Many of you know about my friend Rania in Tulkarem. She’s from Jayyous, and she’s a major character in my book. I helped raise money for her to finish her education, and a few years ago she fulfilled her dream of graduating from the Open University in Qalqilia with a degree in psychological counseling.
Shortly before graduating, she married a man named Sharif, a poor but kind man who lost his parents when he was young and never finished high school. He was incredibly supportive of Rania’s education, and they had a beautiful baby boy named Karim in 2007.
Two years later she was pregnant with a little girl, and Sharif secured a permit to work in Israel so he could finish building their house and support his growing family.
Then… disaster struck. Before her husband even had a chance to use his permit, he was brutally arrested in the middle of the night by armed Israeli soldiers who beat him in front of his pregnant wife and child and took him away without explanation. (The harrowing story is told here.)
He was held without charge, trial, or telephone call, and it was days before she learned the reason he had been arrested: He was accused of stealing cars in Israel. Rania could only laugh when she found out. He had never even been to Israel. But she wasn’t laughing when they handed down his sentence: one year behind bars.
A full year without his wife, without his son, without being there for the birth of his daughter. Even worse, one year without being able to provide for his family.
I visited Rania in late 2009 after her husband was taken. She said her savings were almost finished, and she had no idea what she would do when they ran out. Every social safety net had failed her one way or another. The only piece of luck was that she had a brother-in-law living overseas who let her and her two children stay in his house until he returned. It’s the only reason they weren’t (and aren’t) homeless.
Her husband was released a year later, a changed man. In bad health, in bad spirits, angry and unstable. The only job he could get was tough physical labor that pays around $400 per month. The debts and legal fees from his imprisonment cost the family $200 per month. Prices is Palestine are inflated due to the occupation and being tied to Israel’s currency and economy. $200 a month isn’t nearly enough for a family of four.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Rania took the initiative and found meaningful work with the Syndicate of Psychological Social Workers, an organization that sponsors activities, classes, and counseling sessions to improve the psychological health of the community. It’s a desperately needed service in a town suffering so badly from the occupation and other stresses. From Israeli violence and vicious arrests to land expropriation and unemployment, on top of all the usual societal problems like spousal abuse and mental illness, there’s no shortage of trauma and very few facilities to deal with it.
Unfortunately, it’s not a paid position. The Syndicate has been trying to secure funding for years, and Salam Fayyad visited more than once and personally promised funding. But for various reasons — the latest of which is Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax funds to try to prevent the formation of a Palestinian unity government — it has never materialized. The office doesn’t even have working phones.
In order to work with them, Rania has to put her children in day care, which runs about $80 per month, and take a taxi to and from work every day, which runs another $80 per month, leaving the family only $40 per month to live on. Which is impossible.
So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been sending Rania $300 per month to live on while her husband’s wages pay down their debts and she continues working, in the hope that if and when funding for the Syndicate finally comes through, she’ll be first in line for her dream job.
When I visited Palestine in September, Rania insisted that I visit her in Tulkarem and see the work she does on a daily basis. It was a whirlwind tour. First we visited the Syndicate office and talked with other volunteers. (Everyone is a volunteer right now — there’s simply no money to go around.)
We met several women who came to the Syndicate a few times per week as part of their university training, and a female volunteer was taking them through the day’s lesson. One of the male volunteers was a music teacher. Another was a policeman, most of whose family is in Israeli prison. One of his sons was unable to finish high school because the Israelis took him when he was 16.
They all had the disarming, earnest friendliness I’m used to in Palestine, the same direct and matter-of-fact way of talking about their hardships, the same undying hope that telling their story just one more time will somehow make a difference. And they all spoke of Rania as if it’s understood that she’s indispensable.
Next we visited a home for the mentally handicapped. Most of the patients had Down syndrome. Many of them recognized Rania, and their faces lit up when they saw her. A teacher showed us the different classrooms, from the one for people who could barely function at all, who basically just played or danced all day, to a class for more advanced students who could learn to read and write and perform other basic skills.
