My interest in working with children and youth is well known among my peers, friends, and even teachers. But I don’t think I have ever explained why and how I became interested in children. It is unlikely I would have ever deliberated on this issue had I not volunteered with Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO based in Jerusalem. I think knowing why you do what you do is important especially in peacebuilding where our personality and background can easily encroach the decisions one makes. As far as I can remember, I have always had a great love for children and a passion to work with them. This may have something to do with my upbringing.
I was born at a time when my family was battling challenges of living with wanton neighbors. We occupied a piece of land some our neighbors considered theirs despite my grandfather genuinely acquiring it from his friend. The idea that our neighbors could hurt us (children) made my parents extra careful. They only relaxed when we went to boarding schools far away from home.
When you are young and have to largely depend on the generosity of other people other than your parents your life changes. At least mine changed. At school, I was with teachers who probably had other responsibilities beyond teaching but they took care of me and nurtured me into a boy my mother was proud of. They did not owe me anything beyond their classroom duties, yet they took it upon themselves to ensure that I never missed anything. That sense of duty and devotion to people you do not have blood ties with was to influence my later life and career. I think this is partly the reason why I was in the first place drawn into the field of education, and perhaps the reason why I have mostly worked with children. So, you can imagine my excitement when the Comboni sisters, and Rabbis for Human Rights requested me to design some programs for the summer camp they had organized. I was looking forward to such kind of opportunities!
I was convinced the education I had received at Kroc and in other institutions coupled with my experience working with refugee children in Kenya and New Haven was more than adequate to help me pull through the task. But I was to learn a week later, sometimes when it comes to running projects in a conflict zone, no experience or education is ever sufficient. At times the best one can hope for is “Say yes to the mess” and that is exactly what I did a week later when a single technicality rendered all my projects useless (more of this later).
Here is how I prepared for the summer camp: I spent hours poring over articles on the internet and on World Vision website, which has excellent materials on building a peace culture among children. I designed some activities patterned along the world vision model. I honestly felt that I had done enough and the children will be pleased. On the morning of the summer camp, we drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank where we were to have the camps in three different villages. It was my first time traveling through this road and I enjoyed observing how beautiful Jerusalem is and how ugly it gets as one drives further south. Except for the well irrigated settlements whose greenness stand out like an oasis in the middle of a desert (which is true), it was difficult to understand why people fight over such dry pieces of land. I understand when people fight over land in my village or in my country; they probably want it for farming or to accommodate their ever expanding families. But here was I, driving through a desert on a road surrounded by huge rocks on both sides, and on a piece of land which may or may not have significant economic value to Bedouins who happen to be shepherds, or Israelis who already have enough land, yet that piece of land has become the reason for so much bloodshed.
I was very much aware of the kind of schools we were visiting because my supervisor had informed me about their condition – they were not permanent structures. But I clearly did not understand the gravity of that statement for I walked into structures in worse conditions that I have never seen anywhere. Before that day, I was pretty convinced that the wretched of the earth are only found in the poor villages of Africa. As I observed those shanties, and contrasted them with the magnificent schools I had seen in Jerusalem, I began to understand the inequality that is eating our societies. How can some sections of the society live in affluence when others are wallowing in abject poverty?
There was no road connecting these villages with Israeli highways. It is as if somebody did not expect them or never wanted them to travel anywhere beyond their caves and shanties. We had to use a strong car to access the place despite the fact that there is a settlement nearby with a dedicated road that Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on. In fact, as I would later observe, for every ‘unrecognized village’ I came across, there is an Israeli settlement nearby. In my home city of Nairobi, we have something similar; we call them slums – informal settlement near developed and high income residential places. I imagine there are theories explaining this phenomenon but in Israel we needn’t a theory. It is complicated. In most cases the Bedouin were there first to inhabit the land. They were living in caves and leading their semi-nomadic life till Israeli tried to modernize them by sending them to urban areas. When they refused to go, their land was seized and their homes became unrecognized villages.
The beautiful first impression I wanted to make was already ruined when I finally met the children. What followed was the disappointment of my life. I discovered that I could not communicate with the children. We did not have a common language – none of them spoke English and I did not speak enough Arabic to even make sense of their greetings. The only person in our group who could speak English and Arabic, the Comboni sister was working with a different group. I was really ashamed and for the first time since arriving in Israel, I felt helpless. I had made all preparations except the one that mattered most. I felt that this was one of those moments when a person must expect nothing short of a miracle. I asked myself so many questions: how come I did not think about language? Why did I assume I would meet people who speak English? I suddenly realized that even the activities I had prepared, all those materials I had have no place in this context. The children were between the ages of 4 and 12. Very young kids who would rather play than engage in the kind of peacebuilding activities I had prepared.
