For Palestinian Kids, the Occupation Childhood Becomes a Pandemic Childhood, Too

And so the stress ramps up even further. It doesn't help when you always have to prove you're a resident of your home city ■ Post #23

Umm Forat
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Palestinian elementary school students during the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class at a UN-run school in Ramallah, September 6, 2020.
Palestinian elementary school students during the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class at a UN-run school in Ramallah, September 6, 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP
Umm Forat

I’m an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, then-5-year-old Forat and 2-year-old Adam. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (Click here to read all my previous posts.) I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own. “Umm Forat” means “Mother of Forat” in Arabic.

* * *

Three-year old Adam was screaming. Lately it feels like he’s always screaming. We suspect that his 6-year-old sister, Forat, is giving him lessons. She also continues to scream on her own.

“No, Ima!” he yelled. “You – coffee!” He pushed me – or rather pushed my legs, because his head only reaches up to my thighs – toward the kitchen. It was 6:30 A.M. My partner, Osama, was still sleeping, next to Forat, who had climbed into our bed in the middle of the night.

Baba! Get up!” Adam screamed at Osama. He got into the bed, climbing on top of Forat’s head so that he could take Osama’s face in both hands. Forat woke up, screamed, and pushed her brother. He started to cry. Osama opened his eyes and then closed them.

“I’ll bring over the coffee,” I told him.

The children have been showing signs of stress lately. I don’t know if it’s a new phase in their development or if they’re picking up on their parents’ increased anxiety during the pandemic.

During the first lockdown in the spring, Forat and Adam actually seemed to enjoy being home and not having to separate from us in the mornings. But during the second lockdown in the West Bank in July, I was alone with them and very stressed. Now that I think about it, maybe I’m the one teaching Adam to scream.

Palestinian students exercising as schools reopen gradually during the coronoavirus crisis, Sussia, West Bank, September 7, 2020. Credit: Mussa Qawasma / Reuters

A strange insult

In the context of the pandemic, as in other contexts, our family is very lucky. Still, the pandemic is creating stress for Osama and me: financial worries, the burden of caring for the children when schools and childcare are closed, and worry about elderly family members. I also worry that my stress stresses out the children.

We managed to calm the children and get them to school and preschool. But the problem of stress arose again in the afternoon as I drove to pick up Forat from her music class. Seven-year-old Amir was waiting for his mother to pick him up. I scanned Forat’s face as she entered the car.

“Forat,” I asked, “How was it today with Amir?”

“Okay,” she said.

“Did he talk to you?”

“He’s not my friend, but if he asks me questions, I answer him and it’s okay,” she said.

Last month, Amir started to bully Forat. It reached a peak when he asked Osama, in Forat’s presence, “Do you wash her?” He then pointed to Forat and wrinkled his nose. Osama was horrified. He spoke to Amir’s mother, who promised to talk to her son. Since then, he seems to have left Forat alone.

“We’re in heaven with Forat and Adam’s screaming,” Osama had told me. “You can’t imagine what the bigger kids do.”

I was indeed shocked to hear such a hurtful and precise insult from a 7-year-old. When I met Amir a year ago at school, he was a sweet and talkative child. He liked showing me the new backpack his father had bought him or playing a song he had learned on the guitar.

One day after class, he told me a long, convoluted story about the house his parents had bought in Jerusalem; he and his sister never go outside. When he finished his story and got into his mother’s car, the music teacher told me that his parents are East Jerusalem residents, and that the Israeli Interior Ministry was trying to revoke their residency, claiming they didn’t live in Jerusalem.

Palestinian students walking to school with a woman in Sussia after schools reopened.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters

Quizzed about who you are

East Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1967 with the rest of the West Bank, is home to about 350,000 Palestinians who are residents of Israel but not citizens of any state. As part of a goal of having a clear majority or even two-thirds Jewish residents, the Israeli authorities revoke Palestinians’ residency status, claiming they had moved their “center of life” outside Jerusalem.

Families facing that threat live in fear of being evicted from the city or losing social services, including health care. They obsessively collect receipts for payment of electricity bills and municipal taxes, and they rehearse their interviews with the Interior Ministry.

The ministry, meanwhile, hires detectives to interview neighbors and photograph family members in the mornings and evenings, to prove where they spend their nights. Amir’s parents, the teacher told me, are periodically summoned to the ministry to prove that they live in Jerusalem.

“But why does a 6-year-old have to memorize information about the house in Jerusalem?” I asked. “The Interior Ministry interviews him, too?”

“No,” she said. “I think he’s just trying to protect his parents by practicing the right answers to questions about where they live.”

I felt compassion for the boy, who had picked up on his parents’ stress and was trying to help, with a confused story about the house in Jerusalem.

And I felt compassion and concern for Forat and Adam, our strong, confident, beautiful children who will one day be quizzed about who they are, or maybe selected for bullying by older kids, who themselves are under pressure and lash out. Their childhood is an occupation childhood, now also a pandemic childhood. And they’re screaming about it.

“Forat,” I said, starting the car. “Remind me to be more patient with you and Adam, please. You two are the cutest heroes I know.”

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