Tuesday, December 27, 2011

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Twas the Tuesday before Christmas when I held an end of the semester party for my Balata kids. I will not be teaching there until February, although I will supposedly be leading a drama a few days a week. It was bittersweet, since I love those kids, even though I can barely handle the now overcrowded classes. There are now too many kids in both classes, and I am the only teacher at the site, which I find strange since Balata is the biggest refugee camp (in terms of population) in all of Palestine. Nevertheless, I would much rather continue to teach at Balata and get an extended break from my private school class. The party went off without a hitch, and the children were unexpectedly calm as I handed out snacks and sugary drinks. After the second class's party, 6 of the older kids stayed behind and helped me clean up, of their own volition. I was bombarded with hugs, goodbyes and I love yous which made all the work worth it.

On Friday I decided to explore the camp a little more because I had never walked farther than the center where I worked. I went with a visiting Brit who worked for TFP last year and had never walked around either. It ended up being a little awkward as Balata is very poor and we just looked like tourists amongst the curious glances and not so quiet exclamations. But we ended up running into Mohammed, who works at the center I teach at. His brother was one of the prisoners that just got released in a recent prisoner swap. He was arrested during the 2nd Intifada at the age of 19 and was in jail for 9 years. His entire 20s was spent in an Israeli prison. Mohammed invited us back to his house for the welcome home party. We only stayed a little and arrived at the beginning, so we didn't see much of the festivities. Nick and I were also split up as I went to sit with the women and he with the men. It was slightly awkward but I did get to meet Mostafa (the brother) and wish him my congratulations. He was a very nice, quiet and respectful man and I was dying to know his story. Definitely not the right time to ask. Perhaps in the future..

Saturday morning we headed off to Ramallah to drop off our stuff, decorate the guys' house and buy food for Christmas dinner the next day. We stayed with American guys we had met a month or so ago and have since become good friends with. They have friends with cars so from there we drove to Bethlehem. We couldn't seem to find Shepherd's Field where we heard they were having services, but after about 10 instances of turning around and asking for directions we finally found it. Its definitely a tourists' park, not an open field, but it's very well kept and nicely decorated for Christmas. We caught the end of an Indonesian service (they were ALL wearing Santa hats) and then headed up to Manger Square where we walked around looking at the decor and grabbing dinner. The restaurant was very warm and cozy, but the food and company are what made it a meal to remember. Several other friends had met up with us, so our extended table laughed, ate and enjoyed the new community we had made to celebrate Christmas. It was raining by the time we left the restaurant, so we drove to the Shepherd's field again and went to the chapel where, thankfully, they were holding an English mass for a tour group of Malaysians, Indians, and perhaps some other Asian countries. It was nice to sing carols and listen to the--quite frankly--adorable Indian priest give a message (although definitely not the style or content that I am used to). Afterwards, cold and a little wet, we headed back to Ramallah. We put in It's a Wonderful Life (which only 2 of us stayed down for the duration of) and had freshly baked chocolate chip cookies thanks to Lindsey and a Betty Crocker pre-made mix.

The next morning we woke up, made a pancake and eggs breakfast and relaxed for a little watching more Christmas movies and opening stockings Lindsey had made and we had stuffed with candy and other little things. Then we started the task of the day: cooking Christmas dinner. We all took over the kitchen in shifts. We knew people were bringing food, and the Turkey had been taken to a different house to bake, but we still made a bunch of food. Lindsey and Amy baked amazing pumpkin pies, I made a vegetable stew and others made some various other dishes. By the time dinner rolled around we had about 11 people. Then all of a sudden, at least 10 or 15 more people walk in just as the turkey is arriving. Everyone brought a tone of food: carrott cake, hummus, mashed potatoes, pasta salad amongst other delicious dishes. The boys had borrowed a second dining room table from their neighbors, so we fit as many people in that, and the rest sat at various other chairs, couches, coffee tables and arm rests. We met a lot of really cool and interesting people (all telling us to come to Ramallah where the jobs are better and the life is freer...so tempting). It really turned out to be a great night, even though I was away from my family, friends and home. Although, I have to say, my friends here are really like a new kind f family for me. I'm really glad I was with them this Christmas. And who would have thought I would be celebrating Christmas with Jews, Muslims, Christians and others...a very unique experience. For my first ex-pat Christmas away from home, it couldn't have been much better.

We came back the next day and rested. Then today after our first post-turkey workout, some of us went to the Turkish Baths for some serious cleaning. We laid on hot tiles, relaxed in a sauna and tried our best to breath in an intense steam room. Then we scrubbed with Nablusi soap and a loofah made of something like straw. It was a pretty nice experience, and the clean feeling after is incredible.

