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Children of War at the Oasis of Peace

Monday 14 August 2006, by Deb Reich

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

A week of summer fun for refugee camp children from Tulkarm, Jenin and Yaabad

Made possible by the initiative and generosity of the Bruno Hussar Fund, Germany

An interview with Ms. Ranin Boulos, Camp Director
By Howard Shippin (interviewing) and Deb Reich (editing)
August 1, 2006

Ranin Boulos, 22, daughter of Rita and Daoud Boulos, born and raised at NSWAS and now a student at City University of London, came home two months ago to spend the summer in the village. Ahmad Hijazi, who directs the Humanitarian Aid Project at NSWAS, promptly tapped her to take on a major responsibility: a one-week summer camp for Palestinian children from troubled homes in refugee camps in Tulkarm and environs. Ahmad notes that Aziz, the club director in Tulkarm, confided at the outset that he’d had a hard time persuading parents to send their kids to this camp because they’d heard that Katyusha rockets are falling on Israel and it must be very dangerous here. “I had to laugh,” says Ahmad ironically, “considering that these families live in the Tulkarm refugee camp, not exactly the safest of environments at any time.” Here is the saga of this camp experience as Ranin tells it.

I came home from London for the summer, and Ahmad told me that there’s money from the Bruno Hussar Fund… for the village to do something for Palestinian kids. No one else from the village volunteered; he asked me; I said yes.

When you prepare a big dinner, you spend the whole day shopping, cooking, cleaning, setting up the table - all this work and then when the fun part comes and you sit with the people and eat, it all ends so fast. Then you think: I have worked all these hours for ten minutes of eating! –That’s how I felt at the end of this summer camp.

I worked on the project for almost two months, fighting to get the entry permits for the kids, insurance, counselors, places to sleep, places to eat, activities, trips... and when it actually started, it went so fast! I still can’t believe it’s over; I wish it wasn’t.

Why kids from the Tulkarm area? Are we working with an organization there?

Ahmad knows someone there, Aziz, who has an organization in Tulkarm to help troubled kids.

They’ve done summer camps before, but this was the first time inside Israel…. The kids are all from refugee camps, either in Tulkarm or Yaabad or Jenin. They all have difficult and painful backgrounds, socially and economically. Some of their fathers were shaheeds [anyone who died in the Intifada –Ed.]. Some have fathers in prison. Some, their families were shot. Not kids with a normal background.

I felt a bit scared, talking to the army

The kids were supposed to come on Sunday, July 23, but the permits [to enter Israel] weren’t given, so we had to delay for a day. We got the permits on Sunday night, so I called Aziz and told him okay, and they came on Monday, July 24.

I felt a bit scared, talking to the army… It was my first time… I had to call the misrad heterim, the (Israeli) army’s permit office. I was really nervous. I explained about the camp and what we do. They weren’t very encouraging and the feeling I got was that it wasn’t going to happen, it can’t be done, it’s too many kids. I worked on this summer camp for two months and all this time I didn’t know it was actually going to happen until the last night. Right up to the end, I was phoning them all the time, almost begging, trying to make them feel sad, trying to get them to feel something about these kids... On the last night they called and told me, Okay, you got the permit. I was so happy… but I thought, Well, I’ll believe it when I see the kids actually arrive here.

Actually, because the kids are under 16, they don’t really need permits, but they need people to escort them and those people need permits. None of their escorts was given a permit except for one girl. Then her dad died and she couldn’t come, so basically they had no escorts at all and we only found out about this at the checkpoint when we went to welcome them! So we told them, Okay, we’ll be their escorts.

Sixteen checkpoints

We went to the Anata checkpoint in Jerusalem and waited with a bus from inside Israel. The kids came in their bus, and we transferred them to the Israeli bus... Some of this stuff I didn’t know how to deal with, and I was really scared. The kids, aged ten to twelve, left their house at eight in the morning and arrived at Anata checkpoint at two o’clock [about an hour’s drive under normal circumstances—Ed.]. The younger kids were really exhausted and maybe frightened, traveling alone without their escorts. I was waiting with four other camp counselors to welcome them at Anata – but, to get there, they had to go through 16 checkpoints. They were searched, even body searched! They’re kids!

