MAN'S LAND-Where the
Church is at work By Elizabeth Reid
THE JEEP rattled along the incredibly dusty road. I was hot and sticky and automatically brushed my hand across my face to wave off the flies. There were just too many stories, too many sights and sounds of pain and poverty and hopelessness to assimilate.
And then I saw the Palestinian refugee boy.
He was crouched down on a strip of paved road running off beside our dusty track. He was doing his homework-chalking out a maths problem there on the old road that once led to Jaffa. and the rest of Palestine, but which now ends in barbed wire and NO MAN'S LAND.
The crowded conditions of the one room barrack home in Rureij camp on the Gaza Strip which he must share with his parents and brothers and sisters, forced this boy to look elsewhere for a quiet spot to do his homework. He finds it-as do so many other Gaza students on this once busy highway.
This glimpse of a boy who is trying to work his way out of the deadlock of refugee status with the process of education was the first spark of hope I had recorded that day.
All the morning I had talked and looked at the old. I will not forget the old woman who like Rachel crying for her children, would not be comforted. Her voice was harsh and piercing in the hot morning sun. and in her pent up indignation and accusation against those who she believed had robbed her of her birthright, she asked me what was the use of people coming to see the refugees and doing nothing to help them get back to their lands and orchards and sturdy stone homes across the frontier.
I could not answer her, and she made me feel ashamed that I had not known or particularly cared before, about the dissolution of Palestine.
How could I understand what this uprootedness has meant to this woman, to this old man, this family. this boy. this girl. They are people "sprung from the very soil itself". Every mile 1 have been travelling in these past weeks have been over a piece of earth where men have been born. have grown and developed, have loved. have worshipped and wept and laboured since the dawn of time.
Anyone who journeys in these Arab speaking lands cannot fail to be aware of the unbroken succession of many generations of men. Damascus, Jerusalem Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria are cities where men and women have known civilisation and art for thousands of years.
In Lebanon. and Jordan. :old Syria and Egypt and Gaza I have walked in the way of con querors and crusaders. the grea armies of Alexander or Babylonian invaders. of Philistine warriors and Egyptian armies, the Legions of Rome, of Turkish masters, and a host of British and French and Australian fighting men.
I have been travelling along the winding tracks of merchants and marauders, of pilgrims and Bedouin tribes, with the knowledge that here this stretch of the earth is the birthplace of three of the world's greatest religions Judaism, Christianity. and Islam each with its continuing faith in the dignity of the human person-each with its values and precepts, and will for peace.
AND YET IN THIS PLACE THERE IS NO PEACE . . . This is the situation which was summarised for me by an expert. Israel demands Arab recognition of the present status, with no major border changes; the continuation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and no large-scale repatriation of Arab refugees to their former homes.
On the other hand. the Arab States and the refugees themselves demand restoration of their boundaries established under the 11N General Assemby's Resolution of 29th November 1947, and the free choice of the refugees either to repatriation or individual compensation for those who do not choose to return.
They seek restoration of the 1947 partition boundaries of Israel instead of the lines fixed by the partition which followed the armistice. There are of course many other details which need settlement: but until now it has not been possible to arrange a conference between the Arab States and Israel.
1 have personally too superficial a knowledge of the complexity of the Palestinian question, to analyse the complications and the confusion of events and situations, ancient and modern. which overshadow these unhappy people. But 1 know that theirs is a continuing tragedy. one to which the Church responds in a dozen tangible ways.
In 1949 the present Pope Paul assisted in founding the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Vatican agency created by the then Pope, Pius XII, to provide relief for the 1.3 million Palestine refugees.
The Pontifical Mission has offices in New York, Beirut, and Jerusalem. with Monsignor Joseph T. Ryan as president. The Beirut Office is managed by two English Grail members, Miss
Helen Breen and Miss Carol Hunnybun, and in Jerusalem is Brother Eugene Bilodeau, OFM, a Canadian.
The Pontifical Mission works in cooperation with UNRWA and with other voluntary agencies in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. and the Gaza Strip. While especially concerned with the spiritual and moral needs of the Christian refugees, the Pontifical Mission also gives material assistance to the needy irrespective of race or creed. by providing clothing. blankets, food, medicine. medical care, education and vocational training.
A recent major project was the establishment in 1962 of a school and vocational training centre for the blind on Gaza Strip. The centre administered jointly by the Egyptian authorities governing the Gaza Strip. UNRWA, and the Pontifical Mission, gives new hope to refugees who have a double count against them. and helps them to become self supporting.
I arrived in Gaza by train from Cairo-an all day journey crawling along through the desert lands northwards to Port Said, and then along the coast north of the Sinai Desert through El'Arish to Gaza.
The Strip, as it is called. forms a long narrow rectangle: bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. on the north and east sides by Israel, and on the south by the United Arab Republic.
Although it lies through the heart of the Middle East, the Gaza Strip is almost completely sealed off from the rest of the world. The only link is the 2(10 miles railway through which I travelled and occasional small schooners which ply along the coast, and the four special plane flights each week operated by the United Nations.
A special military permit is needed to enter the Strip and was able to obtain this through the warm relationship built up by the Pontifical Mission in this area . . . but for the 268,000 refugees and the 125,000 local residents of the Strip the boundaries exist virtually as walls-for to leave required a border permit, a definite destination and savings.
