Berkeley-based groups draw art from struggle

By Kelly Virella, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday April 12, 2002

If art is born from struggle, life has offered a master painter’s environment to Palestinian children growing up during the Middle East conflict. 

Nine-year-olds who participated in a famous art therapy project in the 1980s depicted shootouts between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants and drew scenes as stark as their titles: “Soldiers Chaining and Blindfolding Everyone in Jazalon School Yard,” one is titled; “Beating One Child and Shooting Another” a second is named. 

In “Confrontation on the Road Between Qaiqilya:” 11-year-old Valentina Afif showed a helicopter, a tank and Israeli troops converge and fire on a group of Palestinians, their arms high in surrender. 

“Eighty to 90 percent of these kids have lived in violence all their lives,” said Mona Halaby, one of the women who is bringing some of the drawings to Nexus Gallery at 2701 Eithth St. for a May 18 fundraiser for relief efforts. “It is very important for us to stop them from leading violent lives as adults.” 

Halaby, a third-grade teacher at Park Day School in Oakland and two of her friends from the school, Jaleh Bisharat and Cathy Shields are trying to do just that by raising $50,000 to help the Middle East Children’s Alliance build a secular kindergarten in Gaza Strip and to help Doctors Without Borders support a medical clinic for Palestinian women in a Bethlehem refugee camp. 

Halaby asked Bisharat and Shields to help her after attending a fundraising dinner for the local Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association at which 30 – 35 women gave $20,000. “I couldn’t believe the success of that,” Halaby said. “I had never seen women get together and do something so powerful.”  

The three women formed Joining Hands and kicked off their efforts with a March dinner at Halaby’s house. So far they have rasied $20,000 from some 70 friends.  

Though Joining Hands focuses on providing humanitarian relief to Palestinians, its founders stand for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied land and the just resettlement of Palestinian refugees. 

“There will be peace if the occupation ends,” said Halaby, who grew up in Egypt and whose mother and husband are Palestinian.  

“What they want is peace as long as there is land to be peaceful in,” said Bisharat whose husband is Palestinian and who in 1985 and 1999 spent extended periods of time there.  

Some 780,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes during and after Israel and Palestine’s 1967 war and three times more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed since the most recent uprising began in September 2000, Bisharat said. “Their day to day life resembles apartheid,” she said. “I can tell you there’s no hope.” 

Several of the drawings to be displayed next month poignantly reflect these issues. Two are simply called “Home” and another, by six-year-old Uns Duwalk, is called “Occupation.”  

Children from four to 14 years of age did the drawings in the late 1980s, as part of a project organized by Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata. The drawings first hung at the United Nations in 1988, and were then published in the 1990 book Faithful Witnesses, which is no longer in print.  

The Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance, an advocacy and relief group helping Palestinian children in Israel and children in Lebanon and Iraq, purchased some of the United Nations’ collection and now houses it at its 905 Parker Street office. 

The art was the backdrop of the first dinner at Halaby’s house and, the women hope, will attract more donors to the Nexus Gallery on May 18. Admission is $10, but larger donations will be accepted.  

The women said that $25 buys books and toys for a child who would otherwise go to a school run by Hamas, the Palestinian organization that claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing during last week’s Passover celebration that killed 19. The bombing and several more since then has touched off Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory in which many more Palestinians have been killed. 

“What we’re trying to address is to prevent there being a generation of traumatized children,” said Bisharat.  

“They don’t want their children brainwashed at the age of five and becoming a suicide bomber by the age of 16,” Halaby said. 

Doctors Without Borders, an international organization providing free healthcare in war torn areas, reported that since the most recent uprising began, a hospital providing care to Palestinians has been shelled, ambulances have been denied entrance to many road-blocked areas and medical personnel have been targeted by Israeli troops.  

“So many women are widowed or their husbands captured or in prison,” Halaby said. “They need a safe place to meet (the new clinic), a safe place to give birth.” 

Shields, who does fundraising for Park Day School, said the reaction to Joining Hands has been “heartwarming.” “It really doesn’t take heavy political analysis to get behind this,” she said. “I think it really touched a chord.”