I lifted the spray can and wrote a big, blue P. The letter bled and blurred. “Closer to the wall, Matt,” said my friend Walid. No problem. I just moved onto the next section of concrete. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of wall.
Miles and miles of it, in fact, winding as far as I could see. It ran down the hill from where I stood among the rubble and trash at the edge of Aida Refugee Camp, past an Israeli guard tower to the main checkpoint into Bethlehem. As I always do when I wander these militarized hinterlands, I wondered if there was a soldier with his gun trained on me. I sprayed the rest of my graffiti: “Playgrounds for Palestine.”
It’s the one act of “vandalism” that none of my nice bourgeois friends would click their tongues and frown over. In fact, it’d raise a grin and even boost my street cred. So much street cred that you’ll probably want me to do it on your behalf (read to the end of this post to find out why…) I was spraying the name of a US charity which brings swings and slides and merry-go-rounds to Palestinian children. Spraying it on the 40-foot-high concrete barrier that Israel built in the last decade around many Palestinian towns; in this case the birthplace of Jesus.
I didn’t go to Bethlehem this week just to spray the name of this group, worthy though that would’ve been. (If you want to know how worthy, check out their site and see the work they’ve done for kids in the West Bank, Gaza, and refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.) I had decided to make a short video telling the story of some of the kids who’ve enjoyed Playgrounds for Palestine’s Bethlehem facilities.
It was in Bethlehem, in a school called Dar el-Kalima which stands on the ridge above Dehaisha Refugee Camp (home to Omar Yussef, the detective character in my Palestinian crime novels), where the group’s first playground was built. The project started a decade ago when Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American writer, brought her little daughter to visit Palestine and discovered an almost total lack of facilities for children’s play.
Since then Abulhawa, who lives near Philadelphia, has published an international bestseller, “Mornings in Jenin,” an emotionally wrenching saga about the tragedy of a Palestinian family which she turns into a love story that will stay with you forever. With the help of Playgrounds for Palestine’s volunteers, she has also managed to construct 15 playgrounds for Palestinian children.
How important is this? Well, the Bethlehem area is home to 180,000 people. There are two public playgrounds. Neither of them is very big. In fact, you wouldn’t look twice at them in an American or British park. Both are mobbed on weekends and aren’t in easy walking distance of places like Aida Camp which, I should add, abound in children.
Other Palestinian towns are even worse off.
That leaves Palestinian kids playing on the streets. That’s a dangerous option anywhere. The kids I interviewed for my video each had tales of friends injured or killed while chasing balls into the road or run down by truck drivers who were yelling into their cellphones.
It also gave them some fun in a place not renowned for good news (at least, “good news” that isn’t 2000 years old). “This playground really saved my childhood,” 13-year-old Aida Moussa told me, as she perched on the bottom of the corkscrew slide. Think of it: when Aida was 2, the intifada began and her town was one of the most dangerous places in the world. Yet she is one of the most positive, giggly girls I’ve met and looks forward to a career in science. Who knows how many of those smiles she owes to this playground?
Playgrounds for Palestine is holding a fundraising dinner May 21 to celebrate its tenth anniversary. If you’re near Philadelphia, go and see them. If not, you can donate anyway.
Drop me a line in the comments section of this blog to let me know that you’ve made a donation to Playgrounds for Palestine and I’ll go back to Bethlehem and spray your name on the wall.