back to the reality of the camp again, the same small space, the same small allies. We went to eat something in a small take out place in the camp. Tamara was crying because she wants to get a juice and her sister tells her that she should pick another one, because that one is made by Israel. Tamara keeps crying and after trying to convince her, she gives up and gets her the "Israeli juice". So, here is a 15 year old, with her version of BDS here in Palestine, although there is not much that we boycott without starving. Everything comes from Israel, that is the business of occupation. Then we went to eat knafe and after that we go home. I survived my second day in the camp, laughing, learning and living.....under occupation....

What you cannot see from outside the wall--October 7th, Bethelehem, West Bank

I have been two months in Haifa and I wanted to go back to the West Bank. So I decided to go to Bethlehem to visit the kids from the Tent of Nations summer camp. The problem always is the timing and restrictions in transportation, plus Friday and Saturday there are no buses because of shabat. To go from Haifa to Jerusalem, there is no problem; the problem is how to get into the WB if you go later than 7:00 pm. I finished working at about 4:30 pm on a Wednesday and the next bus is at 6:00 pm, which means it gets to Jerusalem at 8:00 pm. Conclusion: NO way to get to Bethlehem, unless you have money to pay an expensive taxi, which at this point is not an option for me.

So, I went to the source to get the exact information: Edward, a Palestinian friend from Jerusalem who now lives in Haifa. He arranged for me a friend of him to pick me up from the station in Jerusalem and take me through the checkpoint into Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Edward also took me to the bus station in Haifa. He also gave me his mobile phone so his friend Munir could call me when he came to pick me up. I am so blessed to find such friends here. Palestinians are the kind of people who give everything for their friends. Nayef, another Palestinian told me how he is so thankful that people leave their own country and come from abroad to advocate for their cause that he feels he needs to do anything for them.

Me and Rachel, an Australian volunteer painting a segment of the separation wall inside Bethlehem back in July. In the back Andrea, a German volunteer artist that came to the camp to teach art to the children

So, I met Munir at the Jerusalem Central Bus station and we managed to pass the checkpoint and get to Lara's home. Lara lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Dheisheh is a Palestinian refugee camp located just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Dheisheh was established in 1949 on 0.31 square kilometers of land leased from the Jordanian government. The camp was established as a temporary refuge for 3,400 Palestinians from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron who fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. According to UNRWA the camps population is of around 13,000 people.

Me and Lara at the Tent of Nations summer camp on her birthday, she brought a cake and share with the whole group

Lara took me to her home, through a small street. I was greeted by her mother, Najah, and two of her neighbors that were there visiting. Immediately I was served Arabic coffee. The women were talking about the tawjid, the national exam that young Palestinians have to pass when they finish high school. It is quite an event here and when kids pass the exam, parents make a big celebration, which includes fireworks, but also is a big pressure for the students to do well in the exam. They said, is celebrated more than weddings.

Lara doing some homework, which is hard having three younger siblings running and screaming all over the house

After they left we ate and then were chatting and watching TV. Tamara, Lara's 4 year-old sister was watching the children's channel and also playing on the computer, while her older brothers Ahmed and Mohamed, had to come to the computer when she came crying, to fix whatever was wrong with it, and she didn't give up either. She kissed them in order to convince them to help her. When her dad came and was trying to get her to give him the remote to watch the soccer match, she was checking herself if there was a match, she kept the remote and said that there was no match and put the childrens channel again. Her dad just smiled! Tamara is the queen of the house and she could make you angry and desperate and could make you smile all at the same time.

This was just the face of a real family and the real Palestinian life that is not often portrayed in TV or newspapers, but that I was invited to witness. It is incredible how little they have and how, even despite the daily struggle they welcomed me as another member of the family. We got some ice cream for desert and me and Tamara got our faces full of chocolate. I was trying to dance to the rhythm of a song playing in the kids channel and Tamara was making fun of me. After that, Tamara prepared the bed for me and was crying because she wanted to sleep in the room with me and Lara. Lara convinced her that if she went to her mother’s room, I will walk her to school next morning. She went to her mom’s, but I couldn’t wake up in the morning at 6 am to take her to school…Shame on me!

Me and Tamara enjoying some ice cream

Tamara insisted on doing my bed....she is so sweet!