MOVING BEYOND CONFINEMENT
Callie Weston (El Paso, Texas)
Two of us had been invited to spend the night at the home of Naji Owdah at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. As he lead us into the house he said: "We'll close the windows at night in case of a tear gas attack." A normal enough warning considering the circumstances under which Palestinians live.
Our delegation had heard an eloquent description of the camp's beginnings after the 1948 Nakba when Zionists drove Palestinians from some 500 villages (descendants of 78 different villages ended up in this small barren area in Bethlehem). Now, nearly 70 years later, we are sitting in the living room drinking sage tea with Naji and his wife. Generations of children have grown up in the camp under the restrictions, threats and harassment of the Israeli army. Naji himself, now the Director of LAYLAC: The Palestinian Youth Action Center for Community Development, has spent some 20 years in prison. So how did their son get to the US under a Fulbright scholarship?
His wife, Suheir, tells the story. Murad had graduated from the University here but could not get a job and spent his days hanging out in the house and sleeping. His Mom saw an announcement in the newspaper for Fulbright Scholarships and urged her reluctant and dispirited son to apply. Then pushed him again to study for the English language ability TOEFL exam. Then to interview with the university admissions officer via Skype. Murad dragged his feet but met with success at each step in the process.
Accepted by the university, he then had to see the US Consulate for a Visa. Israeli authorities would not let him pass into Jerusalem, even when the university wrote a letter vouching for him. He needed permission to pass since both a checkpoint and a settlement that Zionists had established on Palestinian land blocked his way. Finally, his Dad dropped him at the edge of the settlement. Murad ran to the other side as fast as he could - avoiding security and arrest or worse - and was picked up by a friend who drove him to the consulate.
Initially Naji said he would run across the settlement with his son hoping that if they were blocked by soldiers he alone would be arrested while Murad continued. Murad refused, saying that he would never leave his father in the hands of the military. And Suheir noted that while her son was running across the settlement she herself was sitting immobilized on the sofa. She said, "my legs were paralyzed."
Finally, visa in hand and bags packed - but prohibited from going to the Tel Aviv airport - he went to Jordan for his flight to the US.
Now back in the camp he and his wife are raising a child, nurturing the next generation, working for human dignity, human rights and international recognition of Palestine's right to autonomy.
There was no tear gas in the camp the night we were there. After 15 days without water the Israeli authorities had turned it on. The laundry got done. This is enough to keep hope alive?!