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Jewish woman helps intifada's children


JENIN, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Arna Mer-Khamis would not like to be described as a selfless Jew working among Palestinians.

First, she is too battle-worn and salty to appreciate a misty sentiment like "selfless."

Second, she squirms at the label Jew. "Under Israeli law I'm Jewish. I was born to a mother and father who were Jews," she said. "But when I was born here it was called Palestine. So you can call me a Palestinian."

She shrugs, takes a drag on her cigarette. "I use all these titles according to the need."

She can now add another title. After some four decades of fighting the Israeli establishment, she has finally won a badge of courage of sorts. In December, the Swedish Parliament bestowed on her an award often called the "alternative Nobel Prize."

The 1993 Right Livelihood Award was awarded Ms. Mer-Khamis and heads of three other community programs for "women's courage in crisis and conflict." She shared the $200,000 award with women in India, Zimbabwe and the Shoshone tribe in Nevada.

She was honored for her efforts to rescue Palestinian children from the effects of growing up in the middle of the long conflict with Israel.

In Jenin, a dusty farming town 50 miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, she has set up four "special care" centers -- two in the town, and two in the adjacent United Nations camp teeming with 10,000 refugees from the wars with Israel.

She throws open the doors to Palestinian children who need an educational boost or an emotional refuge.

Children can come to get away from the pressures of the street. Children who have no books in their impoverished homes find them in the center. Children who have no joys at home find toys and games and playmates.

There are "guiders" -- teachers who help them study or teach them songs, or help organize contests or painting, or lead songs.

"We come here to read and play. It's a lot more fun than school or home," said 13-year-old Maysun Hassan, taking a break from a puzzle.

"In school, you're obliged to do things. If you don't read your poem or do your work, you're punished. Here, if someone does not memorize their lesson, they will be helped," added Majdi Kanneri, 14.

It is this child-friendly attitude that Ms. Mer-Khamis believes helps lift the weight of their surroundings from the children. She believes in art therapy, and the centers are wall-papered with the children's pictures, ranging from violent murals of battle to idyllic scenes of lakes and mountains.

Each of the centers is a swirl of youngsters engaged in activities, happily oblivious to all else. It is an unusual scene in West Bank villages, too often filled with children sullen with the weight of death, soldiers and poverty.

"They come in here angry. Here we help them rework that anger a little bit," said Ms. Mer-Khamis. "In every song they sing, you will hear the word freedom. We want them to develop curiosity, motivation, expression."

Perfect for program

The program "impresses everyone who sees it," said Jakob von Uexkull, a Swedish-German philatelist who founded the Right Livelihood Award 13 years ago. By telephone from his home in London, he said: "It was clear she symbolized what we felt was most important: Her work actually has an impact. It's not just symbolic. And it is something that could be duplicated."

Such praises were largely unheard in Israel, where the Hebrew press paid little attention to the award.

"There was a news blackout on me," said Ms. Mer-Khamis. Belatedly, she said, Israel TV asked to do a story. "They wanted to use me to show the great fruits of peace." She refused.

She has been expressing similar sentiments to the Israeli establishment for a good chunk of her 64 years. She was 17 when Israel carved out a state in war in 1948. Both sides committed atrocities in that conflict. She recalled the corpses of Arabs she said were massacred and the columns of Arab bTC refugees. "They were our neighbors," she said.

She was born in the upper Galilee. Her father, a doctor, had come from Lithuania in 1914 to help fight malaria.

Her politics toured the left wing and arrived at Communism. In 1952, armed with a degree in special education, she got her first job as a teacher and was promptly fired for her politics.


"It was McCarthyism in the first degree," she said.

She compounded her political offense by marrying an Arab, the secretary of the Communist Party. (They are now separated.) In the course of demonstrations, protests and general activism against the Israeli occupation, she was imprisoned several times -- once for three months.

The need to establish centers for children came when the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 1987. It turned social routines upside down: Children were at the forefront of the fight and were encouraged to leave school to take to the streets to confront Israeli soldiers.

Schools were mostly closed anyway, between the frequent curfews imposed by the Israeli army and the strikes called by Palestinians themselves. As arrests and deaths mounted, fathers and then older brothers disappeared from homes.

The result was a lost generation. The media called them "children of the stone." They are emotionally scarred, educationally deprived.

'Wounded children'

"What we are doing is emergency aid, first aid," said Ms. Mer-Khamis. "These are wounded children. They have not had a chance in life."

She began organizing programs for children when their school was out, and in 1991 opened her first "care and learning" center with money from a Dutch charity.

Nearly a third of the 13-year-olds in Jenin cannot read or write because they missed school in the intifada, she said.

More than 2,000 children ages 6 to 15 now come to her centers daily, where they are encouraged to read and learn. Another 2,500 have at least some contact with the program.

The second center opened in a converted goose shed. She added a third, and when she heard of her award last fall, she promptly borrowed the money to build a fourth center without knowing how much prize money there would be.

"I figured this is a important prize, right? It ought to be worth at least $30,000." When the $50,000 check came, she used the remainder to buy stage lights for a children's theater, and a car so she could stop taking shared taxis the 30 miles to her home in Haifa.

Ms. Mer-Khamis has earned a niche of appreciation among the Palestinians in Jenin.

"It's true that she's Jewish," said Samira Zubeidi, whose eight children all have been in the program. "But her feelings to the children are like the feeling of a mother to her children. She's motivated by the heart.

It would be too ambitious to expect the example of Ms. Mer-Khamis to have fostered greater empathy between Arabs and Jews.

"We don't like Jews, but because of her work, the people accept her," said Amal Abu Alrub, a 25-year-old teacher at one of the centers.

Ms. Mer-Khamis is no more forgiving of her own culture.

"Zionism is a racist ideology. I think most Israelis are racists," she said. But for many of the children in her center, her background or her politics are irrelevant.

"She's like my mother," said Yusef Swieti, 15. "She helps us. She saved us from the streets."

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