So I had more than two hours to spend with these children and I had no idea what to do. Worse I had no language to communicate with them or even let them know that I was clueless. I remembered the hours I had spent at Kroc learning on conflict mapping, and conflict analysis as a prerequisite to designing projects. Had I carried out this analysis I would have known that language barrier is a big issue in working with children in the West Bank. It dawned on me that in peacebuilding, if one has a chance to prepare, the basics should be taken care of first and I think language is the first fundamental. Those projects we assume we know enough to implement are the ones we end up not doing so well. My experience and attitude had blinded me, it had given me an illusion that I was overqualified for this job. I learnt the hard way that having experience is good but every conflict context calls for a different kind of experience. Thus, one can never truly say that he has adequate experience to intervene in a certain context. In conflict zones, no experience is ever enough and embracing uncertainty is highly recommended. One must always be willing to learn. I could not escape thinking about Severine’s Peaceland and her critique of thematic knowledge vis-à-vis area knowledge. As I stood in front of those children trying to figure out what to do, I realized that an excellent mastery of area knowledge could have come in handy.
It was time to play the “Say yes to the mess” card. I had to improvise. Through a combination of signs and demonstrations, I managed to put the boys into two teams and have them play soccer. As the game picked up and my presence became less important, I sat on a bench beside a donor bill board. It read in English: ‘The European Union’ and below it ‘Humanitarian Affairs’. Given that I was yet to meet any person who can read English in this village, I assumed the billboard was meant for people like me. It was like a code for those in this thing we call “Humanitarian Affairs”? In fact, I was not sure whether ‘Humanitarian Affairs’ referred to a department of the European Union or to another organization. But I got the sense that they were informing me that they had done their part by putting up the structure that the children called ‘school’, now it was my turn to do my part.
I became so engrossed on what being a humanitarian worker really means. I have used that title several times, in fact, even on my bio at the Kroc website indicates so. But did I really understand its meaning? What does it really mean to consider oneself a humanitarian worker? Does it involve working with children in the middle of a desert, in informal settlements where people live in tents overlooking mansions that are surrounded by super irrigated olive trees? Does it refer to a worker who cannot even speak the language of the children he is working with and he is forced to let them play football by themselves? For the first time since 2008 when I first volunteered with a peacebuilding NGO, I questioned my mission. How has my presence made the world better? Was I really useful? Actually, was any of us, the so-called foreign workers in Israel/Palestine, useful? I visualized the Kroc peacebuilding wheel and saw my spot (structural and institutional change) and thought that it must be the least of all!
My stream of thoughts were interrupted by a loud thud, the ball had hit the billboard I had been staring at. The boys were signaling me to pass the ball. I hit the ball and was about to sit and continue my reverie when a thought occurred to me, why not join them for a while? I trudged myself into the field and became the player without a team. As you would imagine, my lack of allegiance to any team meant that I would have few instances of hitting the ball (if any) because all teams tried to wrench it from me as soon as I laid my feet on it. It was really fun. Doing all that running around the field and probably burning some calories and laughing on top of my voice and behaving like a boy among boys. For a very long time I had wanted to do this but I never knew how. To go back to boyhood where all that mattered was what was at the table – no need of scratching your head so much for the past or the future. You just played your ball and kept your happiness and in the evening you went home to your parents. My adult life has been enveloped in many challenges. In fact, weeks before I legally became an adult, I lost my mother and overnight I transitioned from a boy to a young adult with responsibilities not only to myself but also my younger siblings. That life had been a fruitful but equally challenging marathon – never having to stop or knowing when it will end. But now here was I, so happy running on rocks playing with boys. By all means I could tell that we were all happy. It made me wonder whether peacebuilding can just be for the present. My approach has always been to geared to designing programs with the future in mind. That is why I was so much concerned with the lessons and activities I had prepared and it had not occurred to me that playing soccer can actually be ‘the main activity’.
The two hours went fast and the first day of the summer camp was over. I had survived. I could not speak even a single Arabic word, yet I organized a soccer team and also took part in it. As we drove back to Jerusalem I reflected on the events of that day and how relevant they were to my training and growth as a peacebuilder, and discovered that I have been looking at my role in Israel/Palestine in a role way. My takeaway was that it is easier to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the ones we cannot measure. Perhaps the little things one does, like bringing a ball and helping children play does really matter. I would later learn that the children have never seen a black person, so it was a wonderful opportunity for them to have me play with them. Given the Israeli policies that do not permit them to travel and see the world, we have to somehow bring the world to them – that is what my presence achieved.
