Gaza became our familyʼs newest geography lesson in the mid 1980ʼs when our family hosted an international student during his collegeʼs fall break. The small liberal arts college where I worked at the time recruited faculty and staff to welcome international students into their homes for fall breaks, holiday vacations and summer school sessions. That is when we first met Sharef, tall, lankey, energetic, homesick, and working hard to hone his English skills. And, that was when we began a journey with an international student unlike any other we had hosted.
Sharef was from Gaza but his passport listed that his country was of undetermined origin – a fact that was very distressing to our new house guest. We were fascinated – a country of undetermined origin. . . . . . Once prosperous farmers and large land owners, Sharef is the youngest of 11 children. His family unit consisted of his father, his second mother, his biological mother, an older brother (working as an engineer in Kuwait – and the person who made it possible for Sharef to come to the United States), 9 sisters, and Sharef – the baby of the family. We had 3 teen age daughters. At the time 2 were off to college; one was in junior high school. Our college age daughters returned home for holidays and Sharef quickly became part of our family.
In preparation for Sharefʼs return home for a visit back to Gaza he and I shopped for gifts to take home to his family. Upon Sharefʼs return he reported that when he arrived in at the airport his gifts were opened and thrown into a trash can. Of course, he was unhappy – and so was I – as we had put thought and time into these tokens of caring for the family he missed and saw at most once a once year. Personally, I thought this trashing of gifts was extremely unlikely – surely he was exaggerating – – living with 3 teenager daughters drama was not unknown in our household. Perhaps, I decided Sharef was exhausted after a long flight, anxious to be home. Surely the situation was not just as he described. Sadly subsequent trips home confirmed this practice.
During one of his precious phone calls home – he learns that earlier in the day his second mother, while walking home from the market, was summoned to put her groceries down and wash the car of an Israeli solder. This and numerous other tales of intimidation seemed implausible to me – I had Jewish friends, I knew Jews who had lived in, visited, and loved Israel and I could not imagine that any of my friends would ever sanction these cruel acts. This had to be a mistake.
A trip to the Jersey Shore prompted me to ask about the numerous small, dark, scars covering Sharefʼs back. Cigarette burns, he said. We contacted a local Rabbi who suggested we get in touch with James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D. C. Yes, he confirmed this was a frequently used method of harassment and intimidation – especially used on young boys as they approach their later teens and the age of military service.
As it turned out, my skepticism was unwarranted. Why was I so unwilling to believe this young man? Why when a cousin of Sharefʼs unfurled a Palestinian flag in front of her house in Gaza was she shot – shot to death. In fact, I didnʼt want to believe Sharef. Certainly he should have been able to present his gifts to the family he so missed and loved, his older mother is not responsible for a soldierʼs dusty car, and why was it necessary for us to make a phone call to Washington DC only to find out these were actions were sanctioned.
Even today, it is hard for me to talk about these cigarette burns – itʼs not just emotionally disturbing, itʼs effect is physical- it is painful, it is repugnant – I want to resist the facts and banish the very possibility. Unfurling the Palestinian flag (I understand is against the law) but does this young womanʼs assassination make Israel militarily secure? Do these acts provide a Palestinian village the emotional space to build an alliance with Israel? Does that very young Israeli soldier walk away from that young girl and forget her?
The time this young man stayed with us changed my life. There has not a day that I donʼt regret having not been more pro-active in addressing the incidents he shared with me . . never a day that I am ashamed of myself for not believing what he said. There is simply not a day that I donʼt think about Sharef and his family. I have not seen Sharef since he was the international student who enriched our home and since he graduated and returned to Gaza. Through the technology of Facebook Sharef and I are able to keep in touch. I know that during this summerʼs invasion of Gaza (2014) the house just 30 meters from his home was blown to bits, in fact almost the entire village was reduced to piles of gray twisted rubble.
Our family met Sharef for the first time almost 30 years ago. He has children of his own now – children that are almost the age he was when he was an international student here in the US. For me it is a deep sadness to think of another generation of Palestinian and Israeli children having to grow up in this cycle of violence.