Guest contribution by Suha Najjar
Throughout elementary, middle, high school and even much after, we are taught and retaught to be “thankful,” to realize that we have “first-world problems” and others don’t always have what we have. And although we strive to come to terms with this, many times we forget that what we consider essential doesn’t necessarily mean that others are as fortunate to say the same. We grow up knowing what a “normal” childhood consists of. We know how children should behave, and more precisely, we know how children should not behave. Childhood has always been a necessity in our eyes. But in reality, it is a privilege that many times children themselves do not experience.
I’d like to share the story of two young boys, born and raised on two very different parts of the world.
Picture George. George is a 5th grader at Polo Road Elementary in the lovely Palmetto State, South Carolina. He wakes up every morning in his Buzz Lightyear comforters and twin size bed unaware that it is 40 degrees outside because of his home’s indoor heating. He doesn’t share a room with his brother, but they do have to share the playroom. His clothes for the day are folded and ironed, neatly placed on the corner of his bed. His father is already dressed and ready to head off to work. His mother downstairs prepares his breakfast and lunch for the day. Eggs, hash browns, orange juice maybe. For lunch, a turkey sandwich, Fruit Roll-Up, and Capri Sun. George goes to school, his backpack full of paper, mechanical pencils, crayons, and his books all protected by his favorite book covers. The best part of the day is definitely recess and PE, and his worst is math class when Mrs. Creech once embarrassed him by asking him for the answer to a question he didn’t know.
After school, George heads over to baseball practice at an indoor sporting facility. He gets picked up by his mother, father, and younger brother and they all head to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. Over dinner, his father and mother talk about George’s older brother and how he is adjusting to his first year in college, how all his hard work led to amazing scholarships that covered his tuition and housing. At the end of dinner, George’s father surprises George and his younger brother that they will be spending spring break in the Bahamas. They go home, and George’s mother allows him to play on his Wii for an hour before he’s finally tucked into bed and up the next day for school.
Picture Hamza. Hamza was born and raised in Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He lives in a 3-bedroom shack with his four brothers, three sisters, and mother. Hamza has very few memories of his father. He was killed during the Second Intifada. Despite the fact that their roof is made of scraps of metal pressed together with cement blocks, there are no beds or bedframes or heaters in his home. No internal heating. Hamza is supposed to go to school everyday, but sometimes his brothers need him to help at their farm near the border. He doesn’t have the best grades although he is the smartest out of his brothers. He was lucky when he didn’t do any farm work last year on that fateful April morning when his brother was shot and killed while harvesting wheat.
Hamza wears three layers of shirts and a jacket that had been passed down to him from his oldest brother. But he wears the jacket proudly, smiling at himself in the mirror that hangs in the closet shared with his brothers. He grabs the last bit of hair gel they have, spikes his hair and goes off to the kitchen. Their refrigerator doesn’t have much food because if they buy too much it may spoil when the electricity cuts off for hours, sometimes days, at a time. Hamza heats a piece of bread on the stove and fills it with thyme. He doesn’t worry about lunch.
During class, he asks his neighbor for a pencil to take his notes for the day in his small notebook. No crayons, no mechanical pencils. When the teacher asks if anyone has questions, he thinks about raising his hand and asking, but knows that there are twenty other students from the fifty that he shares a classroom with waiting in line to ask, and decides not to. He buries his face in his arms to keep his face warm.
During Arabic class they hear an explosion nearby, but continue with their class anyway, explosions aren’t anything new.
An hour later, Hamza’s brother comes running into the classroom and asks for Hamza to go home. Tears are streaming from his brothers eyes and Hamza knows. He knows someone is gone, another family member had been taken away from him. This time his sister, age five, was playing outside her house when a car driving by was targeted.
Now picture this. Picture someone telling Hamza that he should be more like George. Hamza should be coloring, Hamza should be going to school and getting good grades like George. That George doesn’t even know what AK-47s, drones, and airstrikes sound like, that he doesn’t have a violent mind like Hamza does. George would never consider throwing a rock at someone. George is taught love and peace, not hate, this someone will say. George is innocent.
Yes. Hamza shouldn’t have to throw rocks, just like the occupation soldier strapped in bullets and guns in front of him shouldn’t want him dead or exiled. He shouldn’t know what an airstrike is, just like it shouldn’t have killed his sister, his friends, and his countrymen. Hamza shouldn’t play with matches, just like he shouldn’t be studying under candlelight because his neighborhood get electricity for only a few hours a day, sometimes a week. Hamza shouldn’t be skipping classes to help his family, just like he shouldn’t have to starve if he doesn’t. Yes, a rocket shouldn’t be an emblem of defense and resistance in his eyes, just like missiles and bullets shouldn’t be raining on his home.
We should realize the overwhelming injustice and foolishness in asking for selectivity in childhood. When telling Palestinian children they should think and behave like western children at times that are suitable and adults at other times. We want Hamza to be an adult and help dig his sister out of the rubble. We want him to be an adult and continue class even while bombs are being dropped a couple of miles away. But we want him to be a child, who doesn’t think of blood and guns. We want him to be a child that never imagines being working for a free Palestine one day.
It is absurd to accuse the children of Palestinian of being taught to hate, when in fact they are taught life. Hamza’s childhood, his innocence was stolen long ago, not by his parents, and not by his people, but by the occupier. He will never be able to relive or change it. He will never be like George.
I would tell this person yes, Hamza shouldn’t have to throw rocks, just like the soldier in front of him shouldn’t hope to see him dead or exiled. He shouldn’t know what an airstrike is, just like the soldier shouldn’t be killing his family, friends, and countrymen on an almost weekly basis. Hamza should study underneath a lightbulb not in candlelight. I would tell him that Hamza should know what it feels like to worry about college applications and getting scholarships and not whether he will even live long enough to graduate high school.
This someone should realize the overwhelming injustice and foolishness in asking for selectivity in childhood, for expecting Palestinian children to think and behave like Western children at times that are suitable, and as adults at other times. Hamza’s childhood — his innocence — was stolen long ago, not by his parents, and not by his people, but by the ongoing occupation, and he will never be able to relive it.
It is absurd to accuse the children of Palestinian of being taught to hate, when in fact they are taught life.
Suha Najjar is a Palestinian American who studies at the University of Michigan.