Palestinian Peace Builder
A Normal Kid, Without a Country
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Seif is such a normal kid. He says it time and again.
We are normal kids, like all kids. The situation around us might be different, our ideas might be different, but first and foremost we are kids, kids like kids everywhere.
Seif was born in 1991 in Jerusalem. He lives in Birzeit, a town on the West Bank thirty kilometres from Jerusalem. His mother works for an NGO which processes micro-credits for Palestinian women; his father is an engineer on some important construction projects in the region. Seif is a child of that educated middle class that Palestinians have been able to maintain despite all their hardships.
And he led a normal life: he went to a bilingual Quaker school, he played football, he played computer games, he watched Tom & Jerry, he drew, he fought with his older sister, and studied as little as possible. Seif always watched the news (his father watched as do most people) and so from a very young age he knew that there were problems in his country. But the first time he understood that something terrible was happening was that night in September of 2000 when violence broke out in Jerusalem. The next day it spread to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the second intifada started.
Before that, we were free. There was conflict, but we didn't feel it like we do now. Life was different before all that.
Seif was nine at the time. One morning a few months later, he discovered that his school was suddenly much further away. His school was eight kilometres from his house, in Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority; Seif usually went there by taxi with his sister. But that morning an Israeli checkpoint blocked their path: from then on, every morning for years, Seif and his sister had to get out of the car, go through the checkpoint, walk a kilometre under the sun on the empty road, wait on line to go through a second checkpoint and get another taxi on the other side.
I was just a kid who wanted to go to school, and suddenly I was up against a soldier with a machine gun that ordered me around.
Near the checkpoint there were often stone-throwings, chases, shootings: the young people in the area participated in it.
Did you agree with them?
Yes. They were defending their homes. Who knows what they had been through. Maybe one of their brothers or their father had been in jail…
And did you throw stones?
Seif is silent for a moment and then he answers softly. With his beard and calm eyes, he looks older than seventeen. But when he is faced with a question that he can't or doesn't want to answer, he smiles like the child he is. Finally, he says no, that he didn't throw stones.
Maybe I was afraid, I don't know. I don't want to talk about it.
He thinks for a moment, and then says that throwing stones will not solve anything: "You might hurt a soldier or two, but they have machine guns. What can you do to them? It's not a good way. It doesn't work." Some of his friends have taken part in confrontations. On the West Bank, everyone has a story about a kid who spent months in prison for throwing stones.
And did you and your friends talk about the conflict?
All the time. For a while, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, it seemed like the only thing we talked about.
Seif's family is Orthodox though his parents are not very observant. But his grandmother would tell him stories about Jesus before he went to sleep; his sister went to church, as did Seif. He doesn't go anymore, though. "Maybe I got bored," he says. "I want to go, but I always think of something better to do." And, besides, he hasn't met his grandparents for eight years: they live in the Gaza Strip and, since the beginning of the second intifada, the two parts of the family have not been able to see each other.
But you still believe in God.
And why do you think so many conflicts come to your land?
I don't know… that's the way life is. You have to deal with these things. In Heaven you won't run into this sort of thing, but here on Earth you have to go through it. It's like a test to see whether you can get into Heaven or not.
Less than two per cent of the four million Palestinians are Christian, and Catholics are a minority within that minority. Muslims make up the majority of the population. Seif says that in his town there are no problems between the two religions, that everyone knows each other and they treat each other well.
However, families in neither group are likely to accept that their children intermarry, for instance, and there are many stories of crimes committed to wash away the perceived ‘dishonour' of a mixed love story.
So, when you'll look for a girlfriend you'll have to limit yourself to two per cent of the population, one out of every fifty girls. That lowers your odds considerably.
Seif laughs: he hadn't thought of that. But, for now, he doesn't care: for several months he has been dating a classmate, a Catholic girl. Seif and his girlfriend go out together, but they don't hold hands. That would be a provocation in their culture, he says; many people would be upset and they might react.
Three years ago, the situation on the West has improved somewhat, and Seif had the feeling his life would largely go back to the way it was before: he and his friends talked more about sports, music, girls, Star Academy. Seif is now in his senior year, and he does a lot of normal things: he watches TV, goes out or chats online with his friends, plays basketball, dances in a group that does dabkeh, a traditional Palestinian dance:
I like it. It's a way to express my love for my country, for our culture.
He sometimes even visits Jerusalem, so close and yet so far away. His parents are not allowed, but he goes from time to time with his sister. But it is not easy: they have to request permission from the Israeli authorities and they are never sure to get it. Seif also draws a lot, mostly Handala. Handala is a very famous character in Palestinian folklore, drawn by a famous caricaturist, Naj Al-Ali: a poor, barefoot refugee child, Handala is always seen from behind, angrily looking at scenes from reality: he doesn't say anything but his silent look voices his criticism. Seif admires Handala and copies him:
Handala is like the conscience of the Palestinians.
From the time he was six, Seif has always gone to the summer camps organized by Birzeit's Catholic Church: there, kids played music, did sports and arts & crafts, played games and danced. Last year he took a course to become a leader at one of those camps.