We came, we saw them, we took them onto the bus... I was very, very nervous... I was thinking, Oh my God, what did I get myself into, this is way more than I can deal with… and I was expecting the kids to be scared and quiet, but they were really warm and sweet. They came and sat by me and gave me a good feeling... I saw they weren’t scared anymore and I felt better. The bus drove off and they were really excited; it was the first time they’d been out of their village... on our way we saw one of those double-length buses with the flexible connection in the center and they were all excited about that: Look! Look at this! —All these simple things got them really excited.
We arrived at the village [NSWAS] and went to the primary school, where the kids and their counselors slept for the whole week.

We had two classrooms for sleeping, two classrooms for the art activities, one room to serve as the office for the counselors, the use of the bathrooms at the gymnasium, and the use of the gymnasium itself for the kids’ sports activities… so basically we built ourselves a very warm and nice camp.
All this was ready before the kids arrived. The counselors and I cleaned and prepared everything for their arrival.

Who where the counselors?

Ibrahim Haj Yehia, who attended the NSWAS Primary School as a child and they moved to live here five years ago; he’s 19 now. Taj Rizik, who is 17, grew up here. Sama Daoud, now 18, also grew up here, as did Natalie Boulos, my younger sister, who’s 18, too. [A list of all the volunteers is appended-Ed.]

Four of you?

We only had four counselors because they were supposed to come with two of their own and when they couldn’t get in, I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do, or where I’d be able to find counselors at the last minute. Luckily, two guys from the north were staying with us, trying to get away from the war there, so I went home and I said: Hey, you have to help me out here! So they came: one, Issam Daoud, is studying medicine at the Technion in Haifa. He’s 24 and about to start his residency and he’s a medic; so, actually, his presence was a legal requirement! [Israeli law requires a medic in attendance at kids’ programs-Ed.]. The other guy is Imad Abu Shkara, also 24, from Abu Snan; he’s studying medicine in Italy.

Lots of people asked me why there were no Jewish counselors at this camp. First, I did ask Noam Shuster (daughter of Ruti and Hezi) and Naomi Mark (daughter of Bob and Michal) but both of them were working and couldn’t take a week off. Secondly and most importantly, these kids are all traumatized and anything Hebrew or Jewish terrifies them, because all they know is soldiers. When they thought they saw someone Jewish here, or when they heard Hebrew, they freaked out, demanding to know, Are there JEWS in your village? I explained that the Jews in our village are very different from the ones in uniform in the refugee camp... I brought Noam Shuster and Naomi Mark (after their own workday) to sit with the kids and speak Arabic with them... I introduced them and the kids started to test Naomi, using Arabic that was hard to understand, on purpose. After Naomi told them she’s working with Palestinian prisoners [for her alternate national service, with Physicians for Human Rights-Ed.], they accepted her and called her Na’ameh (Arabic for “Naomi”).

Noam came with us on the field trip to Jaffa, and Uri Sonnenschein came every day for two hours to do origami with the kids, and I have to say he was great. Some Jewish and Arab kids from the village got involved, including Yonatan Oron, Mai Shbeta, Tali Sonnenschein, Mona Boulos and Amir Kalak, who also came along as escorts on the field trip to Jerusalem. They also came to the camp to be with the kids in the evenings.... Amir, only a young teen himself, does magic shows, so he came with his magic; Omer Shuster came as a DJ; little kids like Isam, Mahmoud, Rani, Aman, and Muhammad came and invited the camp kids to come play soccer with them. I was hoping for more involvement from the village, but anyway some of the kids did pitch in.

The camp counselors had to be with the kids 24 hours a day for the whole week, so they had to be really fluent in Arabic. Even NSWAS kids who speak Arabic can’t all carry on a fluent conversation with these kids in Arabic. That’s why I decided that the 24-hour counselors who were functioning in place of the kids’ parents would be Arabs, and that other activities would have Jewish involvement.

As the week went on, we could see a real change in the kids, even towards Jews... They would say things like, Hadi yehudiyye, bas yehudiyye mniha... [“That lady is Jewish, but she’s a good Jew].

