Guest contribution by Dina Elmuti
From the horrific atrocities committed in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre to the tragic, untimely death of world-renowned scholar and prominent Palestinian activist Professor Edward Said, who lost his battle to leukemia, September has long-been a month of aching loss for Palestine. This Palestinian narrative is not new; tragedy and injustice have permeated Palestinian national life for over six decades now, but there does exist a tale of immeasurable hope, the rebirth of a new Palestinian landscape at the hands of a legendary Palestinian heroine.
Exactly one year after the signing of the ill-fated Oslo Accords, the Palestinian people witnessed another great loss when Hind Al-Husseini lost her strenuous battle with lymphoma. But even until her very last breath on September 13, 1994, she never once conceded defeat in her lifetime battle against the oppression of the Palestinian people.
As I write this, I wonder how I could possibly begin to describe this remarkable woman who profoundly impacted countless lives including my very own. No words, accolade, or film could ever do adequate justice to honor this champion of justice. To Mama Hind, as she was affectionately known – the mother, advocate, teacher, and social worker who devoted her life to saving, educating, and inspiring generations of Palestine’s youth, who gave a warm home to the homeless, an empowering voice to the voiceless, and a lasting legacy filled with the indestructible asset of hope to Palestine, I will forever be indebted.
6,326 miles away from the small, rural town I grew up in, I stood looking up at the ornate sign reading “Dar Al-Tifil Al-Arabi [Home of the Arab Child] Institute, Jerusalem, EST. 1948.” My eyes remained transfixed on the words, filling me with a sense of wonder knowing I stood in the very place my grandmother did sixty-three years ago. This wasn’t just a historical marker or point of interest for tourists in Jerusalem; it was the place that had become home to my grandmother, her younger sisters, and countless orphaned, terrified, and defenseless children after being forced from their homes during the Deir Yassin Massacre. I followed my small, frail and resilient grandmother through the tall metal gate and around as she pointed out the school buildings with pride, climbing the very steps she climbed as a child as if it were only yesterday. I tried to imagine how she felt at such a young age in an unfamiliar place away from the home maliciously stolen away from her like her childhood overnight.
I climbed up the stone steps to the original part of the school where my grandmother and mother once lived and learned as young girls. To see the original book of records holding my grandmother and her sisters’ pictures and names written in Mama Hind’s handwriting in 1948 brought tears to my eyes, and standing near the window of the room where my grandmother slept over the years sent chills down my spine. As the sun sparkled through the tall windows, I began to feel the warmth of Mama Hind’s presence after all these years.
At the time that the massacre of life and innocence took place on April 9, 1948, Mama Hind was head of the small charity, the Social Work Endeavor Society, in Jerusalem. After learning of the atrocities, she made it her unwavering mission in life to give children like my grandmother a home to live in. After two weeks of gathering the remainder of the homeless, orphaned children of Deir Yassin, Mama Hind took them to her family home, converted it into a safe haven and school, and thus the Dar Al-Tifl was born. Adamant on never naming or referring to it as an orphanage, she called it the Home of the Arab Child open to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable of society.
At 32 years-old, Hind Al-Husseini became mother, mentor, teacher, and confidant to 55 orphaned children overnight. Without any reservations, she adopted the children brought into her life and left at her doorsteps and insured them with the trust that she would never abandon them. In her diary, she wrote down her enduring, resolute promise to the children of Dar Al-Tifil: “I will live with these children or die with them.”
Blessed with an instinctive maternal instinct, she put tough love into practice and became mother to all who stepped foot in Dar Al-Tifil. Though she never married and had children of her own, she was revered as the woman having the most daughters in Jerusalem. “Yabanati” (my daughters) as she would refer to them daily as they ate, played, sang, grew, and learned indispensible life lessons together. Mama Hind’s daughters grew by the thousands over the years and generations.
