Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hope from Tragedy in Jenin

SOMETIMES it feels that no news from the Middle East, or Israel-Palestine, is good news. But last week, besides the choice of Amir Peretz, there was a more moving story, of hope out of tragedy, reported in Ha'aretz, and more fully by Chris McGreal of the Guardian, Friday November 11.,2763,1640148,00.html

Apologies if you've read it already, but I felt it deserves retelling. It's about a boy called Ahmed Khatib, and his parents Ismail and Abla, who turned their family tragedy into hope for the future.

Ahmed Khatib was just another 12 -year old lad in Jenin. He'd had run-ins with Israeli patrols before. Then one morning, the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the most important Muslim holiday, Ahmed went out with his mates to visit Jenin's Martyr's graveyard. Some Israeli soldiers who'd earlier had stones thrown at their vehicle saw one of the boys touting what they thought might be a real gun. It was just a toy made to look like an Uzi. They opened fire, shooting Ahmed. One bullet hit him in the pelvis, the other in the back of the head.

"Some boys arrived at the house and said Ahmed was shot and was taken to the hospital," said Ahmed's mother, Abla. "When I got there, all his clothes were covered with blood. I realised immediately he was dying. He was not moving at all. He was taken to the operating theatre and they decided he had to be transferred to Israel because his situation was so critical."

The doctors told her that both bullets exploded inside her son, causing considerable damage to his brain and body. It is one of the issues she returns to in anger and suspicion. "His body was full of fragments. Part of his brain was on his clothes," she says. "Did they have to shoot him twice? Couldn't they just have shot him in the leg?"

Ahmed was taken to the Rambam hospital in Haifa. By then his mother had given up hope. "I told the doctor that Ahmed was dead but the doctor would not declare him dead. He tried to do more tests. They kept his heart beating but I knew he was not alive," she says.

When Ahmed died two days later, his father Ismail had already decided what to do. Ismail's brother, Shokat, died in 1983 at the age of 22 of kidney failure. "I saw my brother in the flesh of my own son. My brother had kidney failure and since we didn't have the proper treatment for him, his situation deteriorated and it affected the second kidney and that lasted for 15 years," he says.

"I donated blood to my brother every time he needed it. I lived the whole ordeal and I wanted to stop others suffering like that. I told the doctors I wanted to donate Ahmed but first I had to consult from a religious point of view, and my family and my society."

Ismail first asked his wife. Her wait in the hospital left her in no doubt. "We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn't matter who they are. We didn't specify that his organs would go to Arabs, Christians or Jews. I didn't want my son to suffer, I didn't want other children to suffer regardless of who they are," she says.
"My son was dead but at the same time maybe he could provide life to others and maybe he could reduce their pain. Of course my son was martyred and they were the criminals and they took his life away but we are the ones who could give life back to them. And maybe my son is still alive in someone else.

"It was a message from us to them, a message of peace for them. We are the ones who want peace and love and they are the ones who break their promises and who don't want peace."

"To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance," says Abla. "Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot."
It is not the first time victims of the conflict have given life to people on "the other side".. Three years ago, Yoni Jesner, a 19- year-old Jewish religious student from Scotland, was killed in the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus. Part of his body went to save the life of a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem.

Ismail sought an assurance from the mufti of Jenin, whoi said he saw no obstacle to donating Ahmed's organs or to them going to Israelis and Jews. Then there was local feeling to consider. "When we heard Ahmed's father decided to donate the organs, we blessed the step," said Zakaria Zubeidi, 29, of the Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigade. "Despite Jenin's reputation for the suicide bomber and the bomb belt, the people of Jenin camp love life and granted life to five or six children and didn't distinguish whether they were Jewish or Muslim or Christian because our problem is not with the Jewish people as the Jewish people, but with the occupation."

Ahmed's heart was transplanted into Samaah Gadban, a 12-year-old Druze Arab girl from the Golan, who had a genetic heart condition which rendered her too weak to walk, and had waited five years for a donor. Her older brother had died of the same condtion. Ahmed's lungs went into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin.

