I left the hotel yesterday morning and made my way through the streets of Jerusalem. Within a few hundred metres of the hotel, I saw a pretty young woman with long, flowing blonde hair standing by the side of the road. Her right hand rested comfortably on the rifle slung over her shoulder. If Israel and Palestine were people on Facebook, their relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” The analogy is an understatement, but sufficiently nondescript to hold a grain of truth.
As I write these words, Cat Stevens is singing “I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do, and it’s breaking my heart in two.” This past week, traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza and from Ramallah to Jenin, I’ve been trying to come to grips with what this means.
I spent part of the day yesterday in Ramallah visiting schools and attending a student-led conference on human rights. The first performance was of a young group of students singing and dancing in a remarkably well choreographed number. They were singing about their rights – to be healthy, to have a good education, to be loved. The two smallest girls with butterfly wings stole the show upon entering midway through the song, arms entwined and smiling. We left the building and were greeted by a likeness of Che Guevara at the bottom of the hill.
The world I have seen this week is riddled with conflicting messages of peace and violence, love and war, tolerance and fear. Amidst all the beauty and filth, poverty and wealth, walls and fences are everywhere. There are so many of them in Israel that I’m tempted to come here and start a wall-making business, I’d be rich in no time. Walls keep people in as much as they keep others out.
The conflicting images convey unequal amounts of hope and despair. The living conditions in Gaza are among the most inhumane I have seen. The schools I visited were a welcome refuge from the rest of the landscape. If I were a child in Gaza, I would never want to grow up and leave the school. To graduate is to be flung into a life of hopelessness.
As I spoke to schoolchildren in both Gaza and the West Bank, trying to find out what they knew about human rights, their answers were strikingly different from what our boys would answer. Some responses transcend borders: I have the right to an education, I have the right to my opinion, I have the right to be heard, I have the right to a clean environment, I have the right to feel safe. But almost all of them added “I have the right to freedom” – this coming from children as young as our boys.
I know we try as hard as possible to make our children’s lives as caring and as loving as we can. The parents of those children in Gaza and the West Bank are no different from us. But they are tragic victims of circumstance, acrimonious history, and powerful men oblivious to the well-being of those parents and their children. They live in a place where they are powerless to move and have little hope for a bright future for their children.
The overwhelming message from the parents, teachers, and students has been one of peace. As UNRWA’s tagline states, Peace starts here. When I think of their lives, my emotions are as equally conflicted as the images I have seen: frustration, despair, anger; hope, determination, solidarity. To impress the gravity of these emotions and the significance of this situation to our children weighs heavily on my heart. When they were younger, it was easy to shield them from the injustices I witnessed. It was easy to switch off that part of my life as I saw you waiting for me at the airport and you all rushed to hug me after a trip. As our children mature, I want us to make the right choices that will passionately and critically educate them about their world. To not only appreciate the privileged lives they have, but to be sensitive and caring to those less fortunate. To not only have fun and enjoy the quality of life they deserve, but to help others reach that same level of human dignity we often take for granted. It means they may be shocked at times, they will be upset, they will ask the most basic of questions such as “Why are so many people living in poverty?” and we may struggle to answer. But we cannot shelter them forever. More than anything I want both our boys to lead the most wonderful of lives, but they cannot do so in ignorance of the world around them. In whichever way they choose to make a change in this world, I’m thankful to have you by my side as they grow.
Love always, p