Coming from the prominent Husseini family in Jerusalem, Hind led an infinitely generous life devoted to the rich cause of empowering the oppressed and enriching the lives of the vulnerable. Endowed with an unmistakable sense of compassion and adoration for human dignity, she used her family’s notable reputation and wealth to establish the Dar Al-Tifil Institute and Hind Husseini College for Women in conjunction with the Al Quds University in Jerusalem. She contributed everything, from her life savings to her invaluable principles and sincerity to advocate on behalf of children who had everything taken away. Contrary to the impotent power players parading around on self-erected thrones intoxicated by greed and a self-righteous abuse of power, Hind donated her money and lobbied to distribute a wealth of knowledge to transform education as a unified means of resistance for Palestine’s “have-nots.”
With an intellectual, pragmatic confidence and admirable personal humility, she challenged the inequitable reality of education being a tool the elites of society were privileged enough to have. Education was a necessary, legitimate and effective means of resistance, and through this powerful medium she created jolts to the human conscience. In addition to emancipating her homeland, she set out to teach its young minds to break the chains of the shackles of fear, oblivion, and servitude imposed on them by colonizers and ineffectual political authorities. Not only did she speak through an authentically eloquent voice, Mama Hind was a bold woman who vehemently walked the walk objecting to injustice on every level. This was no “slacktivism” or haki faadi, the Arabic expression for the cheap, empty talk that the Palestinian people have heard for years on end. She led her life with the kind of revolutionary altruism and passion that make the blood running through veins burn with fury.
Every day I wake to see my grandmother fighting strong with fierce determination, I thank Mama Hind for being among the very first to teach her the value of fighting for everything in life from health, hope, and happiness to justice, freedom, and the right to exist. Walking along the Via di la Rosa of Jerusalem Al Quds where centuries of history, pain, and suffering lay etched in the layers of stone, she took a walk that forever changed her life and the lives of fifty-five terrified children on that fateful day in April. Seventeen years after her death, she still continues to change and touch lives profoundly all around the world, from Jerusalem to the Midwest.
Although Palestine hasn’t seen the long overdue justice it deserves yet, the real atrocity would be losing hope that it ever will. One year after the signing of the Oslo Accords, another oppressed people living under apartheid earned their liberation in South Africa. Although Mama Hind wasn’t able to witness this historic moment of justice or the liberation of Palestine in her lifetime, she will be there every step along the way through our undeterred conviction and tireless efforts on behalf of justice when it does happen. She’s there in the laughter of children echoing far louder than any thunderous explosion of bombs or gunfire. She’s there in classrooms through the invaluable lessons taught by dedicated teachers and mentors filling the lives of children with ambition and hope for better tomorrows. She’s there in the innovative efforts, boycotts, and awareness circulating the truth through every medium at our disposal. And she will be there when the children of Palestine and their children finally see peace and reclaim their right to childhood. Just as she promised, she would never abandon Palestine’s children or struggle.
Soon after Hind’s death, cynics predicted that the Dar Al-Tifil School would close within six months, just as contemptuous leaders arrogantly claimed that “the old will die and the young will forget.” 63 years later, Dar Al-Tifil remains standing and growing with the help of generous donations and the collective efforts of Palestine’s youth worldwide that will never forget and never relinquish the dream of seeing a free Palestine.
Amongst her wealthy compatriots Hind was a minority, an exception to the rule. But, as history has shown us many times before, it has always been those in the minority that stood the tests and trials of time achieving history’s most noble accomplishments. Mama Hind’s legacy will never be measured by flowery tributes but by the inspirational example she set through priceless contributions and visionary actions that spoke louder than any oration. I hope this story brought peace to your mind and planted the lightning of a fire burning brightly in your heart, just as Mama Hind would have wanted.
Dina Elmuti is currently finishing a Masters degree in social work with a concentration in health and mental health clinical work, conflict resolution, and social and relief services. In Dina’s own words, “I’m defined by who I’m not — by the very things that I oppose — and my story lies between what I see and what I say, between what I say and what I keep silent, between what I keep silent and what I dream. I dream of a free Palestine and justice for all.”