Hard-Wired for Hope

The war between Palestinians and Israelis continues with no end in sight. The combatants behave almost as if they have lost hope in achieving a lasting peace. One side bombs, the other side retaliates. Back and forth it goes—aggression, retaliation, aggression, retaliation. But, unlike adults, children never lose hope. They might lose their socks, or their lunch money, or even your car keys, but they never lose hope; they’re simply hard-wired for it.

I was never more aware of that than this past July, when I worked as a counselor at Friends Music Camp (FMC), held in Barnesville, Ohio, on the Olney Friends School campus. It’s a beautiful place to send a kid to camp: acres of green grass; lots of tall, ancient shade trees; a spring-fed pond; and endless blue Ohio sky overhead. But everything about that old campus, all the things that make it a wondrous place to be a kid, are half a world away and a universe apart from anything most of the six young Palestinians who visited our camp this summer—five from the West Bank city of Ramallah and one from Israel— have ever known.

When I met them, I was surprised to find that they didn’t look like children who’d just stepped out of the middle of a war zone; in fact, my first experience of them, before I’d had a chance to introduce myself, was of their laughter. They’d arrived a day ahead of the other campers and had just come back from a trip to the town pool. It was obvious they’d had a great time because they passed by me like a boisterous, yapping, jostling bunch of puppies. They were full of joy and laughter and positive energy.

There were three boys and three girls. All the girls were 12 years old. Tyme had shiny braces that only added to the gleam in her smile. Tala was coiffed in a 1960’s-style "That Girl" hairdo, the perfect complement to her big, brown eyes. Rand was tall, willowy, and as graceful as a ballerina. Whenever the girls were together, they shared lots of little smiles, winks and nods—the silent signals that are the lingua franca of adolescent girls everywhere.

Musa, 15, was the oldest of the boys. Though he was born in Florida and only moved to the West Bank a few years ago (at the insistence of his father, who had decided it was time for Musa to reconnect with the language and culture of his people), he could trace back his family’s history in their ancestral village just outside Ramallah for over 800 years. Mishbah, 11, sported a buzzcut that gave him a raw, spiky look and belied his baby face. Ten-year-old Nawras, the youngest of the group and the only piano player (all the others played violin), would carry a big box of sugar-coated cereal with him to breakfast every morning. When I asked him why, he claimed he did so because the camp chef refused to provide any sweet cereals, though I suspected an additional motive: his parents were 6,000 miles away and in no position to object.

It became apparent that music was a tool for these children, a tool they used to separate themselves from their sometimes surreal lives and dismal surroundings; moreover, it was almost as powerful a bond between them as their mutual Palestinian heritage. The person who brought music to the children was Clara Takarabe, or "Teacher Clara," as she is known to her students. She’s a 26-year-old graduate of University of Chicago and a substitute viola player with the Chicago Symphony who, amazingly, claims to still appreciate a good "viola player" joke. (What makes a viola better than a violin?—The viola burns longer.) Clara notes, "Violists are kind of eccentric people." But even more important to Clara than any of her other accomplishments is her deep commitment to being a peace activist.

When she was told by her boss, Maestro Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli citizen, that there was "a music conservatory [in Ramallah] struggling to survive amidst the Intifada, and the war on both sides," she packed up her life and moved there. Her reasons were simple: "Music is a service and you have to go and serve. . . . I believe someday there will be peace and that there must be peace and we must have the fixtures of peace ready and waiting, not dormant and undeveloped, once we have the chance for peace to flower in our lives." She told no one about her plans. "I didn’t even tell my mom," she said.

She arrived in Ramallah in October 2001, a time when all the other music teachers working at the conservatory there were leaving. They’d found life under siege and occupation to be intolerable. The strictly enforced curfew was totally unpredictable, lethal, and subject to change without notice. Tanks were everywhere—up every alley and at every intersection; helicopters circled, firing missiles without warning; deadly accurate snipers took shots from darkened windows; F-16 fighter jets flew overhead, dropping bombs at will on suspected "targets of opportunity." Yet through all of this, Clara stayed in Ramallah. She shared with the children the same privation and fear that, by the time she’d arrived, seemed almost normal to them.

When the conservatory was bombed in early December 2001, most of the instruments were either looted or destroyed. Classes were suspended indefinitely. Refusing to be upstaged, Clara, whenever she was able, organized marathon violin lessons at one of her students’ home to help pass the sometimes numbingly boring, but more often terrifying, hours of the curfew. An incident that occurred during that time still leaves Clara feeling humbled: "Every one of my students knew that I lived in an area of Ramallah called the Massioun. And this was the most heavily shelled and occupied area. And one of my students, Tyme, called me and asked if I was OK, whether I had food, if I needed anything. And after all the questions, she said, ‘Teacher . . . I am sorry, I did not practice in the last two days.’ Can you imagine that she was worried about her practicing in that time of complete and overwhelming violence?"

Though they tried to put up a brave front, Clara knew firsthand how hard it was for the children to endure the unabated stress of their daily lives. Moreover, examples of the corrosive nature of this stress were all around her on the streets of Ramallah. "You can see the generation of the first Intifada," she said, "there’s a certain generation of kids, you see them, they’re kind of corrupt, they’re rough at the edges—not just at the edges—they’re really rough, they’re brutal. They didn’t have the education or the freedom to grow as kids, and this is a generation that’s lost. Now, we’re going to have another generation, and it’ll be our fault. What’s going to come out of this . . . I don’t know." A knotty, pervasive problem, to be sure. But Clara’s inventive, deliriously optimistic solution to it was this: she decided that she and her kids would execute an end run around the war.