I always liked the idea of being the one to teach, organize, run things. So you like taking charge and sharing culture… Yes, I do. I like being able to tell others what I know, to tell them how to do things.
Seif is vice-president of the student body at his school, and he wants to do something similar at the University of Birzeit, one of the most prestigious in Palestine, where he intends to study. In 2007 he was chosen from among many to represent Palestinian kids at a debate on the Graça Machel Report on Children and War at United Nations headquarters in New York. The trip was long: Seif had to go to Amman, Jordan, to take the plane, because Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed to use Israeli airports. But Seif's arrival to New York was one of the greatest moments in his life:
I had seen it, of course, in photos and the movies, but I never imagined the buildings of the city would be so tall, so immense.
In New York, Seif spoke about how Palestinian kids suffer from the war. He said that there were a lot of kids who were cut off from their schools by the Israelis' separation wall: suddenly, one day they were on one side of the wall and their schools on the other. "What had those children done to deserve this?" he asked, "What had they done to be suddenly punished like this, separated from their schools, their education, their future?" Education and debate are among Seif's main passions. Lately, Seif has given some courses organized by the YMCA for children from his area: they discussed gender questions: "Many believed that women were inferior, but they finally accepted that they are equal to men"; drugs and cigarettes: "I convinced some of them not to smoke, it was great"; HIV & AIDS: "that was to tell them about precautions"; and how to respect others, those who think differently "Because first and foremost we are all people with the same culture, whether we are Christians or Muslims, Fatah or Hamas, whatever." But there is one issue that worries him more than anything else:
I don't know what's going to happen with my country. We are really normal people, but, because we are living under occupation, we have had to do things we never would have done.
Because of his involvement in community work, education and choice, Seif values dialogue and understanding. But civil participation has a limit: the conflict situation under which he lives does not often let him apply these values to his country.
Next year, Seif is going to go to the university to study architecture because he wants to make houses for his countrymen and be a normal person. He also wants to keep working at the camp, giving his talks, dancing dabkeh, playing basketball and going out with his friends. And he wants to get involved in university politics and maybe, some day, in his country's politics.
Sometimes I think that I would like that. But for that to happen I would have to have a country…
That is our problem.
In the meantime, he will continue to work for building the basis of a peaceful society in his country. And maybe next door, in Israel, a normal kid like himself is also thinking about getting involved, building the basis for a peaceful society in his own country. One day, sooner or later, they will be happy to see together the results of what they have each accomplished to build change from within.
The Occupied Palestinian Territory is one of the few spots on the globe where people live under occupation. All young people living under occupation are at the centre of violence. Armed conflict robs many young people of their families, security, education, health, employment and opportunities for development.
In the brutal way of war, young people are recruited or forced into militias. They experience killing and maiming, sexual violence, prostitution, displacement, separation from family, trafficking and illegal detention. The indirect costs of war also hold back young people's development: less water, sanitation, health and education, and more poverty, malnutrition and disease.
There have been widespread concerns about young people as perpetrators of violence. "Youth bulges" in the population may make countries more susceptible to political violence, particularly when young people are excluded from development, unemployed and forced to the margins of society.1 Young people with few opportunities for development are an easy target for recruitment into violent groups.
The nature of conflicts has changed. Low-intensity in-country conflicts are much more common today than wars between countries. If these conflicts are taken into account, the number of global conflicts has increased in the last ten years from 30 to 56.4 But violence can also be the result of long-term occupation which prevents generations of youth from experiencing self-determination and, thus, robs them and their families of a sense of dignity.
The ten-year strategic review of the Graca Machel Report on Children and Conflict identifies some of the priorities for protecting children and youth in conflict situations:5 (1) universal implementation of international norms and standards to end impunity; (2) care and protection of children and youth in armed conflicts; (3) stronger capacity and partnership; and (4) conflict prevention and building peace. In this last area, says the review, young people should be recognized as natural participants in peacemaking and peace-building processes. Investing in young people's education, health, employment and overall well-being is also integral to building peace and preventing conflict.
Many initiatives are built on the recognition that young people's dynamism can transform conflict situations and build the foundations of democratic and peaceful societies. For example, the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, a global network of young people and youth organizations, has organized international working group meetings, peace-building training seminars and conferences.6 The Great Lakes Zone Young Peace Builders' Network operates in the conflict and post-conflict areas of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. UNESCO promotes the involvement of young people in peace-building through youth forums, and an initiative for inclusion in all UNESCO educational programmes called "Learning to Live Together: Promoting Dialogue for Peace and Reconciliation". Cultural mediation and deconstruction of stereotypes is an intrinsic part of this process. UNFPA's sponsored youth networks also demonstrate how mobilising the energy, dynamism and enthusiasm of youth across cultures, creates opportunities to increase awareness around critical issues such as health, physical security, and education.
Involving young people, whether in peace-building or long-term development is important for any society afflicted with armed violence or occupation. Building a culture of peace with and through youthful minds is the basis for achieving sustainable peace.
"I always liked the idea of being the one to teach, organize, run things... I like being able to tell others what I know, to tell them how to do things"