Balagon is a Hebrew word meaning 'chaos.'
And after today, it is a word I will never forget.
Today was my first day working with Rabbis for Human Rights.
I was a little bit anxious this morning, mainly about being able to find the place.
However, thanks to some advice (thanks Talia!) and a lot of asking the bus driver of bus #30 where to get off (don't worry! he kept telling me) I did manage to find the office - - it isn't exactly in the classiest section of town (my instructions were something like - get off at the industrial zone, walk through the mall across the parking lot, through the wire fence, look for a baguette shop... etc.) - but nevertheless, after a few fruitful conversations with security guards, I found it.
I felt a bit bad that I was a few minutes late - but that didn't turn out to be a problem because my supervisor actually forgot about me and hadn't come in to work that morning. I actually was thankful for it though, because the wonderful receptionist called him to come in, and it gave me a few minutes to orient myself and read some of the brochures and such about the organization (irgun).
Those were the only slow minutes of the day.
My supervisor, Rabbi Yehiel, came blowing in a few moments later. He is possibly one of the kindest, most jolly men I have ever met in my life. That's him on the left (I stole the photo from BBC News online). The minute we came in he started pumping me full of information about the organization, what they do, the problems they face, etc., and trying to figure out what I wanted out of working there. But before I could say a word, he was like - well, we have a meeting to get to.... and off we went.
As we were getting ready to run out the door, we were told to wait by the executive director, Rabbi Arik Ascherman. Arik is a tall, striking man, with a full beard and curly hair topped by his kippah. He kind of looks like all of our pictures of Jesus. (Is that offensive? I hope not. I mean it in truly the best way possible.)
We all jumped into Arik's car, and the two men chattered away about the topic of our meeting and fielded phone calls right and left.. and in between asked me about my background.
The meeting topic, I soon discovered, was about a Palestinian woman whose home had been seized by the government.
I'm still not clear on all of the details, but the rough idea is that the government came into her house in the night and told her and her family to get out, that the house belonged to Jewish settlers. I don't know how long she had lived there, but I think it had been a long time. There was an especially tragic twist to the story because the trauma of being evicted caused her husband to have a heart attack and he passed away. She is now living in a tent provided by the Red Cross. However, government officials have tried to take her tent about 3 or 4 times, and her situation is precarious. RHR is involved to make sure that all of her rights are being protected and that she has good legal representation, etc.
The meeting - was in her tent.
As we drove up, I kept thinking - wow, I am seriously here?
It is a white plastic structure held up by metal bars. Carpet (I assume from her home) had been brought in to lay over the gravel floor, and blankets had been hung to separate a sleeping area from a living area. There was a iron barrel in the middle of the living area with a small fire burning in it to keep us all warm (it was cold and rainy today). Plastic chairs and a couple of old sofas had been brought in to accommodate all of the visitors. There were about 15 or 20 people all crammed in the tent - representatives from various Human Rights and legal NGOs, a few other families who were also in danger of their homes being taken, and so on. After greetings, the meeting commensed.. in a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew and English, and I was handed a small plastic cup of VERY strong coffee. The woman spoke first, giving an emotional monologue about her situation (of course, I understood none of the words, but I certainly understood the point) - and then Arik began trying to set up an agenda for what they were going to talk about.
I was literally in awe at this point, I couldn't believe I was in Jerusalem, sitting in a Palestinian woman's tent, discussing what to do about the dispossession of her home.
Oh - but that was SO FAR from the end...
Within literally less than 10 minutes, several people's phones began to ring. At first, I didn't think anything of it - but as soon as someone's phone would ring, they would jump up and urgently walk out of the tent. After a couple of minutes of this, not many people were left, and everyone was mumbling (of course in languages I don't understand - this is why I SWORE to myself I would learn the language before I went to a country... oops). I kept catching words like.. school... children... injured.
Soon enough, I got the whole story and we too were storming out of the tent.
While we were meeting, and UN-run Palestian girl's school had collapsed, injuring 7 girls. The rumor was that the collapse had been caused by illegal excavation by a right-wing Jewish group under the school.
We left the woman and her tent and jumped back into the car and drove madly toward the school. When we got near the Old City, traffic was already backed up nearly a kilometer with ambulences, fire trucks, UN vehicles, and journalists. Arik had Yehiel, myself and the other girl with us jump out of the car and run towards the school to try and get there more quickly.
So we did - well, mine was more of a skip/limp/run... but it worked.
When we got there, it was chaos, people crowding, women crying, children still streaming out of the school, ambulences carrying off the injured, journalists fighting to get interviews, videos and pictures, UN personell running everywhere, and the police vainly trying to control the situation with red plastic tape. Palestinian men and women were pushing towards the scene, many of the them VERY upset and yelling at the UN officials and such - 'This is the Jews fault!'
From the outside, it was hard to tell what had happened - all we could see was a lot of people crowding and the sign on the school building.
There wasn't a lot we could do, since there were so many people it was almost impossible to get inside and see what had gone down. Soon the mayor was on the scene making a statement.
My picture isn't very good, but he is the man that the camera is point at on the left.
There were all sorts of unhappy people including a very emotional woman who was yelling at all of the video cameras around about the wickedness of the excavationers in excavating directly under so many of their homes and schools. She is the one below in the white scarf with her hand in the air. I was utterly amazed at how quickly the whole situation had become completely politically charged. Government officials right and left were making hard and fast statements about how it was NOT caused by excavations, while Palestinians all over were full on blaming the government and the Jewish population in general for causing all of it.
After about half an hour, Arik finally made it to us, and he was somehow able to get us all inside the school compound. The scene inside was even more chaotic than outside - there were SO many journalists all trying to get photographs of the scene, to show one way or the other what had happened. You can see in the picture below all of them vying for a shot of the classroom that had collapsed. By this point, we had learned the the floor of the classroom had just completely caved in, causing all of the havoc.
I stood in the school yard for a long time, watching the scene while Yehiel and Arik tried to get an idea of what had happened. The interaction between the UN officials and the Palestinians was incredibly interesting and charged.
After talking to a LOT of people, Yehiel directed us out of the scene and around the back of the compound. At this point, it was unclear what had caused the collapse, and there was a good chance that it could have been caused by simply bad architecture or natural geologic shifts. We went around the back of he compound, though, to check to see if there had been any excavating going on.
What we saw was this ---------------------------->
A freshly cemented gaping hole in the side of the school (it is set on a slope, so it was into the underground, if that makes sense.) When put in perspective of where the classroom lays, the cemented over hole is directly below the floor of the classroom. No conclusions could be made at that point, but it was certainly clear that they needed to figure out what that hole was all about.
After that discovery and a lot more talking to people, we were once again off - to another meeting.
This one was less exciting as I had to sit out on it - I was a bit relieved, however - it had been quite the whirlwind. While everyone was in the meeting, someone brought in new photographs from the school scene. Underneat the rubble from the collapse, excavating and digging equipment had been found, essentially proof that the illegal excavating had been going on. This was incredibly exciting as it meant that with all of the exposure from the collapse (and the fact that THANKFULLY, only a few were injured, hopefully not badly) that now, finally the government would be forced to stop the illegal excavations taking place. Hopefully. But that's all for tomorrow.
By this point, it was after 4 and Arik and Yehiel were headed off. I parted ways from them.
Just all a day in the office, right?