Demonstrating practicality worthy of Muhammad, she reasoned that if peace would not come to the children, she would deliver them to a peaceful place. She gathered together all the information she could find about summer camps in the United States. "When I x’d out all the other camps," Clara said, "hers was left [that of Peg Champney, who runs FMC]. I think it was a sign." To this she added, "Before I talked with her [Peg], I was thinking, ‘What do I want my kids to do?’ I wanted them to see rural America, and the Quaker setting was something I trusted. It was the perfect camp."

For nearly 20 years, Peg Champney was co-director of FMC with her friend, Jean Putnam. Both are lifelong members of Yellow Springs (Ohio) Meeting. When Jean retired a few years ago, Peg continued to run the camp alone, a feat that has sometimes called upon her in a quiet, humble (but insistent), and always Friendly way to gently move a tall mountain or two. Her optimism and "can-do" spirit match Clara’s perfectly.

Clara and Peg worked out the details for getting the kids to Ohio through a long series of e-mails and faxes, which were sometimes interrupted for days at a time by blackouts due to shelling. There were two major problems to overcome: the children’s travel visa applications were taking a long time to be approved—too long, they thought—and money needed to be raised for the trip. Putting their trust in the Spirit, and speaking truth to power, Peg and Clara were able to convince the Israeli Defense Forces that allowing the kids to leave the city to go to camp was a good idea. Also, at Peg’s suggestion, the office of Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio intervened on the children’s behalf, and the visa applications that had languished for more than three months were finally approved. When they put out the word that financial assistance was needed, the response was overwhelming: donors of the children’s airfare came forward in Ramallah and in Friends meetings all over the United States, some as far away as California, sent money that entirely covered the cost of the children’s camp experience. Soon, a project that had begun to seem impossible was a "go."

To children accustomed to living in a place where there were no safe parks or playgrounds—no places for a kid to be just a kid—FMC must have seemed like a fantasy land. The air was fresh, the people were polite, there were no ear-splitting explosions—in fact, there wasn’t much noise at all, just the sounds of the other campers practicing music or having fun. The children didn’t have to be so hyper-aware anymore, and they could let their stress fade away. For a month, the most important thing they needed to worry about—aside from needing to show up on time for their music lessons and to practice their instruments—was doing their laundry. After that, much of their time was their own.

There were, of course, lots of planned group activities. They played Capture the Flag, had a badminton tournament (Misbah proved to be a wicked-good player), and went roller skating, among other things. The campers themselves planned and ran "the Dance," an event that, according to a review in the camp newspaper, was "a smash hit!" At the dance, a Jewish camper was observed to have paired herself off with a Palestinian camper, and the two of them happily danced the night away to the upbeat ska rhythms of Spy vs. Spy, and later, to the rock-and-roll stylings of special guest artist Spicemeister.

One hot, sticky night at the end of the third week of camp, I watched Nawras as he talked to his parents on the telephone. He’d been given a ten-minute warning until lights went out, so he was talking fast, gesturing, laughing, cradling the telephone, trying to get everything in before his time ran out. He spoke in Arabic, and though I couldn’t understand a word of it, I had enough clues from his ten-year-old’s body language and occasional English words to guess what he was talking about. He was telling them all about the hike he’d taken to Fairyland, the local ice cream stand, and how delicious and cold the ice cream was after that long, hot walk. He talked about how he’d watched the fireflies start to wink on and off at dusk, and how the full moon had followed him as he’d walked along the dusty country road back to camp, and that the smell of freshly cut alfalfa had been all around him in the air.

He told them how hot and muggy the weather had been, and how he didn’t have to go to sleep until almost dawn if he didn’t want to. He told them about how he’d gone swimming in a pond with snakes in it, but that they were friendly snakes, and didn’t bite. But mostly, he told them how much he missed them and worried about them and wanted to come home to see them again.

Clara knows Nawras well. She said he was from a family that has been traumatized by the violence of the past two years of this latest Intifada. "They’re totally afraid all the time, and nervous," she said of them. She talked of how violence is a corrupting influence, and that being made powerless by it can degrade one’s soul. "Kids like Nawras, I really worry about," she said, "because he’s quiet, he’s withdrawn—and you know, the suicide bombers are like this—they’re scared, they’re quiet, they’re hopeless. Their humanity has not been realized, and they will not realize yours, you know?"

Like all good things, camp had to come to an end, and on their last morning together the campers lingered in the parking lot, trying to put off the inevitable for just a while longer. Everyone watched quietly as our Palestinian friends boarded the bus for the trip to the airport, and home. When tough-as-nails Misbah—he of the spiky hair and the confident swagger—gave in to his sadness and broke down, hiding his tears behind his arm, so did everyone else. For a few minutes, we were all just a big, sobbing, embracing mess. When the bus finally pulled away, a pack of kids ran alongside, like dogs, getting in their last few waves goodbye: no one wanted to let them go.

The day after camp ended, the headline in a local newspaper read, "Israel Bans Palestinian Travel." It looked as if getting the children back into the West Bank would be just as hard as getting them out had been; in that respect, though, not much had changed in their absence. Nevertheless, we’re still hopeful that "my kids" (as Clara would call them) took with them as many warm, loving memories of their time at FMC as they could possibly soak up in one short month, and squirreled them away somewhere deep in their hearts. Let them call upon those memories when things are really tough; let those memories help to tide them over, and feed their humanity and their hope; let those memories sustain these children while they grow and wait for peace to come.
© 2003 Earl Whitted

Earl Whitted

Earl Whitted, an attender at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting, writes that he is "a former Army paratrooper who has learned that it is better to teach peace than to make war."