Friday, December 08, 2006

Not Just the News

Well, I'm settling back into life here in the States. It was such an initial shock to be back home when I thought I would be gone for a year in the West Bank--only to return to Washington with no idea what my next step was. I had rented out my apartment; my things were in storage; I didn't know whether I should try to study Arabic somewhere else or stay in DC. It has felt a little like that period just after college when there are so many options on the table and you have no idea what to do with your life. Of course, there are always so many things to do and the problem for me was too many options and not a clear sense of the order in which to do them. So many times in our lives, we just need to know the very next step, not five steps down the road. And yet, I was not even sure of the next step.

Just last week, however, the clouds have started to lift. I've found a great job working on Iraq projects and issues for a consulting company. Since we have not found funding for our projects yet in The Euphrates Institute, it became apparent that I would have to find another job to sustain myself while TEI takes shape. I really love the team at the consulting company and I am so thrilled to be working with Iraqis again. And it is meaningful--dealing with women's and human rights issues in Iraq.

Despite being so far from the region now, I try to keep up all I can on the news and goings-on back there, both in Iraq and Israel/Palestine. I've talked with my former classmates back there and found out four more students from our program got denied on their attempts to re-enter into the West Bank. My Japanese roommate miraculously procured another three-month visa after coming in through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. But she described her harrowing experience and told me she was lucky to be there. She endured five hours of questioning at the airport, during which they read her diary and looked at all the numbers on her phone. She lied to them (per our instructions) about living in the West Bank and they finally asked her, "why are you lying?" She said she was worried they wouldn't let her in. They told her that they probably would not and wanted to question her further.

Finally, after five hours, she told me she was feeling so ill and had a huge headache and asked them if she could see a doctor. It was at this point that they finally let her through. She reasoned she must have looked so pathetic and in need of medical attention.

I also talked to my neighbor, the same one I've written about in my blog several times. The last time, a week ago, I noticed something different about his voice and asked him what was wrong. He replied that he just returned home from being in the hospital for a few days and was still in pain and it hurt to talk.

"What happened," I exclaimed. "The hospital?"
"Yes, I was beaten by Israeli soldiers," he replied calmly.
"What?! Where, in Birzeit?" This was shocking news. I had only seen one convoy of Israeli soldiers pass by during my time there.
"Yes, right in Birzeit by the falafel shop we used to go to," he replied. He continued, his tone despondent. "I made the stupid mistake of going to get cigarettes for me and my roommates at 2 am (they always are up until 3) at that supermarket that's open late near the falafel place."

He said a couple humvees drove by and stopped next to him. "Where are you going? What are you doing out so late? the soldiers questioned angrily. My neighbor tried to explain.
"No, honestly, I'm just going to this store right there to get cigarettes and then I'm going back home."

"That's a lie. You must be causing trouble, " they said accusatorily. My neighbor said the five soldiers then jumped him and beat him--punching him, kicking him, until he laid on the ground, nearly unconscious. They then lifted him up and told him to hurry up and run home or else they would finish him off for good. So, he limped off as fast as he could home.

I was in tears by the end of the story, in shock that that could happen to him. He remained so calm and reminded me that it happens there all the time and that he was just kicking himself for going out at night, although he added that it didn't really matter because it could happen at any time of the day and even at his own house. (Israeli soldiers had several times searched the building and arrested people in the past.)

I asked him what his parents said about it and he said he hadn't told anyone except his best friend what had really happened because he didn't want his parents to find out and be very worried and sad about him.

To top it off, while I was on the phone with him and he was telling me this story, I heard his other phone ring. He answered it and I could hear him exclaiming, "Oh my God!" in the background. He got back on the phone and said he needed to go and would talk to me later. I asked why and he said that that was his good friend's Mother who had just called to tell him that his friend had just died--shot by Israelis at a checkpoint. Apparently, people were trying to get through but Israelis were closing the checkpoint and fired into the crowd and he was shot and killed. I knew his friend--a very nice guy that he works with in Ramallah.

"Hurry back, Janessa and come see me. I may be dead in a month too. Things are getting so bad."

This sounds unreal, doesn't it, like it's too awful to be true. Sadly, because I know the source, I know the verity of the tragedy, of the experiences. By the time I got off the phone with him, I was crying so hard. I had also talked that morning to a friend in Iraq--a student at Baghdad University who was describing to me the unbearable stench of the morgue on his way to school and the latest of his friends whose family members had been kidnapped. The civil war was in full force and terrifying. Then, I hear about what happens to my dear friend in Birzeit.

These are not just headlines on a newspaper to me--8 killed here; 2 killed there. These were real people that I knew and cared about--people who had gone out of their way to help me and that I had spent so many evenings with, eating, laughing, talking. It was overwhelming and I wasn't even the one experiencing it. I couldn't imagine how they felt right in the middle of it all--terribly real and terribly close.

I wonder if people would make decisions differently if we all had a human face to put on a situation--if things going on in the world, or our country or communities for that matter weren't just faceless "others" "out there", not people we count as different and therefore not worth our attention or care. if they were actual people like us that were deserving of the same rights and freedom. I don't know what I'm advocating here--I sound like a complete interventionist--saying we should go help the entire world, be the world's policeman. I'm not. I am just advocating that we act and see things in line with the American values that we hold so dear and for which our forefathers fought so courageously.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Are we as Americans supporting these inalienable rights for Palestinians, for Iraqis in our current policies? Are we willing to take a stand for it?

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