Refugee kids sing to ease sorrow

At Bethlehem's Peace Center, Muslim children belted out Lennon's 'Imagine' to raise spirits.

The wounded young Palestinian spirits of Azza refugee camp, toughened by war and harrowed by fear, seemed an unlikely bunch to be celebrating at a Christmas party.

But when a band of Japanese volunteers, poised against the backdrop of a Christmas tree and neatly wrapped gifts, played the opening notes of John Lennon's "Imagine" in Bethlehem's Peace Center on Friday, the Muslim kids of Azza joined in boisterously.

Having sung the song for more than a year with the Japanese volunteers who work in the camp, which was occupied for 10 days last month by Israeli soldiers, the 60 Muslim youngsters knew some of the words, and some, though not all, had an idea of their meaning. "Imagine all the people, sharing all the world," they sang.

Living in an area where there are constant bombardments and having their camp surrounded by tanks, "It affects their studying. The shelling means they can't study and can't sleep at night," says Issa Hizboun, one of the refugee camp's youth leaders.

"There is a lot of bed-wetting. They come to me and say, 'I'm afraid.' Now they are stuck in Bethlehem. People are scared to leave Bethlehem, the roads are not safe."

"This is for the psychological healing of these children," he adds. "If there is any party going on, we take the kids to it.

"These kids have had relatives killed and they don't think there will be peace. They think it is either we go or the Jews go."

In October, after Palestinian hardliners assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, and an escalation ensued, Israeli tanks were sent in to control most of the Bethlehem area on the grounds that they needed to put an end to sniping toward the nearby Jewish settlement of Gilo by Palestinian militia men. Twenty-two Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed and 122 people were injured - 103 of them civilians, according to doctors.

In Azza camp, seven houses were set ablaze by Israeli fire, three demolished, and 10 stores destroyed. There was rifle fire toward Israeli positions and tanks, but no Israeli fatalities. A Palestinian policeman and a deaf civilian were killed in Azza by Israeli fire.

Thirteen-year-old Izzat, whose friend Kifah was killed recently in the nearby Dehaishe Refugee Camp as he threw stones at Israeli soldiers, was tapping on a drum and singing, a smile on his face: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday, you'll join us. And the world will live as one."

In Manger Square, a few days before Christmas, those words seemed like a figment of even the most optimistic imagination. But Rika Fujiya, a guitar playing Catholic volunteer who helped introduce Azza's kids to "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance," is sure that the smiles, and the children's demand to play the songs again are reason for hope.

"At least these children can still play and still sing," says Ms. Fujiya, who says her volunteer effort is part of the Christmas spirit. "If they were very depressed, they would just be in a shell."

But their joy is very fleeting, with the war, its scars and hatred repeatedly breaking to the fore again. During the Israeli incursion last month, most buildings in the camp were struck by Israeli gunfire. And the current trauma is layered over the grievances of Azza residents at their families being forced to flee their homes in what became Israel during the fighting in 1948.

When Izzat finishes singing, he is asked if there is any hope for peace. "I have hope for peace, but they are killing us. People's brothers are killed. I hope all of the Jews go. If I see a Jew I want to kill him."

By now, a Donald Duck cartoon is being screened and its narrator says: "Each home fills with joy at this grand holiday."

A card flashes on the screen: "Christmas isn't about candy canes, holly, or lights all aglow," it says. "It's about the hearts that we touch and the care that we show."

"My grandfather's house was hit by shells and it burned," recalls Mutaz, 13, after the movie. His family just celebrated Eid al Fitr, the holiday at the end of the sacred fasting month of Ramadan. "We visited our relatives in the camp. And we visited the families of the martyrs," he says, then rattles off names of those who died over the past year.

Mutaz, who is considered one of the smartest and most promising of the children, says that he, too, has thrown stones at soldiers. Why? "Because I'm angry."

Today, though, he feels a little better: "I feel good to see that the children of the world celebrate," he says of the Christmas party. "There is no childhood in Palestine. We will go back to the camp and there will be problems, always problems. Everyone is saying that after Christmas, the Jews will take the camp again."

Fujiya, the Japanese volunteer, says that after the latest Palestinian confrontation with Israel began more than a year ago, the refugee camp's cultural center closed down. She started to bring her guitar to children's houses, and to get them singing.

"The situation in which the children can't go out makes them depressed and having nothing to do makes them throw stones," Fujiya says. "Actually, they would like to play, sing, and dance but they have lost the opportunities.

"Their personalities have not changed, but their mood has.

"The children still have a pure part inside," she says. "Maybe that part can grow for the future and maybe someone can help to repair the damaged part."

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