Now we've begun to plan for a New Years celebration in the boho neighborhood of Florentine in Tel Aviv (apparently one of the only places where you can find a big New Years celebration  because both Jews and Muslims celebrate different New Years). Two days of teaching before we head out early on Friday...and thats about all the planning we've done so far. As always, more to come.

Friday, December 16, 2011

When Onions Stop Tears

Thursday night after work we headed off to Ramallah for a night out to unwind from a long week. We went to a cozy little place with some dancing, which was much needed after about 2 months without dancing. It was a lot of fun to unwind and hang out with some of my coworkers outside of the workplace, especially since it had been a pretty tough week in terms of student behavior. We stayed the night at our American friends’ house (they now have a Spanish roommate who is equally as nice).

Then this morning Amy and I set out for Belien where we knew there was a protest. On the way we ran into some other internationals going to Nabi Saleh for a protest there so we decided to join forces. We were actually pretty glad we canged courses because we realized Nabi Saleh is the town where Mostafa, a protester, was killed by a can of tear gas to the face last week. So this week was a pretty important protest for the village since they had lost one of their own last week. They are protesting the settlement that was built on top of THEIR farmland and which has now taken over their spring where they get water. They also experience night raids and other maltreatments. This week a lot of people showed up, especially internationals who had heard about what happened last week and came out to show support.

(look in the gas cloud)

I guess for some reason I was expecting a simple demonstration. Guess again. We walked down the road to where the protester was killed last week.  I stayed towards the back of the group with Amy and some other people we know from various internationals’ events and connections. There were probably between 75-100 people and a lot of them were internationals this week. Then they started firing tear gas bombs indiscriminately at the protestors.  They’re about the size of a large orange and are hard…they look kind of like old school bombs.  People would retreat and then move forward and then again be bombarded by tear gas. They also pulled out the skunk water canon which shoots streams of chemically enhanced water that stinks and doesn’t ever leave. We stayed far away from that.

Then the Palestinians directed people to march down to the spring which is the focal point of the protests. The spring was stolen from the village by the settlement. We waited and walked up to the top of the hill overlooking the spring. There was a 45 min or so stand-off and some arrests. Then they started firing gas at the protesters right in front of them. When they had gotten really fed up with us they started firing at the hill and that pretty much ended things for the day. *** I forgot to add this when I first published, but Ill put it in now: there were also plenty of Israeli and Jewish protesters. I wanted to include that so that people know that this is not a one sided fight against breaches of international human rights law***

Now that I’ve outlined the events, I’ll give my personal commentary and reactions. I’ll be honest the first time they started shooting the tear gas at us I was terrified. It sounds like gunfire and all you see is people running and smoke flooding the air. Once you convince yourself it’s just gas canisters, the fear subsides, but those canisters are still pretty intimidating. I stayed towards the back for the most part, but at one point they fired longer range and I got caught in the gas. It’s like inhaling fire into your nose and lungs and rubbing pepper in your eyes. I wasn’t even that close to the can and I felt the effects of the potent chemicals. Ironically sniffing onions helps and some people handed me a few pieces to calm down the effects. It wore off relatively quickly since I didn’t get hit too hard. But apparently its more potent that gas someone experienced at protests in other countries like England. And they also shoot them at you whereas in other places the gas is rolled or sprayed in. Although to be honest, its never nice whether its here or the States.  And considering the mass of protesters they were firing at were completely peaceful, it was definitely excessive.  The most resonating images were those of the young Palestinian boys on a hill getting gas canisters shot at them as if they were a threat.  At some point some started throwing stones, but this was after they had been thoroughly gassed (although stone throwing at decked out soldiers doesn’t exactly justify shooting gas cans at kids regardless…but as I said stones were thrown later, after the gassing had started). Some I’m sure would want to see the boys in the wrong, and while I don’t believe stone throwing is the best response, when you think about it from their perspective you see things in a different light. To them they are using the only means they have to defend themselves, their livelihoods. If someone took your land and water supply and then shot gas canisters from a canon at you when you protested the seizure-- which is illegal according to international law--what would you do? Now on top of that imagine that you don’t have the bill of rights or anything like that to refer to. In fact, your country, your nation isn’t even recognized by the international community. Now honestly ask yourself what would you do?