Interestingly, later when I was preparing an evaluation plan for the summer camps, I discovered that Rabbis for Human Rights had started the camps with the sole aim of helping Palestinian children participate in recreational activities that they would not normally have access to due to the occupation. This should be a good reason to make me feel my work is indeed meaningful. But I still can’t help feeling that the kind of ‘happiness’ that I would wish the Palestinian children is one that lasts. We all deserve that! However, most summer camps in the West Bank run for a week or two. Assuming summer camps are the closest the Palestinian children ever come to having a normal school day, you can imagine what happens to them when the volunteers and NGOs leave.
Discovering a common language
After the shock of the first day, I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn all I could about the Bedouins and how they fit the Israel/Palestine conflict. I then spent more time on the internet searching for activities one can do with children they do not share a language with. I did not find any relevant or interesting activity but the following day in the morning, as we came out of the car, one little girl, her name is Yasmin, handed me a drawing of an elephant. For a split second, I felt that somebody has just pumped too much energy onto my body. I will forever be grateful to that young girl! Giving me an elephant, which is one of our national treasures, the girl was trying to let me know that she now understands where I come from. For the first time, it dawned on me that after all we have a common language: the painted word. We can draw and through drawings express ourselves.
I remembered Lederach’s Moral Imagination, and the idea of serendipity. I seized the moment and used drawing as a tool to talk about the conflict. The kindergarten had three roundtables and plastic chairs. I motioned the children to sit. Gave them pencils, crayons, and paper. Given that I could not give any further instructions, I let them exercise their imagination and come up with all sorts of drawings. During the first couple of days, they drew what I have come to call ‘images of conflict’ and as we progressed they drew less of those pictures and started drawing things like the sea.
I remember, one boy drew an unmanned riffle shooting women, who were running. Another one drew a military craft dropping a bomb on a mosque. Almost all images depicted a violent environment. Examining these pictures, I thought about the people all over the world who are dedicated to working for peace, holding high level meeting with parties they consider important in situations of conflicts. Often, they seek peace in the name of children and for children. But do they ever think about children as beings capable of expressing themselves? Why is it that we assume children must be spoken for? That they do not have a voice? Clearly, the pictures they drew spoke louder about their world view than volumes of words can. The drawings I was looking at carried some of the most profound critiques and insights about Israel government.
How well did the Bedouin children understand their situation? Very well to be able to draw it. I doubt words would have expressed these deep depictions of their tragedy. On that particular day, the painted word became a live and stronger than written or spoken word. I had no reason to feel ashamed any longer. Through drawing the children were able to speak to me the unspeakable. Their drawings displayed how Israeli violence permeates every aspect of their life. The pictures of bulldozers razing down their houses and schools, demonstrated that the children understood the fear of living with a demolition order over your head. I could not help wonder how these children are able to bear the burden of knowing that while they are at school the military might be busy demolishing their houses or the same can happen to their schools while they are at home.
As a matter of fact, one of their schools was under imminent threat of demolition. The school, named Khan al Ahkmar, is one of those few schools in the West bank one can consider a sanctuary for children. Before its construction, children from neighboring villages used to commute for about 10 miles to attend school in Ramallah or Jericho. A dozen children lost their lives to road accidents as they had to cross many dangerous highways before getting to school. Some nuns together with Rabbis for Human Rights and international NGO from Italy came up with an ingenious plan to build a school made of mud and tires. Israel does not recognize the Bedouins living in this area and they do not allow them to build any permanent building. So the school had to be a structure that had the quality of permanence but with an appearance of a temporary structure.
The settlers harassed them daily as they struggled to build the school. They even sued and accused them of putting up permanent structures in an recognized village. The court ruled in their favor and ordered for demolition. In Israel where power dynamics is a key feature of politics, a demolition order is a very powerful tool. The state does not have to implement it immediately; it dangles it up over your face like the sword of Damocles. But in the case of that school, the settlers’ organization, Binyamin, sued the government for contempt of court. Hence, the government was compelled to demolish this school that has become an oasis of hope in a desolate land.
Local NGOs including Rabbis for Human Rights, and International organizations led by the UN lobbied top government officials and held week long demonstrations (I participated) protesting the government’s plan to demolish the school. On Friday, August 26, the Israeli government announced that the demolition would be postponed. I think they made the decision because of the international outcry against the demolition.