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Growing up Under Occupation

Learning to be a child in a war zone

Before he came to the Nahalin School for Students With Special Needs, Kassim Awena had trouble with the simplest tasks – talking, walking or holding a tool in his hand, for example. He lived an isolated existence, unable to make friends. Kassim’s father, like many Palestinians in the West Bank, was unemployed and lacked the training or financial means to help his son. A few years ago, he turned to the Nahalin School. Now, Kassim, 15, is walking, talking – he even speaks a few words of English – and has made friends at school. He dreams of becoming a carpenter.

For the students, the school is an oasis. It is a place where, at least temporarily, they get a reprieve from the toils and trauma of life under occupation, with all its violence, humiliation and uncertainty. But the reprieve is not total.

From her office window, the Nahalin School’s principal, Hadya Nijajra, can monitor the growth of the Gush Etzion settlements. Since 1967, the Palestinian village of Nahalin, located between Bethlehem and Hebron, has seen 60 percent of its land confiscated by Israeli authorities. New settlements have swallowed up the village’s prime agricultural land. They consume most of the area’s limited clean water resources. And above the playground of another school, Nahalin Secondary School, electricity cables for the settlements hang dangerously close to where the children play.

“ I’m going out to play” is a quintessential children’s saying, familiar to any parent in the English-speaking world. Often, a parent answers with a reminder: “We’re having dinner at six.” Or a gentle word of caution: “Wear your helmet.” To Westerners, it seems a universal routine, part of growing up. But it is not. In many parts of the world, childhood is marked by violence, death and fear – it is far from the idyllic image of American suburbia that is served up by Hollywood.

In northern Uganda, for instance, children line up for the safety of a night’s sleep in a guarded shelter, where they will not be abducted by a rebel army looking for child soldiers. During Lebanon’s civil war, families spent significant amounts of time in bomb shelters. Israeli children fear riding on public buses, a frequent target of Muslim extremists’ suicide attacks. And in Palestine, the Israeli occupation, with its bombing raids, targeted assassinations and everyday humiliations, has poisoned the healthy development of a nation’s youth. Ms. Nijajra says she sees the fear in her students’ eyes every day. “They all bite their nails, and they are becoming more and more aggressive.”As part of its mandate, the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, tries to improve the lives of all the region’s peoples. But there is a special emphasis placed on the young, particularly in Palestine, where they face so many challenges. “These are young people who have been subjected to a lot of violence and political unrest,” said Maher Turjman, the Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel. “They have experienced trauma, and it has lasting effects that we’ve seen: tension in the family, tension in the schools and tension in the neighborhood. Sometimes it leads to drug abuse or violence against women.”

The Pontifical Mission reaches as many young people – Christian and Muslim – as it can, by supporting schools (including the Nahalin School), orphanages, youth centers, camps and scout groups, Mr. Turjman said. “The challenge for us is clear. We’re trying to end this cycle of violence and anger and create a healthy environment where the youth of Palestine can find some positive energy.”

These are young people who have been subjected to a lot of violence and unrest, and it has lasting effects.

Nearly 600 Palestinian children have been killed since the outbreak of the second intifada, or uprising, in September 2000. But even the children who are not impacted directly by the violence suffer in other ways. There is a growing body of academic literature documenting the trauma of Palestinian children living under occupation: “The psychosocial well-being of Palestinian children is under significant strain, mainly due to the omnipresence of violence in their surroundings, and the resulting pervasive feelings of danger in their lives,” reported the 2003 Psychological Assessment of Palestinian Children, funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Of the children surveyed, 93 percent said they did not “feel safe,” 48 percent had personally experienced or witnessed violence and 21 percent had been dislocated.

A separate 2003 study by Save the Children concluded, “Children are losing their childhood.” The violence they experience “is having a profound effect on their outlook, the way they view their life and their future.”

“Children growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp have a profoundly different experience than I had growing up in suburban northern Virginia,” said Amahl Bishara, a New York University anthropology doctoral student, who recently spent two years as a volunteer in the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. “Growing up I had a sense of safety. Palestinian children, especially those in the camps, don’t.”

One girl Ms. Bishara came to know lost her father during an Israeli military incursion into the camp; another child had two brothers in an Israeli jail. Israeli soldiers monitor the refugees with two spotlights that sweep the camp nightly. Military jeeps often drive through the camp, letting loose “sound bombs,” a series of piercing shrieks.

A child’s life is affected by the life of their parents, and life for Palestinian adults can be trying. Unemployment hovers around 50 percent in the West Bank. Many Palestinians emigrate, if given the opportunity. Emigration has affected the Christian community in particular: 30 years ago, Christians made up 18 percent of the Palestinian population; today, they number less than 2 percent.

Thus, part of the process of caring for Palestinian children is helping the parents have the means to care for their children themselves. When the husband of Claire Nustas injured his hand, preventing him from working, they had no means of caring for their children. Fortunately, Mrs. Nustas reached out for help to Hope for Creative Financing, a nonprofit, nongovernmental Palestinian organization, which is supported by the Pontifical Mission. The organization trained Mrs. Nustas to become a beautician; she is now the family breadwinner.

Still, not all the Nustases’ problems were solved. Recently, the Israeli separation wall reached their front yard in Bethlehem. The family’s house is across the street from Rachel’s Tomb, burial place of the wife of the patriarch Jacob, and considered a holy place by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Now the wall places the tomb on the Israeli side. “I feel we are living in a cage, buried alive,” Mrs. Nustas said.

A playground may not seem like a necessity of life, but it is for the spirit.

Fortunately, for her children school offers some relief from the surrounding gloom. For more than a century, the De La Salle School in Bethlehem has educated generations of Palestinians from the Bethlehem area. Since 1967, it has also offered students a refuge. The school, founded in 1893 and supported by the Pontifical Mission, is known for its rigorous academic standards.

“We teach our students the values of tolerance, peace and solidarity with the oppressed,” said Michael Sansour, the school’s principal. But Mr. Sansour, trained as a psychologist, said schools only do so much for the community. “There aren’t many leisure activities available to our youths besides their studies.”

With few options available to them, Palestinian youths often find themselves involved with the intifada and the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others turn to drugs as an escape. About 5,000 Palestinians in metropolitan Jerusalem, for example, are addicted to heroin, according to Michel Sayegh, a social worker in Jerusalem.

“For many there is no work, no school and nothing to do, which leads to frustration and depression,” he said. “They look for a quick fix in drugs.” There are far too few treatment centers to help addicts, Mr. Sayegh said, adding that more also needs to be done to stop children from using drugs in the first place.

In the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, a contingent of young Armenians in uniform marched down the street to the loud braying of bagpipes. Each day, they gather after school for various activities, playing in a gym or working on computers. The activities, funded in part by the Pontifical Mission, are just the kind psychologists say are needed for children growing up in this troubled region.

In recent years, the Pontifical Mission has also built playgrounds in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Gaza and Beit Jala. “Sometimes we are asked, ’Why do you build parks when there is such a need for hospitals, schools – the basics of life?’ ” said Mill Hill Father Guido Gockel, who for seven years served as the Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel.

“In a situation like this, where there is so little hope, so little joy and almost no play, this aspect of development is so important. A playground may not seem like a necessity of life, but it is a necessity for the spirit, the spirit that needs to find joy and peace.”

Still, no matter what efforts are made on behalf of the area’s children – and much more needs to be done – there is no denying that their fate is bound to the political dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And only when the violence ends will the children truly be able to play.

Mel Lehman is a writer and video producer in New York.

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