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Growing up Under Occupation

Helping children be children in Palestine

by Mel Lehman

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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.”

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Tags: Occupation