BY RACHEL GOTTLIEB | The tangled world around Nora Epstein and Bushra Jawabri blended into a simple background as the two concentrated on spelling out their dream with sugar on a restaurant table at a Jerusalem mall.
“Bushra + Noa = Peace.”
What would peace mean for these teens who live less than an hour apart in vastly different worlds?
Bushra, 16, who lives in al-Arroub, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Hebron, “will be able to walk around without soldiers looking over her shoulder. And she can say she comes from somewhere,” says Noa, 14, who lives in Mevasseret Zion, a comfortable Jewish suburb.
And for Noa, Bushra’s Israeli friend?
“To be able to walk in the town center without being worried about being blown up. And for me it’s to be able to see my friend without making such a to-do.”
It was a to-do indeed to bring together these two girls who became friends at the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine last summer. The camp, started by award-winning journalist John Wallach, a former White House correspondent, with support from former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, is set in neutral Maine. There, Israeli, American, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian and other Arab children can hash out differences and find common ground for lasting friendships.
Wallach, who lives in Washington, Conn., said he sold his house and his art collection to start the camp in 1993 after an Islamic fundamentalist group bombed the World Trade Center in New York.
“I said, ‘Where is the response to that? There’s nothing that exists to promote hope instead of fear.’”
At camp, the teens—who communicate in English—“plumb the depths of their hatreds and fears of each other,” Wallach says. And there’s plenty of that: “These are children of war.”
But precisely because they are children, says Peres, they look forward, not backward: “Children are not overburdened by old memories, old hatreds. They are fresh.
Just days earlier, Bushra’s family had prepared a lavish meal for Noa. But Wesleyan University graduate Ned Lazarus, 24, the Seeds of Peace coordinator in Jerusalem, decided recent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis made it too dangerous to bring Noa along.
Bushra had visited Noa’s house during Hanukkah, but this would have been Hoa’s first visit to Bushra’s. Both were deeply disappointed.
The lovely dinner was served anyway and Bushra and her family offered a tour of their home and the camp where 6,000 Palestinians live.
Along the narrow pathways, children play in the streets, and passing cars honk to clear the way. The concrete courtyard in a school for girls has basketball hoops, and boys play volleyball and handball at a recreation center. Young scouts learn to play drums in the open air, and their practices can be heard throughout the camp. They take turns with the drums because there aren’t enough for everyone.
The library has bare bookcases except for a few dusty reference books. Residents take turns using the camp’s one phone.
There is high unemployment among the many laborers who live in the camp, and many houses are in poor condition. Rocks hold down zinc roofs on some structures. There is no central heat.
But conditions have improved since Bushra’s father, Ismael Jawabri, was born in a tent 44 years ago. Permanent structures have replaced the tents, and neighbors help each other build additions.
Bushra’s family has been working on an addition since 1992. The landing on the second floor is still dirt, and there is no furniture in the nearly finished rooms.
Over dinner, Ismail Jawabri, known in his community as Abu Tareq (father of Tareq, his son’s name), talks about his pride in Bushra’s accomplishments and her comportment. Residents in the refugee camp, he said, have trouble understanding why he allows her to attend the Seeds of Peace camp.
Some say, “‘OK, Abu Tareq, I know you are a smart man, buy why do you send your daughter to sleep outside?’” he says, “Here it is not good to send your daughter outside. But I am very proud of her. Look at Bushra. She is a brilliant girl—even her teachers are very proud of her. She obtains good marks. She behaves well. This is the girl that represents a Palestinian woman
Sitting in her living room, Bushra talks about her life. Anecdotes about soldiers dominate her tales—like the time she saw a woman get shot in the camp when she tried to stop a soldier from taking a boy to prison. “A girl got shot, too, because she was near.”
Dinner ends shortly after sunset when Bushra and her family warmly kiss their guests goodbye.
Thoughts of the peaceful dinner fade within moments. The camp’s exit is blocked with boulders, and young Palestinian men prepare to light a tire on fire and throw rocks at an army jeep about to pass. Lazarus and Sami al-Jundi, 35, a Palestinian man who drives for Seeds of Peace, leap from the van to negotiate passage past the blockade.
“If Noa had come and she told her mother about this, that would be the last Seeds of Peace kid to come here,” Lazarus declared.
Later; Lazarus revised his strategy for the girls to meet. The following week, he and al-Jundi brought Bushra from the camp to Noa’s house. The reunion was joyful—lots of hugs and kisses. Bushra gave Noa a traditional Palestinian dress, and Noa promised to wear it to school. “This is the happiest moment,” Noa said.
Then it was off to the mall. On the way, the two chatted about friends from camp and about school and the snow the day before—a rare event. Bushra told Noa she was missed at dinner. And she inquired about Noa’s older sister, 19-year-old Yael, who is a soldier and a ballerina. Noa told Bushra that Yael had asked about her, too.
At the entrance to the mall, a soldier stopped the van and questioned al-Jundi. Inside, the girls walked arm-in-arm picking out candy and looking in the shops. Although their lives are so different, the girls have much in common. Bushra is a scout leader for younger girls. And she dreams of becoming a doctor.
Noa tutors youths preparing for their bar mitzvahs. She paints, plays piano, sings and composed a song about peace. She isn’t sure about a career but fancies being Israel’s ambassador to Jordan or a professional pianist.
Both girls like to hang out with their friends. Bushra is restricted to keeping company with girls, while Noa has more freedom to spend time with boys.
The political reality the girls live in crept into their chatter when Bushra noticed soldiers in the mall and explained how the soldiers at the camp hassle her and her friends when they leave for school.
Noa had trouble relating to Bushra’s experiences. “It’s confusing—my brother and sister are soldiers”, she said later. The Palestinians “probably see them as monsters.”
“We heard terrible stories at camp about how the soldiers came to their houses and took their fathers. I mean, we see on TV that the soldiers shoot at them, but they throw stones and the use slingshots.
“The army is something we were brought up to be very proud of. Especially after the ’67 war—you couldn’t say anything bad about the army… Suddenly you get the other side of it… Now, it’s becoming something you can criticize.”
Bushra was concerned that she might have offended Noa with her talk of the army. Her opinions about soldiers don’t shade her fondness for her friend. She loves Noa, she said. “She understands us. She sympathizes with all the Palestinians.”
The first week in May, as Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, 75 Seeds of Peace children—including Noa and Bushra—will meet in Switzerland to write a peace treaty. Lazarus thinks Israel will close its borders, anticipating attacks from terrorists. So the Palestinian children will have to spend several days in a hotel in East Jerusalem to ensure they make it to the airport.
The children’s peace treaty will say to leaders: “If we can do it, then why can’t you?” Wallach said.
Seeds of Peace “is clearly needed,” Peres said. The children have an important role in forging peace. “It’s the same role as seeds—growing the future.”