In the pool, and playing soccer, they met Jewish kids from the village. Yonaton Oron, who is 13, doesn’t speak Arabic too well so he spoke Hebrew, and they didn’t accept it at first. When they saw how sweet he is, they became very attached to him. They tried to teach him Arabic! He took two kids to his house to play.
My purpose wasn’t to sit with the kids and try to convince them that not all Jewish people are like the soldiers they see every day, or to try to change their minds. All I had to do was to let them live the life of Neve Shalom / Wahat al-salam and it did more than I expected.

How were the days structured? What did they do?

They got up at around eight in the morning and we had breakfast at nine. Breakfast was chocolate and labane sandwiches with hot chocolate; lunch was hotdogs, hummus, vegetables and a cold drink. Dinner was in the dining room at the guest house, a proper dinner. All the food was supplied by the dining room — sandwiches, drinks, fruit, etc...

After breakfast, they went to the pool for two hours – their first time in a swimming pool. Everything here was the first time, for them. None of them knew how to swim. We were in the pool with them, showing them how… by the end of the week, they could paddle around and have fun, even in the deep end.

After that they showered, and they had lunch from one o’clock till two. Then they had art activities with special teachers that Umar Ighbaria from the village helped me to find and bring to work with the kids; they came almost every day and did arts and crafts, drama, music... Dinner was at seven in the dining room and then, from eight to ten, there was an evening activity. We did something different every evening: one night, a party; one time, a night in the woods; one night a soccer game; one night at the pool with music and dancing.

Their very own circus...

On Tuesday, the Arab-Jewish Youth Circus came to our camp. And for that great day I would like to thank Hatem Matar, the manager of the NSWAS hotel [The White Dove Guest House-Ed.], who arranged for the circus to come on a volunteer basis.
They did a show, with tumbling and acrobatics, for an hour; it was really nice. Then they worked with the kids, taught them things, how to use the equipment: hoops, tumbling on mats, juggling balls... It was special. Afterwards, the kids were still playing with these things. And they had the soccer balls we bought them… and art supplies... scissors and paints and big sheets to draw on, we got them whatever they needed for every activity.

Take me to my real home

On Thursday, we took them on a trip to Jaffa, to the Arab-Hebrew Theatre. They saw a play in Arabic, Laila wal ghruyum (“night and clouds”). Afterwards they had an activity with puppets, with people from the theater as volunteers. They made puppets to take home.

Then they went to tour Old Jaffa with a special tour guide. We explained to them about all the places they saw. We were amazed to see how much they knew about the history of the country. They kept finishing the guide’s sentences for him. He said he’d never had a group like that. All these kids are from a refugee camp, so they’re all “from here” — some were from Jaffa families; some knew exactly where their grandfather’s house was... and they wanted to go there, and see: Oh please take me to Taibe, please take me to Beersheba, to Jerusalem, to Ramle....

In Jaffa after the tour, we took them sailing. We were so scared they would fall overboard! They were so excited, leaning over to see the water, the beach, and we were yelling, No, no!

I took them into the captain’s room to steer the boat.

Waiter! Waiter!

Then we went to a restaurant – Abu Al-Afia in Jaffa, for lunch. They’d never been in a restaurant and they really got into ordering! We noticed and started laughing. I had to explain to the waitresses so they wouldn’t get mad. It was another “first time,” so they kept doing it, waving their arms: Bring us this! Bring us that! It was so sweet and sad at the same time.

Then we went to the beach. They were so excited... We were terrified because they can’t really swim and the sea is scary. All the counselors went in the water and stood in a circle facing the shore, arms linked, and forbid them to go past us. They swam and they collected shells... Each kid had a water bottle – imagine this! They emptied the drinking water and filled the bottles with sea water; closed the bottles, wrote their names, and took them home to show their parents. [Tulkarm is half an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean in normal circumstances.-Ed.]

After the beach, we went back to camp. The counselors were exhausted, but the kids were full of energy. They were never tired – never tired! I’ve never seen kids like that before. They went to play soccer, then some music, then a party, and we said Okay, that’s it, we’re collapsing, everyone to bed.

