Children Without Borders

Wafa Yunis, a violinist and music teacher from the town of Ara in Wadi Ara, started by playing some Arab tunes on her violin - and the children, serving time in the Ofek juvenile prison in the Sharon, started slowly to relax.

At 9:15 A.M., well into their day, the lesson in the small classroom came to an end and the children started to pile up the desks against the walls, to make room for the concert that was to begin shortly. Just one little detail for those who managed for a moment to forget the heavy, locked gates and the high walls and fences - a hint about the unusual venue where the lesson had been taking place: Before allowing the children to get up from their seats, the teacher made sure to walk past each of them, collect everyone's sharpened pencils and carefully count them, ensuring that not a single pencil remained in the hands of a child.

Then the signal came: Wafa Yunis, a violinist and music teacher from the town of Ara in Wadi Ara, started by playing some Arab tunes on her violin - and the children, serving time in the Ofek juvenile prison in the Sharon, started slowly to relax. They gradually started applauding, here and there smiles surfaced, and the tunes were accompanied by clapping and rhythmic foot stamping; it was only the singing that was slow to come, with bashful hesitancy.

Prison children

"To get close to the children and establish a connection with them - it doesn't matter what they did and what their crime was - this is what I wanted to do," says Wafa Yunis, a music teacher with 32 years' experience, one of the few working at the schools in the Wadi Ara region. "After all, they are children, and some of them haven't seen their families for a long time."

While Yunis plays in an adjacent room, the wardens and those in charge - social worker Sima Ankaveh and chief warden Orit Rabinowitz, who is responsible for education at the prison - explain who these children are and why they are here. Among the dozens of prisoners, aged 13-17, are drug users, Palestinians who were in Israeli illegally, sex offenders and even murderers. Some are first-time offenders and some have long records.

"They say prison is the last stop, but we actually see it as the first stop - of rehabilitation," says Ankaveh. "There are classes every day here, and this year 40 kids will take matriculation exams, and there are some studying for a bachelor's degree. The integration of the youths into the community, placement in hostels or day centers, and assistance for drug abusers - starts here.

"In the end, a child is a child, and when a 13-year-old says he doesn't want to live anymore, it hurts. Despite this, punishment is the first priority: This is first of all a prison, and only afterward is it a therapeutic and rehabilitation center," Ankaveh says.

"I caressed them like a mother, an aunt," says Wafa Yunis, placing her violin in the hands of one youth and dancing with another. The loudspeaker announces a meeting "in five minutes in the music room." "We have a music lesson once a week with a teacher who comes once a week and a computer-assisted electronic music class - where the children compose musical accompaniment for plays that their friends perform," says Rabinowitz.

"Bar-Ilan University's musicology department, under the direction of Prof. Eitan Avitzur, provides us professional assistance. The music room isn't ready yet, but it will be soon."

Asked why the emphasis on music, she says, "Like the other methods we use here - there is also a petting zoo, soccer, a Scouts chapter, drawing, theater - they are all intended to bring these kids closer to normative youths. They deserve a chance. We all bear a social responsibility for these kids," she says.

The neighbor from Binyamina

"In prison we sang, watched television together, learned, played - it hurts me to go out and leave them there, locked up inside there," says Yunis at her home in Ara. On the table, she spreads out the results of the meeting and talks about one of her reasons for meeting with the children - the testimony she has collected from them to complete a children's book she wrote called "L'man Yaldei Hashalom" (For the sake of the children of peace).

Yunis travels throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet with children and introduces them to each other on the pages of her book. "To bring Jewish and Arab children together, Israelis and Palestinians - that is my goal," as she puts it.

Her book features interviews with children from Ramallah and Umm al-Fahm, Tel Aviv and Tul Karm, Pardes Hannah and Jenin - as well as Regavim, Gan Shmuel and Amman, Jordan, and refugee camps in the West Bank. Discussing the latter's need for the book, she explains, "A child who lives in a refugee camp is different from city children," she says, "in the refugee camps, there's no work, there's no culture, there's no music and there are many intifada casualties, and that affects the children - for example, the posters depicting shahidim [martyrs] that are all over - it exposes them to suffering. There is no one to care for them - they need supervision, games, computers - all of the beauty of childhood is taken from them," she says.

A quick look at the book immediately reveals the common denominator among all the children and erases the differences between them. The Israelis talk of fear and trauma caused by terrorist attacks and the Palestinians rise up against the occupation - but neither side accuses the children on the other side; they express a strong desire to meet, to establish contact with each other and to put an end to the state of hostility that exists between them.

Some 40 children - each with his or her own page and a photo - reflect a widespread longing for change, and in the second part of the book - for songs. "They were meant to revive the children a little and console them," says Wafa Yunis.

"There are love songs, songs of brotherhood, songs about a tree and a bird and about a kite. In this way, I want to bestow love on children from all sectors, bring them closer to the world and distance them from suffering."

She composed the music for the Arabic songs herself and the Hebrew songs were given to her by an acquaintance, a neighbor from Binyamina - Ehud Manor. "He chose the songs for me after I met with him in Tel Aviv," she says, and displays a vast repertoire that includes songs with music and lyrics by Nurit Hirsch, Mati Caspi, Boaz Sharabi, Leah Naor, Uzi Hitman and Ehud Manor himself.

There are also some songs in English: "By the Beatles, songs about love and childhood, in language that even elementary school children can understand."

As for the rights to put them in the book, "I'm already in contact with Yoko Ono," says Yunis. "she was actually here visiting a gallery in Umm al-Fahm and the connection was established. She will grant me the rights."

Yunis values connections with important people and she mentions many names of famous people with whom she is friendly; the book itself, dedicated to the memory of Ehud Manor and Carlos Yerushalmi - a friend who was killed in the terrorist attack on the Matza restaurant in Haifa - and all the Israeli and Palestinian victims, even contains introductory messages from President Moshe Katsav and other dignitaries.

Yunis' introduction is different: In simple language and in a tone suitable for children, she turns to them with a request: "Sing, play, everywhere, at home and in school, because with the help of music, peace is made all over the world - but don't forget your studies."

A dozen or so lovely children's drawings, large and colorful, adorn the pages, and interspersed among them are works by Jewish and Arab artists: Dorit Kedar, Ayelet Pinto, Said a-Nahari of Sakhnin and Muhammed Sharif of Jenin.

There are no Arab choruses

The Arabic texts actually posed a problem for her. "In Arabic culture, not enough is done for children. I had a hard time finding texts for children to sing. It was almost impossible, because Arab poets do not write choruses; they write high poetry that isn't suited for children. I barely managed to find a poem by Mahmoud Darwish that was appropriate."

To these she added songs by Ibrahim Tukan, Khalil Sakakini, Yakub Ahmad and others - from Israel, Jordan and the PA, and composed melodies for them all - some simple, Western-style tunes and others that use the microtones of Arab music.

Yunis is now talking with various organizations about publishing the book, which is still in the manuscript stage. Until it is printed, she continues her travels. "My violin enables me to reach places that no one else but me can reach," she says, "prison, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and refugee camps. And thanks to this violin, which I have been caressing for more than 40 years, I'm able to reach all these children."