It is 25 miles long and three to five miles wide, less than 140 sq. miles in all, and into this pitifully small territory are crowded some 400,000 persons. Even if it were all fertile land, the problem of over-population would be critical with 3,000 persons to a square mile. But it is two-thirds desert and sandof the 87,000 acres only 37,000 are able to be cultivated.
Before 1948 many of the landowners and farmers had their citrus groves and pasture outside the present Strip. They produced wheat and barley near Beersheba (now a part of Israel) that was shipped through Haifa (also now in Israel). Gaza town then was a busy administration and marketing centre and a popular coastal resort. These ties with the surrounding countryside made it a relatively prosperous area for its small population.
Then came the Arab-Israeli conflict . . . and now in 1965 we find Gaza, with its mingling of races. in an atmosphere which is restless and often explosive. with soldiers of many nations who have conic together under the blue UN symbol of peace to maintain order. Their commanding Officer is a Brazilian, („ieneral Sarlento, and the many Canadian troops guarding Gaza under the command of Colonel D. W. Cunningham.
I spent a day at the blind school set up by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine at the cost of 520,000, and operating costs amounting to 540.000. This is a particularly clear witness of the Church in action-here in Gaza -where Samson was blinded by the Philistines-the entire staff and students are non-Christians, Moslems, who otherwise would grow up beggars if it were not for the gifts of the Catholics of the United States who made possible this one school for the blind on the Gaza Strip.
I saw these boys and girls froth five to 20 years getting out of the micro-bits which collects them from a market place in town where they arrive from the eight refugee camps scattered in the region. The bus makes twelve trips a day and the grin cipal Mr. Ashour, told me as watched: 'This bus is our life line to the children. Recently i showed wear and tear and i had to be repaired. The children waited in the market and we could not bring them to school. They worry now that it will not be there for them. If you could get someone to send us another . • The children gathered in the playground and all the teachers, both sighted and blind stood with them and they prayed together faces turned towards the lands of their fathers and solernly pledged to return . . . they spoke in the first person to Palestine and said: "We are coming back to you 0 Palestine, we do not forget. there is a place for us and it is Palestine . . . our heroes will fight for us and we will return and live in our lands again with the help of Alla who is powerful and mighty and Who will aid us . ."
I was told that from their earliest years, the children are taught to recognise Palestine as
their homes, rather than the country where they came into the world. Perhaps someone said, as the landscape grows familiar to the stranger's child, "time may diminish the longing in the young, whose number will increase. if not the passionate desire of the old. whose number grow less with the years".
I talked with a 16 year old girl Latifeh Hatab who proudly spoke to me in English and thanked me for all those Americans who have made the school possible. She said: "Tell then, that with this education 1 will become a working member of the community".
Hishmeh Baroud 14 years of age and blinded through disease laden dust in the camp, shyly told how her life had been changed by the school. "Now I have a new dress and 1 come each day in the bus, and eat and learn how to read and I will help my mother . . ." all the words coming out in a rush trying to he sure that I understood -she held my hand. and asked me to carry back her thanks to the friends outside ... that one word "outside" 1 will not forget it soon-it is this inability to have freedom of movement which is one of the deepest hardships of a refugee people . . .
Across the courtyard from the school is the Vocational training unit and here young men worked with a concentration and passion I have seldom seen . . It has been observed that in every age there is a race between education and catastrophe and it was certainly true here.
I talked with Ibrahim Tilbani who was 17 years old and he would be the only breadwinner for 11 persons. He came to the school when it opened in 1962 a small boy with a lion's heart. He had been blinded walking across a field where a mine had been planted-by the Israelis-both his eyes were blown out and his face terribly scarred.
He said he wants to go on for further study. "1 will manage even if there is no place for me in the secondary school. I'll read books at home in braille and I will learn. Here I have been given hope that I can take my place with other men." In the meantime Ibrahim learns to make rugs beautiful designs. with long hours of labour but which have a good market in Kuwait.
Beside him was Mohammed Kassem, 19 years of age who had lost his sight when he was I 1-it has gradually disappeared and when he was in the fifth grade. he had to leave the refugee school. Then came the blind school built by the Pontifical Mission and he was one of the first to apply so that he could continue his education.
Mohammed is one of nine people in his family. His father was an oxy-welder in Jaffa when the trouble came-now he works as a labourer around the camps and puts alt his hope in this eldest son "this educated one" he told me. "who might even become a teacher.
Other boys make brushes and baskets-and with the help of Brigadier General Jamal el Din Saber, a steady market has been found for them in government departments. The boys keep the profit of the brushes for themselves.
This year ten will he ready to graduate from the vocational training unit and a new problem waits the sponsors . . . it has been suggested that a pilot project be started in which a production unit is added to the school. 1 he boys will continue to come and work together each day-the looms for the rugs are too big and too expensive at this point. to be set up in regional units in camps.
They will be formed into a co-operative group gradually coming to own equipment and sharing the profits. For this another expert will need to be added to the staff.
A new building is in progress -again with money given by the Pontifical Mission and so the continuing work of the church goes on-people reaching out to people we are our brother's keepers.
I came across an Arab proverb which I thought about as I left the Blind School on the Gaza Strip ... "He who fills his purse is a tradesman: he who uses his hands is a craftsman. he who uses his hands and mind is an artist; he who uses his hands, mind and faith is a human power".