A trip to the zoo

On Saturday, they went to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. They saw many animals for the first time in their lives, and it’s a petting zoo, so they could touch them. We had maps of the zoo and each group took a different route. We picnicked on the grass... then we took them to the Old City of Jerusalem, something they’ve dreamed about their whole lives. They wanted to see the Al Aqsa Mosque and I said no. I was scared - I didn’t know what the situation might be, if there’d be a lot of people or not. They begged me, until I finally said, You know what? We’re going! It was a Saturday, and luckily it was empty. We got them in; we took pictures there. Then as soon as they had gotten into Al Aqsa and looked around a second, they were like, Okay, yeah, now we want to go to the market. They’re kids! So we took them to the market and got them stuff from there, and then went back to camp... Those were the two days they got out of NSWAS.

What was the best part... for you?

Oh, to be honest… every day! Everything that happened, I was like, Oh my God, and then something ELSE happened and it was the same, Oh my God, again! It wasn’t normal! I will never, ever forget. I didn’t think it would have this much of an impact on me. We got really, really attached to these kids. The last day was the saddest day in my life, honestly, I’m not exaggerating. The kids were really, really crying... and we started crying, too. Ibrahim and Issam are big guys, and they were standing there crying, too. The kids didn’t want to leave, some refused to get on the bus. One ran away, we had to go and find him and drag him onto the bus. I felt cruel. I hated myself. To give them this amazing week and then, Okay, this is what you don’t have, now go back to your reality.

They called us yesterday the minute they arrived... and today... whoever has a phone, they call us... We call them right back since they have no money or credit to talk. They are still very sad. All the counselors and myself are going to visit them next week, we’re going to buy them some stuff for school... school bags and supplies... we promised them and we’re going to do it.

Always in our hearts

The last evening, Sunday, we invited people from the village to an art exhibit of the kids’ work: origami, clay figurines, paintings, constructions with Styrofoam and theatrical plays. They had studied some theater during the camp, so each group presented a play. They weren’t divided by age, but randomly, with boys and girls in each group, and two counselors for each group. The groups had names chosen by the kids themselves: Al Amal (Hope), whose counselors were ‘Brahim and Issam; Al-Sukour (the Eagles – “because they can fly and they’re free”), whose counselors were Sama and Emad; and Al-Nujum (the Stars – “because they’re beautiful, and free, and safe”), with Natalie and Taj.

After the exhibit and the performances, we gave them presents. We’d made them tee shirts that said, Wahat as-Salam Summer Camp 2006, and hats which they got on the first day of the camp. The last night, on Sunday, at the party, we gave them pictures – three pictures for each kid: a group picture; one of their group leader; and a personal picture for the kid, with a nice frame. The frames were provided by Dyana and Rayek Rizik.

I’d made them another surprise: a video clip, not that I’m very good at it. People from the village where invited to this evening, some of them came, and some kids from the village were there as well.
The video clip had all the photos and videos we filmed during the week. Opening title: Summer Camp 2006...Arabic music…

Like what?

“Atabtab wadulla” — a song they loved and kept dancing to, and singing, all week. It’s a love song by Nancy Arjam. The video clip ended with the final number from the movie “Dirty Dancing,” that says: “I’ve had the time of my life… and I never felt this way before…” The closing title said: Always in our hearts.

After the video clip, they started crying... We had to sit with them and talk to them: Hey, you’re going back to your families... They were like, No, no, no, we have nothing there, we’re happier here than there... That was hard to watch. Even when I took them to the office one day to call their parents, the parents miss them, but the kids were like, Nah, it’s better here.

Someone said, They have spent a week in paradise and now they’re going back to hell, and it’s true.

On Thursday, one counselor from Tulkarm showed up here, with a permit; his name is Ali.
The parents sent him because they wanted at least one person from there keeping an eye on their kids! This guy on Sunday evening at our last party looked at us and said: Your job is over, now it’s our turn, we have to help them adjust to the reality they’re going back to again. - It makes me feel very sad, and very empty...

