Fahdi's Summer Camp
Their dreams, the dreams of children under occupation, are of bicycles and the liberation of Jerusalem. Some of them want to be teachers, most want to be peddlers...
19 July 2002
Child peddlers pulling up their shirts for a Border Police inspection.
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
What to do with the kids during summer vacation? Some Palestinians don't have that problem. They send the kids to infiltrate into Israel and risk themselves day in and day out trying to make a few shekels by peddling wares or begging for handouts. That's how it is when there is no other means of livelihood available.
Mother gets up at 5 A.M. and wakes them with loud shouts. There are no embraces and there is no sign of pampering. Sometimes they grumble a bit, beg to sleep for just a few more minutes, but Mother is firm. They have to get up immediately, gulp down the cup of tea she has prepared, then walk for two hours to the unofficial entrance via the garbage dump, before the soldiers arrive. No chocolate milk and no hot bun, no cartoons, not even a good morning kiss.
On a good day they will succeed in traversing the garbage dump or cross through the adjacent grove, carrying their meager wares on their backs, hiding and running from the Border Police, who have recently stepped up their presence and improved their hot pursuit capability. Then they will wander for hours between the houses of Umm al-Fahm or Arara, the towns and villages of their fortunate brethren, who are freer and more affluent than they are, trying to sell their odds and ends from door to door - some sewing thread or a broom, every item one shekel. They will have nothing to eat the whole day, at best drinking water from the fountain by the mosque. Before dusk they will hurry back, again hoping that they will not be caught and will make it home safely.
At home, Mother will make them a light supper - no meat, no chicken and you can forget about dessert - and they will fall into bed exhausted, these little peddlers, until tomorrow's dawn. On their one day of rest, be it Friday or Saturday, they will only sleep and sleep, nonstop. In any case there is nothing in the house besides the bed or the mattress that is laid out at night. One of them related that he once saw a computer; that was on television.
For these five-, six- and seven-year olds, and for the older kids of 10 or 12, this is their version of day camp. The fear these children know is of soldiers, not of rides at the fairgrounds. They are acquainted with the stagnant water of the refuse heap and not the wave machine in the water park. Some of them will never return to school. They will go on being peddlers for all time, or until things get a little better and Father can go back to work and be a breadwinner for them and their brothers and sisters. In a period of curfew and closure such as the present, only small children like them can sometimes, infiltrate, though with difficulty and fear in every step, and bring a few shekels to the hungry house. This is the summer vacation of the children of Yamun and Anin, Alfandukomia and Taibeh, Ta'anakh and Rummana - villages in the Jenin district.
Sometimes they are caught and detained; if they are unable to make it home they stay over and sleep in mosques. Sometimes the Border Policemen slap them on the face in order to teach them not to dare enter the closed, prohibited country next door. They may succeed in selling a few items, pocketing a few shekels, or they may return with all their wares untouched. Fathi Zouabi, the little date seller from Alfandukomia, barely 10 years old, returns on the back of his mule to his village, after traveling almost 40 kilometers. Forty kilometers at age 10. The others go by foot to their villages, which are closer. Some are clothed in rags, others are well dressed. Three of them walked through the streets of Umm al-Fahm this week wearing colorful T-shirts. Their dreams, the dreams of children under occupation, are of bicycles and the liberation of Jerusalem. Some of them want to be teachers, most want to be peddlers, like their fathers were until this siege was imposed, and as they are today, during their summer vacation, knowing full well that there is no point dreaming of more than that.
Age 14 and the family's sole provider
Three figures, perhaps children or perhaps a bit older, are standing in the shadow of a pine tree at the junction of the abandoned entrance to Umm al-Fahm. They are waiting for a car to take them to Arara and in the meantime are seeking shelter from the blistering sun. Things are slow today in Umm al-Fahm. Fahdi, 14, Ibrahim, 15, and his brother Mahmoud, 14, are ashamed to disclose their surnames. Their wares are on the ground next to them: bikinis in shiny, glistening colors for girls at NIS 20 and a set of baby clothes for NIS 40. The three are from the village of Taibeh in the Jenin district; they haven't attended school for the past two years. Ibrahim wears a cap back to front, Fahdi has a blue packet of El-Am cigarettes in his pocket. All three have facial sores, the marks of neglect and malnutrition.
Fahdi has five brothers and sisters. He is the eldest and the sole provider since the closure. They say they decided on their own initiative to leave school and take up peddling in order to help out at home. Their fathers are unemployed, like nearly all the fathers under the closure. An hour, an hour and a half from Taibeh to Umm al-Fahm. Does it ever happen that they don't want to get up in the morning? "It happens every day," Ibrahim says, "but in the end you get up." Why? "Because we want to live," they respond in a chorus. And when do you get home? "Depends on the sales, but always before dark." Once they stayed until midnight, but that was during the holiday period, when the market was good. Two weeks ago they were caught on the way home and made to sit for an hour on a dust heap on the road to Taibeh, and the Border Policemen asked them to recite the well-known children's ditty, "Hummus, ful - I love the Border Police" (it rhymes in Hebrew). If you don't sing, the troops won't let you pass. The kids don't like the Border Police.