Samaah's father, Riad, called the donation "a gesture of love". Her mother, Yusra, was overwhelmed as she waited at her daughter's bedside. "It was shocking to know that young boy died like that so Samaah could live," she says. "I have lost a son and it is impossible to describe the suffering I know Ahmed's mother is feeling. But I am also happy that my daughter has the chance to live. I am very grateful that in their pain they thought of our pain."

The orthodox Jewish parents of one of the recipients who did not wish to be identified said that once their child recovers from the transplant they intend to travel to Jenin to thank Ismail and Abla.

"The hope is that those people will learn the lesson from what I have done,, says Ismail Khatib, "Those six people will learn the lesson that we are human beings; their families, even if they were serving in the army, will consider what I have done," he says.

Ismail spent many years working as a motor mechanic in Israel. He was able to get to know his Israeli Jewish workmates, and so distinguishes between Israelis as people and the Israeli government and military. This helped him decide there was nothing wrong in helping the people whose army had killed his son. But today there are ever more barriers and checkpoints to make it difficult if not impossible for Palestinians like Ismail to go to work, even sometimes on their own land.

Afula is only 10-minutes' drive from Jenin, but for Ismail it takes a five hour journey via Jerusalem to reach his old workplace within sight of home. Soon, as the Wall goes up, and Palestinians are excluded, it will be an impossible journey. Ahmed worries that for the younger geneneration, the kind of contacts and knowledge he gained are also being made impossible. "Take a boy like my son, who was 12 years old. He was born between two intifadas. What does he know but tanks and soldiers and jet fighters? He only meets Israelis who are soldiers. He thinks all Israelis are soldiers. This does not help us. Seeing each other as human beings helps us."

Rebuilding Arna's Theatre

Ahmed Khatib grew up not far from the Jenin refugee camp, and witnessed its destruction. I've written before about the late Arna Mer Khamis and the theatre she set up for the children of Jenin. Some people are hoping to rebuild it.
Among them her son, Juliano.

Rebuilding Hope
By Juliano Mer Khamis
(October 26, 2005)

In 1993 Arna Mer Khamis received the The Right Livelihood Award for her work with the children in the refugee camp of Jenin.
In her acceptance speech she said :
"Yes, we owe them (the children) something. These children are the hope of tomorrow. It is imperative that we reveal the hypocrisy, which leaves these children wounded on the battlefield without first aid.
Their wounds are deep although they are not bleeding, their souls and spirits are wounded, their development handicapped. They are children beaten and shocked, who have witnessed their parents and siblings being humiliated by soldiers. They are children who have experienced long interrogation in prison. Children who have been prevented from studying, when their schools, kindergartens were closed down. These children who know the Jew, the Israeli, only as a soldier shooting to kill and who beats and humiliates."

Today in 2005 we are facing the same circumstances that brought Arna to establish her project "Care and Learning" in Jenin. In my last recent visit to Jenin I observed hundreds of children playing in the alleys of the camp. Their main toy was a gun made out of wood. The playground was the ruined and dusty neighborhood.
It seemed like time had stopped still since I was here 10 years ago. But it didn't. Hope turned into despair and with it brought the most devastating struggle for liberation. The resounding cries of the children in Jenin echoes again.

This gloomy reality was mixed together with the memories of "Arna's children" and brought us to decide to rebuild the "Arna Free Theatre".

"They (the children) shouted their passion for liberty, for an end to oppression and humiliation and for the hope of a better life, the hope of the Intifada. This is were our paths met - a small group of us joined up with and for these children in order to put an end to the crimes and reduce the mental and psychological damage caused by the years of oppression". Arna mer Khamis-1993.

The "Arna Free Theatre" will provide the children of the camp a tranquil environment to express them selves and create. Along with putting on plays we are intending to establish workshops for speech therapy, dancing and music. But the most important thing is to empower and strengthen the children to face their harsh reality of daily life. As Ashraf expressed in the film "Arna's Children" :
"When I am on stage I feel like I am throwing stones. We wont let the occupation keep us in the gutter. To me acting is like throwing a Molotov cocktail. On stage I feel strong, alive and proud".

To all our friends, we say today, that we still have a long way to go, but with your helping hand we shall give these children a chance for a better life.

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