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 documentary.
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 class.”
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 from violence.
“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 country.
“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 States.
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 black shoes.
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 said.
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.”