What do they want to be when they grow up? Fahdi: "Peddlers. That's our work." Not a store? "Where would we get the money?" A portion of falafel costs NIS 10 here, so they abstain from food until the evening. If they get unbearably hungry they buy two buns for a shekel and share them. They drink water from the tap of the mosque. Yesterday evening Ibrahim and Mahmoud's mother prepared stuffed vine leaves and the day before she made makluba, but without meat or chicken, only rice and yogurt. Did you ever play on a computer? Bitter laughter. "We don't even have a television." Did you ever see a computer? "On the television at my uncle's." Sometimes they play soccer. What is the thing you want most? "For Jerusalem to be liberated," Fahdi whispers.
A filthy wool blanket lies on the grass by the side of the main road: it belongs to children from the Jenin refugee camp who come here to beg for handouts and stay to sleep over because of the ordeals of the trip. Do they beg, too? Fahdi: "Not ever. We are ashamed. To sell is at least more respectable."
Sprawled on the ground on the small traffic island by the stoplight at the exit from the town a woman and her two daughters wait for drivers to stop and perhaps throw them a shekel. The ground is soiled and so are their clothes. The children eat hummus in a pita, the mother offers Coke from a family bottle. Heavy of body, the mother declines to give her name, out of shame. They are from the Nur al Shams refugee camp next to Tul Karm, the father is a drunkard and they are on their own. "I hope the Palestinian Authority reads what we say. We have been thrown into the street and there is no one to care for us. We have reached a state of begging and Abu Amar [Yasser Arafat] does nothing." The mother says they beg in a different village every day, sometimes returning to their home in the distant refugee camp, sometimes staying in the homes of compassionate people who invite them for the night, or in the local mosque. The two girls have long since stopped going to school.
A pungent smell of urine emanates from the sidewalk in the heart of the town on which a few children lie, next to the bags containing their wares. Abaida Abu Hassan, 15, from Yamun, a village that has been closed for months by iron gates and a Rav-Bariach gear lock - keys available from the IDF - is eating a bun and sipping a yellowish slush drink. Little Ahmed sells household utensils. He will be starting fifth grade. Abaidah, his hair plastered down with gel, sells garishly colored girls' clothing. Smiling and shy, he says he is new in the trade. Only since last Monday. He was in school until eighth grade, then he was an apprentice construction worker in Yamun. Now nothing is being built in the locked village, so he has taken up peddling, the last profession of the future. Until summer vacation he was afraid to enter Israel, but now, with all the school kids doing it, he too has taken the plunge. Is he afraid? "For sure afraid. Afraid of the army. Afraid they will catch me and hit me. But sometimes I am afraid they will shoot me." He has never been beaten, only one time a soldier slapped him. Before the siege his father found occasional work as a plasterer in Umm al-Fahm. What do you want to be when you grow up? "A taxi driver." And what is the thing you want most now? "Peace."
A Border Police jeep, two sophisticated off-road vehicles and an armored car are parked next to the garbage dump. The drivers of the off-road vehicles, who are from the "Seam Line" Police, have peculiar green helmets that give them a bionic look. Fahdi Jerayer, 14, from Anim - the houses of the village are visible behind the dump - is waiting between the trees for the cops to leave. But they are waiting for an Israeli television crew that will soon arrive in an armored jeep of the Border Police, to cover the war along the "seam line". Yesterday a suicide bomber was arrested here. Inside the jeep there is already one detainee, a 16-year-old boy from Umm al-Fahm.
Fahdi Jerayer and his 12-year-old brother Ahmed sell refuse bags door to door. Father wakes them in the morning when he gets up for his dawn prayers. A minibus drives them from village to village to sell their refuse bags. Sometimes a local contractor employs the children. The youngest peddler, Mustafa Masour, 7, arrives with his two brothers, Ahmed, 11, and Mohammed, 14; they are headed home via the garbage dump.
Mustafa is biting his nails. His brothers say there are soldiers down below. The kids with the colorful T-shirts also approach. By now there is a fairly large group of children who are waiting for the troops to pull out so they can go home. Two of them start fighting and a third says, "We are Gypsies. We don't have culture like them." The date seller Fathi arrives on his mule. "This is their summer camp," says a resident of Umm al-Fahm who drives by. They put 30 kilograms of stuff on their back - more than they weigh - walk around all day and return home with the same weight."
The children decide to make for the garbage dump anyway, come what may. Bags on their backs, they walk down the road, except for Fathi on his mule. "Pull up your shirts and throw everything you have on the road," a Border Policeman orders. The children obey silently, a dozen or so kids with shirts pulled up, their wares scattered on the road and their hands raised, opposite the armed soldier who in a little while will let them return home.