I lifted the spray can and wrote a big, blue P. The letter bled and blurred. "Oh, I messed it up," I said. “Spray closer to the wall, Matt,” my friend Walid told me. 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, abounds 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.
Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.