Poems with perfume

Today when we went to clean the place, we kept finding things in the mess: stuff they made, stuff they forgot. We couldn’t bear to throw any of it away; we kept it all.

Their last night, they wrote us letters. They write in an amazing way, their Arabic is beautiful. They wrote us poems, really beautiful words. To perfume the letters, they used the air deodorizer spray from the bathroom. Natalie wrote a poem for the kids in her group, one sentence for each child... We cried when we read it. We were hyper-sensitive all week; we cried about everything.

The kids felt really secure and trusted us. We worked hard from the start to gain their trust and we really succeeded. But the things they told us about, really broke my heart, the things they’ve been through with their families, all this violence... There were things we didn’t know how to deal with – violence in the home, in the family... how the army treats them in the refugee camp... Their families are poor and have no money for anything... Everyone lives in the same room, even couples, right there with the children... their fathers, they’re scared of them... They don’t get hugs, or warmth. We gave them that and at first they couldn’t accept it, but they got used to it, we kept hugging them and kissing them.... they came to us... They told us things I don’t think they are allowed to talk about there, things I won’t repeat here.

Is it fair to bring them here and then send them back?

I thought about it for a long time... and in the end I decided that it’s better than not experiencing anything in your life. Now they at least have memories. Now, they have hope. They came here and saw that there are different people… they even started learning a few words in Hebrew. They loved our village, and the impact of the village on these kids was very clear. Now they realize that things can be different. When they grow up, they will realize... They have memories, and pictures... We want to keep in contact with them.

Do they understand about being a Palestinian in Israel?

I thought they wouldn’t - I thought they would look at us and wonder how come we are the same, with the same language, and still we live here and they live there; but they do understand, even more than I thought they would. They have some relatives here. They are refugees. They even explained it to me... about the ‘48 war, and how the Jews came, and the Arabs were forced to leave their homes, some left and some didn’t, and the ones who didn’t, are under the authority of the Israeli government, and the ones who left are in refugee camps! They understood... But they wanted to stay here. They didn’t care if it belongs to Israel or to Jews. They were happy here. They said: “We can call our parents from here...”

What would you do differently, if you had it to do over again?

To be honest: nothing. I’m very satisfied and I’m proud. I think it was a really big success for everyone involved. I’m proud of my work, and of the counselors who worked with me. They were amazing! Even professionals wouldn’t have been able to do the kind of work they did with the kids. I have never seen people as tolerant and understanding as Sama, Natalie, Taj, ‘Brahim, Issam and Emad.
On the last day, the kids hung on to us, they didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to leave. It broke our hearts! We stood there watching them waving to us from the bus with tears in our eyes. After they drove away, we went into the counselors’ room and we sat there quietly. No one said anything; we just sat there and stared into space.

The NSWAS community salutes all the village’s volunteers who helped make the camp such a success:

Ranin Boulos

Counselors, full time:
Ibrahim Haj Yehia
Taj Rizik
Sama Daoud
Natalie Boulos
Issam Daoud
Imad Abu Shkara

And all the other volunteers:
Uri Sonnenschein, the origami expert
Noam Shuster
Naomi Mark
Yonatan Oron
Mai Shbeta
Tali Sonnenschein
Amir Kalak, the young magician
Omer Shuster, the young DJv
Isam, Mahmoud, Rani, Aman and Muhammad: The soccer kids

Special thanks to:
The NSWAS Primary School, especially: Faiez, Leah, and Anwar, for letting us use the school’s classrooms and the gymnasium.

The White Dove Guest House at NSWAS, especially Hatem Matar for agreeing to every request I made of him.

Ofer Zohar, for letting us use the pool for swimming and for the party we had on Friday.

Umar Ighbariya, for finding us the art teachers.
At the NSWAS Communications & Development office:

Rita Boulous (a very special thanks) for helping me all the way through, and for letting us use the gymnasium for free,

Ahmad Hijazi, for offering to let me do the summer camp and for being there all the way,

Howard Shippin, for taking pictures and helping us set up our video clip on the last evening, and

Salim Layos, for the generous use of the dining room.
… and the German Friends of NSWAS, who had the idea, and who gave it their support.


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