 I think today reminded me  1) of why I wanted to come here, why I care so much, where my passions lie and  2) how consuming  and hopeless the oppression is for a lot of the people here, especially in places directly affected by the settlements like Nabi Saleh.  It’s really hard to understand fully unless you’re here, and even then as someone who has grown up being told I am free to do anything and be anything, I can’t even fully empathize.  Anyway that’s my two cents. Im sure some of you might disagree. I’m open to chatting about it : caseylabu@gmail.com

For those of you concerned about my safety at protests and  posting political pieces ....please don't worry. I'm smart and safe about what I do. Yes, there are some risks in going to protests, but I play it safe and it needs to be done. Since I have been given a passion for this conflict and for this oppressed group of people, I feel not only responsible for taking action but I also feel I need to stand up for what I believe and to defend the oppressed, which I have been called to do. My life is in God's hands and I have peace in that.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Turkey, Tattoos and a Charlie Brown Tree

I apologize for not posting in several weeks. Coming back from the break, I haven't had much time to breath, much less reflect and write. Now that I have to simultaneously make worksheets and readings for the current week and create lesson plans for the upcoming week, all this with a finicky computer, poor internet and a shared printer I am not linked to, I basically work around the clock. Its not a problem, I knew this was going to be a lot of work, but it explains why I have been so absent in updating. 

Its mostly been work, but I have had a chance to get out too. A couple Thursdays ago (Thursday is the last day of the school week, then Friday and Saturday are the weekend and Sunday starts the week off), me and some girls had a girls night out in Ramallah. Some UK musicians we had met were playing at a pub there so we went to watch. It was like walking into a European pub. 90% of the people were ex-pats from various countries. We felt like we had left Palestine. It was bizarre. We ended up crashing at the house of one of the Americans we had met there.

Then last weekend was Thanksgiving. We all made dishes and brought them to our friend Emma's apartment for a Thanksgiving feast. We would have liked to have it at our house, but the camp is more conservative, and we aren't allowed to have men in our apartment. The American we met in Ramallah came too and brought his other two roommates. Two are from Seattle and the other from Hawaii. We also had a mix of other nationalities getting a taste of a traditional...or semi-traditional Thanksgiving. We had sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, Musaka, rice, fruit salad, and lots of other dishes. The guys from Ramallah brought a 16 pound turkey which Emma masterfully baked in a less than legitimate oven. It was great to have all the traditional food and be around friends from work and outside of work. It didnt really feel like a normal Thanksgiving, but I think the word "normal" when referring to holidays is going to change now that I'm an adult on my own. It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be, but the pang of not being home with my family and not being able to see my best friends from home was definitely still sharp. Christmas will be the real test I suppose.

Speaking of which, the Christmas season has begun in our little house. Walking outside you would never know, but inside we now have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree Lindsey bought yesterday. We put up some Ramadan lights we found in the closet, and plan to get more decorations this weekend (we plan on taking a night/day trip to Bethlehem). Lindsey also has materials to make clay ornaments and paint them, and then we intend to string popcorn as well and make several other paper-based decorations for the house. We have officially turned on the Christmas music and have even caught a couple Christmas movies on TV (of course none of the good ones, but for now we're just happy for the familiarity of Christmas Spirit beyond our own computers and walls). They also have  a TON of chocolate commercial looking advent calendars!! We're each getting one in our apartment! Its funny because the kids have been running around with them for weeks just eating the candy. We also spotted some chocolate Santas at the supermarket. I have no doubt Ramallah and Bethlehem have more since they have significant Christian populations, whereas there are very few here. 
Our big plan is to go to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve and then either come home or stay with friends in Ramallah for Christmas day (more comfortable and intimate than being in a city where we don't have a place to stay). I'm pretty excited for that!

Tattoos: We've been talking about getting them in Bethlehem, something small. I might not be ready for that kind of commitment, but what I did end up with was four temporary tattoos from my Balata kids plastered on my hands and wrists...of course who doesn't want four cars on their hands??

Speaking of my Balata kids, they seriously make all the pain worth it, well the second class at least. The private school class is always a challenge because the kids do not listen. Then I commute to Balata and teach a now very large class of beginners. Its hard because the levels are all over the place and maintaining control of such a wide range of ages and levels is difficult. But then comes my older kids. The class is smaller and they always make me smile. There are two girls in the class whom I just love. They are so sweet and eager to learn and they tell me they love me after class. One day the one girl came to class looking upset. I took her outside and found out a couple of older boys had pushed her over. It's one of the few times where I have very seriously wanted to beat someone up. Had the boys been around, I think I would have thrown a couple punches and said some pretty terrible things, so maybe it is a good thing they weren't around...