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  Challenging Racism and Violence in the Media Through Education  


Walk in the Shoes of a Palestinian American

Lena Khalaf  - Seattle Time - 12 April 2002
A war is raging against Palestinians today. Even as I write, Israeli soldiers are killing hundreds of Palestinians. We hear day after day about "Palestinian targets" and "Palestinian militants" or "terrorists."

Lost in this barrage of epithets is our ability to understand and empathize with the Palestinian human beings who live this war and continue to survive the hostile military rule of 35 years.

A Native-American proverb tells us that no one can walk a day in another person's shoes without gaining a new perspective, so I invite you to walk with me for a moment and glimpse the world and the current war as a Palestinian American.

If you are a Palestinian, you are either living in a refugee camp, living under military occupation, living in a country other than your own, or some combination of the above. A Palestinian's daily existence is a struggle to move freely, to go to school, to work, to survive.

The refugee is a person whose life has been collapsed. One day he is a normal person in an orderly world, and the next day he is left with the clothes on his back and with whatever he could salvage from the man-made disaster that has suddenly engulfed his life.

Over one million of Palestine's total 3.7 million refugees continue to live in decrepit camps scattered throughout the Arab world. In these holding stations, no state or government is accountable for them.

Languishing in homelessness and abject poverty, there is an entire generation of Palestinians who were born, live and die in refugee camps. They spend their lives in this non-place and their identities are defined by being from a time that no longer exists.

The occupied is a person for whom fear is the standard. Over the past 35 years, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under the boot of a military occupation.

Lest the term be devoid of its full graphic power, let me describe some of the features of this life: Heavily-armed soldiers detain Palestinians on their way to work, school, or prayer. These soldiers search, taunt, humiliate, arrest, torture, or kill Palestinians. An entire generation of Palestinians has graduated from jails and torture cells instead of high schools. Unemployment is rampant, home demolitions are a daily threat, and violence is unending. There is a methodical destruction of all aspects of civil life and the military maintains its stranglehold on the entire population.

Finally, there are Palestinian citizens of other countries. Our parents are the refugees and the occupied, and their dispossession is our heritage. Our experience is crystallized in the astounding feats we perform as we try to explain who we are or "where" we are from without being accused of making a political statement. We live with the ghosts of those who died in countless massacres, and our family heirlooms are the gnarled old metal keys to the homes that have been taken away and the stories that our parents tell of their world that has been lost.

For Palestinian Americans, there is always the struggle between the ongoing tragedy of Palestinian life and the opportunities for normalcy in American life. We try to find context for the simple pleasures that connect us with other human beings. At our children's baseball games and over dinner with friends, our hearts always carry this burden.

This sorrow is compounded because we supply both the money and weapons that fuel Israel's extended war against the Palestinian people. On Monday, this becomes exceedingly painful when I pay my taxes and then watch the American-made Apache helicopters fire away at Palestinian "targets" the homes, schools, churches and mosques of Palestine.

When Palestinians are nameless, faceless "targets," it is possible to ignore them or turn a blind eye to their suffering. Acts of war against them can then be justified.

To walk in our shoes is to embrace both worlds, and to tear down the wall of ignorance that dehumanizes Palestinians. It is to see them as individuals with memories and aspirations and to recognize that a people's will to be free cannot be crushed by military might.

Lena Khalaf is a Palestinian American born in Seattle. She was raised in the Middle East and studied comparative literature at the University of Washington. She volunteers with the Seattle chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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