Two Palestinian girls stranded in U.S.
By Shirin Sadeghi
Center for Investigative Reporting
May 17, 2002
Sanabel Al-Fararjah and Kayan Al-Saify are stranded in the United States. Sanabel,
15, and Kayan, 16, came from the Dheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem to this year's
Academy Awards in Hollywood. They were part of a feature film project entitled "Promises",
an Israeli-Palestinian coproduction which was nominated for an Oscar for best feature
The film follows the lives of 7 Palestinian and Israeli children who live near Jerusalem,
only 20 minutes apart but in very different worlds. Co-directors Justine Shapiro,
Carlos Bolado and B.Z. Goldberg have attempted to show this generations-old conflict
from a child's point of view.
Recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, Goldberg summed up his film and today's
reality by describing the transformation Sanabel has undergone since filming ended
in 2000. "She was the only kid in the film who didn't hate, who said, 'We must
stay open,' But she has spent the last 18 months under military siege and the last
four weeks under direct military attack. Now she has an intense hatred."
But Sanabel says that it isn't just since this second intifada that she has found
little room for understanding. "This has been the condition under which we have
lived for the past 35 years. While we are stuck here we can tell people what daily
life is like for a Palestinian living under occupation: the constant humiliation
by Israeli soldiers; our inability to travel even within the West Bank, the lack
of water because Israelis control our water supply - not to mention the constant
pressure of Israeli tanks."
When the film received the Academy Award nomination, the filmmakers decided to bring
several of the children along to help accept the award if they won. While the Israeli
children had no difficulty in securing visas for the United States, the Palestinian
girls, Sanabel and Kayan, had a completely different experience. "We had many
problem when we left Palestine. Tanks 10 meters from my house. We can't leave Palestine.
We can't travel from Palestine," Sanabel said.
Both girls speak in a broken English they have learned
at a school that is often closed due to violence and Israeli-imposed curfews. "We
visited one high school here in San Francisco," Sanabel said, "and we saw
the room for photography, for computer, but we felt jealous, really. Because why?
Because in our camp, our school is small and no space, no more space for play, no
room for photography, for computer. Our class is small, maybe 50 children in one
Ziad Abbas, a Palestinian filmmaker who collaborated on "Promises" is also
co-director of the Ibdaa cultural center in Dheishe refugee camp where the girls
go after school. There, they can use the internet, participate in theater, sports,
music and art. He says that even the children's cultural center has not been exempt
"The Israelis attacked the center twice. First, they burn it, they destroyed
everything, this is two years ago and now one month ago they attacked two building
and they destroyed the computers, they destroyed the library and they make it difficult
for us. If you move one step, they push you 10 steps back - the Israeli occupation."
The girls had a perilous journey to get from the occupied territories to the United
States. They were transported secretly from one car to the next, crossing the terrain
to avoid Israeli checkpoints which they believed would prevent their exit from the
"We had many cars through the field, through the mountain. Because if the army
saw us, they want to kill us, not maybe sure that they want to kill, just they want
to see the blood," Kayan said. Eventually, the girls and their guardians arrived
in Amman, Jordan where they took a flight to Amsterdam and then finally to the United
I met the girls in a small one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco where they were
staying with a family friend, waiting to return to Dheishe. Although they have done
many interviews since their arrival in the United States, they seemed excited at
yet another opportunity to have their voices heard.
When we met, they shook my hand and politely offered me a seat. Several smiles and
whispers later they asked me how old I was and I realized they were quite thrilled
to be interviewed by a younger journalist. Both girls had beautifully dark eyebrows
that arched over attentive big brown eyes. They were dressed like typical high school
girls from anywhere in the world, with fitted blue jeans, long shirts and chunky
They conveyed a mixture of guilt at not being home with their families and friends
along with excitement at being able to meet with the American press and offer a first-hand
Palestinian view of the conflict. Because of the latest Israeli military action,
the girls have been unable to return safely to their refugee camp. But Kayan said
that her mother "is happy because we are in a safe place."
According to their guardian here in San Francisco, these two girls spend their days
in the United States following television and internet media reports of the killing
and violence occurring in their homeland. While I was there, the television was showing
CNN's broadcast of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying that the Israeli military action
in Jenin caused only a few civilian casualties. "I feel that what he said is
cheap, not the real thing. They said that not many people killed in Jenin, but we
know and we saw 500 killed in Jenin," Sanabel said.
The Jenin refugee camp outside of Jerusalem has been
a point of controversy ever since the United Nations announced a plan to send in
an investigative team to determine whether any war crimes were committed against
civilians. Palestinian officials say that hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli
forces, while Israeli officials say that this is an exaggeration. Israel's challenges
against a UN fact-finding mission may ultimately prevent it from happening.
Like seasoned professionals, they seem to have an in-depth knowledge of the news,
the policies, and the key players in this conflict. "I feel when I saw Sharon
that they want to explain to the people that we are the occupation, not them. But
really, really, they want to hide something in the news, they want to hide the massacres,
the people who were killed in Jenin, in Dheishe, in Balata, in Jabalia. They want
to hide many things, but they can't because we saw all, we know all," Kayan
Most 15 and 16-year-old girls do not have such troubling thoughts pervading their
lives and their emotions. The girls hardly have a chance to talk and think about
happier things like playing basketball and watching movies. Sanabel said it is impossible
to have such thoughts when they are surrounded by violence and negativity.
"The political choose us, we don't choose the political. So the situation, our
camp in Palestine, decide for us how we can think. When I saw my friend killed in
our camp, I feel angry so I just spoke about this girl, about the political. I can't
speak about the dress, about the basketball, about the films, because the situation
push us to speak about the political."
The occupation that these two girls live in every day dominates their lives, Mr Abbas
says. "Even if they want to ignore all this kind of situation, they cannot ignore
the bullets, they cannot ignore the tanks, they cannot ignore the Apache helicopters.
You cannot ignore the politics because they are there, everywhere."
Mr Abbas says that when he first met the girls at the airport in Amman, they were
talking about their 15-year-old friend's death in the street by Israeli snipers.
Even now, here in San Francisco, the girls continue to have nightmares about this
and all the violence they have experienced. "Many times they told me about their
dreams about the Israelis attacking the house. They have bad dreams, many bad dreams
because all the time their minds thinking about their relatives."
There is a sense, in listening to the girls, that they have been deprived of a childhood.
"Yes, they destroyed the childhood for any children in Palestine," Kayan
said, but she doesn't agree with some media attempts to equivocate the suffering
of Palestinian and Israeli children. "They live in our land. They swim in the
pool, we haven't water for drink. They swim in our water. I think the Israeli government
just destroyed our childhood, destroyed our dreams. But they try to destroy our hope
but they can't. Never. Because our hope is in our hearts."
Despite the horrors they have both seen and heard, both
Sanabel and Kayan are healthy and strong-willed individuals. Although they are serious
when they talk of the occupation, they smile every now and then, and it is evident
that they are still very young and optimistic.
Even though their film did not win, the girls are happy they came to the United States
because they have had a great opportunity to represent the suffering of their people.
"We are happy," Kayan said "because if we now in Dheishe or in Palestine,
we can't speak, we can't send our voice, but in America we can make a kind of struggle,
you know, this is, in my opinion, a kind of struggle because we speak to radio, we
write in newspapers, we can send our messages, our voice."
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