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Stars of Bethlehem

Local Matters


Published April 28, 2004 at 2:19 p.m.

Dr. AbdelFattah Abu-Srour wakes up each morning on the frontline of the global war on terrorism, and fights it with little more than puppets, finger paints, dance and drama lessons. Abu-Srour is founder and director of the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center in the Aida Refugee Camp, an eight-acre parcel of barren land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The camp is home to some 4000 Palestinians, 66 percent of whom are under the age of 18. With no parks, playgrounds, ball fields or green spaces, the camp is fertile breeding ground for the anger and despair that grips the Palestinian people. As Abu-Srour puts it, "The children have only the streets to express themselves, to break the windows of their neighbors with their footballs, or throw stones at the Israeli soldiers when they come into the camp."

Abu-Srour, a Palestinian biochemist who was educated in France, believes that if he doesn't manage to capture the hearts and minds of these children with art, theater or dance, someone else will -- by strapping explosives to their waists and sending them to a martyr's death inside Israel.

Last week, Abu-Srour visited Vermont as part of his U.S. tour to bring international attention to the plight of the Palestinian children. His choice to stop here was not happenstance -- since 1991, Burlington has had a tripartite sister-city relationship with the Israeli city of Arad in the Negev Desert and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem --Aida Camp's nearest neighbor. Abu-Srour's hope is that Vermonters will get another view of the Palestinian children, different from the rock-throwing youths usually portrayed on American television news, and will help him raise the funds to build a larger cultural center.

Two decades ago, the city of Burlington recognized that its cultural and economic reach stretches well beyond state and even national borders. In 1984, while the U.S. government was funding the Contras in their war against the Nicaraguan people, Burlington embraced the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas as a sister city. In 1987, about the same time that Ronald Reagan was condemning the Soviet Union as "the evil empire," Burlington forged a sister-city relationship with Yaroslavl, in Russia. Then in 1991, after a heated debate in the City Council, Burlington aligned itself with Bethlehem, becoming the first American city to adopt a sister-city relationship with a Palestinian community.

From the peaceful environs of Vermont, the global war on terrorism often seems like a wildfire raging on the New York side of Lake Champlain. Surely, it can't harm us from across the water, we reassure ourselves, but neither are we obligated to help extinguish it. Neither assumption is true. Burlington provides about $2000 a year to the sister-city program. But what really drives the program are local activists who visit the sister cities and engage in cultural exchanges -- like Burlington farmers Hilary Martin and S'ra Desantis, and the Peace and Justice Center's Kimberly Ead. Each of them spent months in the occupied territories earlier this year, meeting with Palestinians farmers and activists and promoting nonviolent, creative resistance work like that of Abu-Srour.

Abu-Srour certainly has his work cut out for him. The Al-Rowwad Center is located in a tiny, two-room house that serves 600 to 700 children. Because of its close proximity to Israeli checkpoints, the center frequently draws gunfire or mortar attacks, and has occasionally served as an emergency clinic for sick and wounded Palestinians. Two years ago, during the siege of Bethlehem, the center gained international attention as the area's only 24-hour medical clinic. Then in May 2002, the building was stormed by Israeli soldiers, who destroyed computers and video cameras that were being used by children to make cartoon films.

While Abu-Srour recognizes the desire of children and teens in the camp to react violently to the daily indignities of the Israeli occupation, he also reminds them constantly that violence will do nothing to help establish a future Palestinian state. "It's easy to throw stones. It's easy to explode oneself. It's easy to kill someone," Abu-Srour says. "But it's not easy to continue an education. It's not easy for a child to come to our theater and stay three hours for a rehearsal or to paint a mural."

Abu-Srour also makes it very clear to international benefactors that the center is not aligned with any governmental organization or political faction. His goal is simply to find a creative, nonviolent outlet for resisting the occupation. "It is important for these children who will be building the Palestine of tomorrow to have a wider horizon," says Abu-Srour. "Not to live only in the violence that is forced upon them, but to go out and meet with other children in the world and see that... there are people who are ready to listen to them in this nonviolent resistance."

Abu-Srour hopes to bring his troupe of young theatrical performers to Vermont in the summer of 2005. Assuming, that is, that the Israeli government grants them permission to leave.