A large part of my internship at Rabbis for Human Rights has become creating home profiles for homes that are under demolition order. My second day of home profiling in Silwan took me to the home of the Abu-Naj family. This family's story is a tough one. They have 43 people living in their house. (This includes two brothers, a sister and all of their children and grandchildren). Their family moved into the house after the 1948 war, when they were forced to leave their former homes in West Jerusalem. Since then they have been paying rent to a man who recently died. Upon his death, a Jewish* settler family claimed the house as being theirs (from before the 1948 conflict I suppose). They refuse to take rent payments or offers to buy the house from the Palestinian family and demand that they leave the house. To further complicate matters, because of their large and growing family, the Abu-Naj's have added on several rooms to the original structure of the house. After the settler family made a claim on the house, the government issued a demolition order on the parts of the house that were not part of the original structure, saying that it was built without a building permit (Arabs are essentially NEVER given building permits by the government to build in Jerusalem, so almost all houses are built without permits - in fact, pretty much the entire neighborhood of Silwan is under demolition order because of this). And to even FURTHER complicate matters, the settler family that is claiming the house says that the house itself has some sort of religious significance and therefore has even more reason to not be a home to this family. Eek.
Here is the head of the household with two of his grandchildren. He painted the room himself and says that he likes to go there to pray and be alone (with 43 people in the house this is a rare space).
This is Fakhri, a community leader and my contact/translator in Silwan. He picks me and the other volunteers up at the entrance of the neighborhood and walks with us to the homes that we are profiling. (Thank goodness or I would probably STILL be wandering around lost). Unfortunately, his home is also under demolition order. It is in his home that I participated in my first interview and profile.
Each interview cannot start without 2 or 3 wonderful cups of mint tea (with lots of sugar) and cannot continue without a VERY THICK cup of coffee (complete with a pile of grounds at the bottom of each cup). I have never, ever liked coffee, but I have learned to breathe deeply and get enough of it down (after pouring in about 4 spoonfuls of sugar) to be polite. I learned that drinking it quickly is a big mistake as then I am just given another cup. Slow sipping is key. Needless to say, each interview ends with me on a sugar and caffiene high.
This interview was hard, as I could tell right away that they would have a very tough case and if everything continues at the status quo, will lose their house. It is hard to sit and get to know these people and experience their hospitality and see their love for their home and family and realize that in a week or less, their home may be rubble and they will either be forced to crowd in with neighbors or be on the street. That said, at the end of this interview, I got a special treat because two of the grandchildren who live in the home peeked in the door to visit. They are beautiful and animated children who were especially excited about seeing their images on my camera. I look at these pictures and hope.. I don't even know for what exactly. For peace? For them to learn to forgive and coexist despite what has happened in their pasts and present? For them to value and to be valued as humans instead of by ethnicity, religion or race? For them to be blessed with extra heapings of resilience and optimism?
*Note: This does not mean that all Jews in Jerusalem do the things or believe in the things that this particular settler family is doing. In fact, the vast, vast majority would not. Even further, there are many Jews in Jerusalem (including my organization Rabbis for Human Rights and most of my Jewish friends and people I interact with daily) who outright condemn that this is happening. This has nothing to do with Jews vs. non-Jews, or even Israelis vs. non-Israelis. It is an extremist attitude that unfortunately a few powerful people and families have adopted, and even more unfortunately, that the government has not stopped. One of the most shocking things that I have learned is that many (if not most) people (even in Jerusalem) do not know that this is happening, or if they do know, they do not know the extent of it or its affect on the individuals, families and communities.