By Nancy Mansour
Whilst hypocrite “Keep a Child Alive” Founder, Alicia Keys arrived to perform for over excited occupiers in ’48 territories, I was getting ready for something even more exciting, something life changing.
It was 6:30am when I called the bus driver who was hired to pick up 49 kids (aged 7 thru 15) from the Yafa Cultural Center. The center is located in the Balata Refugee Camp in the city of Nablus, West Bank. I was so grateful to hear that he was already waiting for them. I had literally been up for three days and nights overwhelmed with joy and anxiety about a one day trip that our organization, Existence is Resistance (NY based) and Mossawa (Haifa based) had arranged along with Yafa Cultural Center for some of the kids from the camp to visit their land. They are separated from their land by an ugly dark and gloomy apartheid wall.
A week earlier, we had put out an email asking people to donate for a one day trip that would bring kids from the refugee camp in Palestine to visit Haifa and Nazareth as they had requested from me during my visits to them weeks earlier. They wanted to see and experience the sea. It melted my heart but we did it! We applied for permits and submitted 53 names, thinking at least 30 would be turned away, however, we received 49 approvals. It didn’t matter to us, the more the merrier…or should I say…the more joy we will bring to the children who only hear stories from their elders of their rightful land. The donations flooded in and we managed to raise the amount that we needed in order to rent a coach for the day as well as feed them.
They headed out on Thursday, July 4th around 6:45am. I was waiting to receive them in Haifa. I got a call around7:20am stating that they were stuck at an Israeli checkpoint (permits in hand) and the soldiers were “checking the permits”. At 9:15am I call the driver and he tells me that the soldiers were refusing to let them pass and told them to go and try another checkpoint. At 9:50am they were turned away from a second checkpoint. At this point I am devastated. Not only do they have permission from Israel to come into the ’48 territories, but it’s 90 degrees outside and they had been up since 6:00am and on a coach since 6:30am. At 10:15am I hear that they have been turned away from yet another checkpoint. I called the center here in Haifa to see if they could help. By the time they got in touch with the offices that issue the permits, the children had been turned away at a fourth checkpoint. You can imagine the disappointment, many of them had lost hope. We kept pushing and the permit office finally gave us a fifth checkpoint to send them to, which they guaranteed they would pass them through with no problems. Its was 11:30am and the kids were made to get off the coach, were physically searched and had to walk 20 minutes to meet the coach on the other side of the checkpoint. As they boarded the coach again I could hear their joy through the phone as I spoke to the driver. I have to admit, being the emotional wreck I am when it comes to these kids, I cried with joy. I think the coach driver thought I was a little nutty.
Finally at 12:35pm they finally arrive in Haifa at the Mossawa Center. Although half their day was gone and they had missed the earlier part of the program that we had for them, they were full of excitement and kept asking me “When are we going to the sea?”. In fact, as we were doing introductions at the center, a few of them ran off to the bathrooms and came out wearing their beach gear. I laughed. They spoke about their morning journey but still smiled and said “We still made it!”. Then the Dabke group from Balata Camp performed for us.
We then headed to the Bahai Temple located at the top of Mount Carmel in Haifa so that they could get a view of the entire city from the mountain to the sea. They took hundreds of pictures of each other and were telling me that it was going to be their “profile picture on Facebook”. They asked me again “Are we going to the beach now?” and I just smiled, boarded them on the coach and headed down towards the sea. Now, the only problem we had was that Israel did not permit us to allow them to swim. They state “Non Israeli Citizens” are not allowed to swim at the beaches…of course, not meaning tourists but meaning Palestinians. The organization we were working with was worried and felt that because there were more kids than we expected that we shouldn’t let them swim for safety reasons. We took them to an area where its really for walking, somewhat of a promenade where there are huge rocks between the walkway and the sea. As soon as they stepped off that bus many of them ran and jumped straight over the rocks into the sea. I must admit, I really didn’t mind. Of course I didn’t want them to hurt themselves but I can swim and it’s not deep there, so I just let them do it. Who knows when they will be allowed out to visit the sea again?! I snapped a picture of 15 year old Khalil who had jumped in with his sneakers and jeans. He was collecting water and sand. His smile….the waves crashing on him and his laughter….made me really think about all the things we take for granted.
After lunch we were blessed to have Al Midan Theater in Haifa set up a special play for them which they absolutely loved. They spent the bus ride to Nazareth imitating the actors. In Nazareth they also went to the top of the mountain overlooking the entire city. As we stood there they asked me if we were going back to Haifa to the beach. Had I had the money to make the coach driver do it, I probably would have, but time was not on our side and their permits ended at10:00pm which meant we had to head back around 7:00pm.
Around 5:30pm we headed for dinner in a village just outside of Nazareth called “Renieh” where one half of my family is from. My uncles and aunts were all there to welcome them. As they finished eating they literally begged me to take them back to the sea. I cannot explain in words what that felt like. I promised I would have a word with the bus driver and see what he says. He refused. We headed back to Balata Refugee Camp.
I have to say, that day was one of the best days of my life. What could someone want more than to be able to give someone even a tiny fraction, a sprinkle of something which is everything they want, especially when it is for children.