Hanna Mermelstein, DYR member and peace activist who, together with others, has been organising the Birthright Unplugged tours so that young Jewish people from the US can see what Israel is all about by actually going there. They’ve also been organising another kind of tour, one called Re-Plugged, which allows young Palestinian children to see the places in Israel where their families came from, and were forcibly removed from not that long ago.
Here is a bit about it:
Our Re-plugged trips are for Palestinian children living in refugee camps.
In two to three days, we visit Jerusalem, the sea and the villages their grandparents fled in 1948. The children stay with families who are Palestinian citizens of Israel. The children document their experience with cameras and create an exhibit in order to contribute to the collective memory in the refugee camp.
This experience is nearly impossible for most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who receive identity cards at age 16 which Israel uses to control their movement. As internationals we are able to move with relative freedom and so, unlike the childrens’ parents and grandparents, we can take them on this trip.
She has written this very moving and informative report on the visit that is currently underway:
We ran our Re-Plugged trip out of Jenin refugee camp last weekend, and start (Birthright)Unplugged tomorrow. Re-Plugged was bittersweet and wonderful as always. We took 20 kids from 11 different villages to Jerusalem, the sea in Haifa, and their villages which all lie somewhere between Haifa and Jenin. Dunya and I will write more about the experience in our communiqué after the summer ends, but for now I’ll just share a few stories:
-We meet 85-year-old Abu Omar in his village of Na’ura, a village that his family has lived in for centuries. He will get on our bus and accompany us to Zir’in and Qumiya, two destroyed villages very nearby where 7 of the children are from. Before we leave, we sit with him at his home and drink juice, and he tells us the history of the area. He asks each child his or her name, and as soon as he hears the family name, he tells the child where his or her family is from. There is not one village he does not know. A walking encyclopedia.
-As we are leaving in 3 buses for the villages, one boy gets on a bus that is not going to the village his grandparents are from. We ask him why he has switched groups and he won’t tell us, but says he wants to go with this other group. We assume it is for social reasons. When that group arrives in Um Il Fahm, a thriving Palestinian city, his reasons become clear. A woman runs toward the bus crying and holding children by the hand. It is his sister, whom he hasn’t seen in 5 years because she is married and living in Um Il Fahm. They have only a few minutes together.
-We meet youth from Baladna, a Palestinian organization inside ’48 (Israel).
They join us for much of the trip. One young man tells us he is studying theatre and sociology at Brandeis. We ask him how that is for him – not surprisingly, it isn’t easy for him to be one of few Palestinians at a school that is predominantly comprised of Zionist American Jews. We mention the name of our organization in passing and he says, “Birthright Unplugged?!
I have your postcard hanging on my dorm room wall!” He’s been promoting us (mostly unsuccessfully) around campus since he found our old postcard lying on the floor at Brandeis more than a year ago.
-We arrive at the sea. The Israeli police see girls in hijab and approach the group in a classic case of racial profiling. Our Palestinian hosts are indignant; because of the way they dress, this doesn’t usually happen to them. The Jenin kids are thankfully unaware of the incident.
-We split into small groups for dinner with host families. Our host family is politically active and last summer participated in demonstrations against the Lebanon war almost daily. One night, the mother told us, there was a knock on the door and someone yelled in heavily Hebrew-accented Arabic, “Iftakh ilbaab!” (Open the door!). When she opened it, a masked man clubbed her on the head and ran. Her daughters saw it. There was blood everywhere.
The neighborhood they live in is entirely Palestinian, so it wasn’t a neighbor. They are convinced it was someone a bit more official sending them a warning about their activism. This happened in Haifa. They are Israeli citizens.
-I ask the host mother whether she is originally from Haifa city itself, and she says no, her family and her husband’s family are each from two different villages destroyed in 1948. The house they currently live in, she tells me, is an old house. They do not know the names of the Palestinians who used to live there. They heard once that the family went to Syria in 1948. Nobody has come back since.
-One girl is from Ayn Hawd, a village that was occupied but not destroyed in 1948. The expelled villagers fled to other countries, to Jenin, and to a hilltop just a couple kilometers away. The new Palestinian village on the hilltop is also called Ayn Hawd, though it is only partially recognized by the Israeli government. The original village is now inhabited by Israeli artists. The whole group plans to meet in the new Ayn Hawd to eat dinner at a restaurant owned by this girl’s cousin, whom she has never met. First, her group visits the original Ayn Hawd. She has directions to her house from her grandmother. They find it. A Dutch man and Israeli woman live inside now, and invite the group in. The girl stands aside and begins to cry. The Dutch man says, “It’s okay, you can come back another time, it’s no problem.” One boy responds, “Actually, it is a problem. When she turns
16 next year, the Israeli army will not let her come.”
-Two brothers are from Braika, a village that was turned into an Israeli military base for years and is now a trash dump. The boys walk among the trash looking for any traces of their ancestors’ homes. They are on the phone with their grandfather in Jenin refugee camp, who is directing them toward a particular tree that he says was in front of the house. After climbing under barbed wire and walking through trash, the boys find the tree. How did they know it was the same tree? As he was fleeing in 1948, the grandfather quickly carried out a last act in his village: he carved his name in the tree. Almost 60 years later, this tree is all that remains of their property.
I told this last story to a friend last night who lives in a house surrounded on all 4 sides by Israel’s wall. She sighed and asked, “When will the right of return come?”
Before it is too late, inshallah.
Thanks to Dan for forwarding