Finally we went to a UN school for refugee children, where Rania and several other women organized an after school program for girls through the local YMCA. About a hundred high-spirited first-graders showed up, all of them girls, and we set up games of tug-of-war, sack races, hop-scotch, hula hoops, and best of all, the game where everyone grabs the edge of a parachute cloth and jumbles it around with balls on top so that the balls jump around everywhere. Everyone was laughing while we did it.
Rania whispered to me, “When the girls are doing this, they forget all their stress!”
Afterwards we handed out juice boxes and cakes and did face-painting and drawing on a giant piece of butcher paper. The girls were engaged the whole time, their eyes shining, supporting each other through every challenge. Without these women, and the smattering of funding from the YMCA for the supplies, these girls would simply be trudging home to crowded cinderblock alleys and small rooms that may or may not have electricity.
It was incredibly humbling to see so many volunteers, who had hard and busy lives of their own, and barely enough money to survive, spending their time helping others instead of throwing up their hands or ignoring their even-less-fortunate neighbors.
On the way back to the office, Rania said to me, “You see how I am known in Tulkarem? Before I did this volunteering, no one asked about me. No one knew who I was. The important thing is not to stay in the house all day. If you stay in the house, the people will forget you. But if you know the people and society, in the end you will succeed.”
I have no doubt she’s right. I don’t know when that time will come, but I do know that I’m proud to support the work she does in her community, and I hope I will be able to continue until better fortune comes to the occupied city of Tulkarem.
This is where you can help. As many of you know, I put $400 into the “Rania fund” as my contribution last year, and since then I’ve been raising money to send $300 monthly to help her family survive and allow her to continue her work. I haven’t sent an appeal in a while, and I currently need $950 to break even for the year. I know it’s the holidays, but if any of you can help – even gifts of $5 and $10 add up very quickly – it would be enormously appreciated.
My Paypal email is firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can mail a check to my new place in New York. Just email me, and I’ll send you the address. I can also send you a credit card invoice via Paypal if you let me know a gift amount, or I can simply tell you how to send the money directly to her via Western Union. It’s a surprisingly simple process (but there is a $12 fee).
Back at the office, Rania presented me with an astonishing gift. A friend of hers had managed to procure a rare book from the Al Yaser Association for Development, a textbook-sized hardback full of photographs from Palestine from 1886 to 1948 with captions in English and Arabic. It’s a decisive refutation of the “land without a people” propaganda and a beautiful homage to Palestine before it was Zionized.
I thanked Rania and her friend profusely but asked, “Why would you give this to me?”
She said, “I told you I would tell you everything that happened to me. This is part of what happened to me.”
In the evening she took me upstairs to the space where her new home was frozen in the process of being built after her husband was carted off to prison. The walls and ceiling are finished, but there is no flooring, wiring, glass for the windows, appliances, or furniture. We took the kids with us, Karim and little Lusan, and they played around like it was a giant sand box and jungle gym.
After a while, Karim asked, “Whose house is this?”
Rania said, “It is for us.”
“Why don’t we live here?”
Rania hesitated, unsure of what to say.
“I want to live here,” he said decisively. “I don’t like to stay in that house downstairs. One of my cousins hits me when I play down there.”
Rania looked at me and sighed. “My dream is to finish my house,” she said in English. She knows that if her brother-in-law decides to come home from abroad, her family will be homeless. It’s like the sword of Damocles hanging over them.
Here’s another place where you can help. Beginning work on the house will only cost about $1,000, and after that she can pay off the remaining $2,500 in installments over three years. But at least during those three years, her family will be living in their own house. If you want to contribute toward the $1,000 “down payment” on finishing her house, please let me know.
I know it’s a lot to ask — $950 for emergency living expenses and another $1,000 for the house. But looked at another way, it’s really not that much. If everyone on my email list gave just $5, it would be taken care of. If everyone gave $10, we’d also be able to pay off their $2,000 debt from the time Rania’s husband was in prison and free that money up for living expenses next year. And it will allow Rania to continue her great work in the Tulkarem community (which should be commanding a good salary but isn’t due to forces beyond her control).
How often do you get that kind of return for a $10 investment?
Many thanks and happy holidays,