Migrant women

It’s my first day of volunteering with Kav LaOved, and I already saw many cases of women being abused by their employers.

Some examples:

  • An Indian woman was beaten so severely by her employer that her vertebrae disk got dislocated. She can’t get compensated for it, because her employer is dead now.
  • A Filipino woman was sexually harassed by her employer (being asked for sex, being groped and touched by him), but she can’t do anything about it because she is scared that she will lose her job.

I realized that many workers simply do not know their rights: for instance, their right to minimum wage, vacation days, annual recuperation pay, severance pay, notice of release prior to one-month dismissal, etc.

Many simply believe and trust what their employers say. For instance, one woman wanted to go back to the Philippines for vacation, but her employer says that she cannot because of the work contract (in reality, she has the right to take vacation or leave her job).

There is lack of services for migrant workers, especially women. Many do not have social workers who make monthly house visits (even though this is required by law), though this is especially important for domestic workers. They are often confined in their employers’ house for long periods, with no outside supervision over their working conditions.

Many do not have the family and friend support network to see them through these hard times; simply put, they are in isolation.

This shows the unequal power relation between the employers and the migrant workers. Because of the migrants’ low socio-economic status to begin with (that is why they are in Israel in the first place), they fear getting reprimanded by their employers whenever they complain about abusive workplace practices. Compound this to the migrants’ lack of knowledge of their rights, and you have an exploitative system.

Yet, they are so strong to overcome these struggles. They do everything out of love. Many of the women show me pictures of their loved ones back home – husbands, children, parents.

I feel privileged and grateful that I got to know these women. They are my role models for patience, perseverance, integrity, and love.

Where is the “local” in development?

Zleikha and I had an interesting talk on development.

Often, development “experts” from the West would impose their goodwill on the locals, telling what their needs are, and how to implement projects from an “enlightened” Westerner’s perspective.

I was caught playing the role of the (misguided) Westerner savior during one of my meetings with Zleikha. I explained how we should emphasize “cultural and religious diversity” in our programming and volunteers, and publicize the heck out of that. I did not realize how North American-centric this value was, nor did I think about the local context that we were operating in.

To “emphasize cultural and religious diversity” in our programming would certainly raise a lot of eyebrows in this area. For one, it could be interpreted by locals that our work seeks to:

  • appease local authorities and international partners
  • normalize relations with the Israeli settlers

That is not to say that we won’t strive for an intercultural/interfaith exchanges. Hardly that. Our core group of volunteers come from all parts of the globe.

But we have to always keep in mind the local context that we are working in.

Ghost town

Shops and front doors of homes are welded shut by Israelis.

We went to the Old City today to check out the International Conference on the Rehabilitation and Economic Revival of City Centers.

The picture exhibit was striking. A particular photo is forever ingrained onto my mind. It showed a street demonstration in support of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. One particular placard read, “Hebron was a Jewish town when Europe was a swamp.”

There was also a map of Hebron at the exhibit.  Among the many consequences of the occupation was the forced closure of Arab stores. Whole streets would be emptied out, all because the Israelis deemed it a “security risk” for Arab stores to be open in these “security corridors.”

I was appalled. How could anyone living in the settlements not empathize with the many Palestinians whose livelihoods were destroyed by the occupation? How could one’s right to settle in the land be at the expense of another’s freedoms and rights?

Tears

I cried.

I cried for the Palestinian children who could not know Israelis other than the soldiers. I cried for the Israeli settlers who could not see past the “security threat” that Palestinians pose. I cried for the Palestinian men and women, whose reality and sense of normalcy are distorted by the occupation. I cried for the Israeli children who were taught to have no empathy for others.

———

Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

First Encounters

A wall that separates "us" from "them"

I was introduced to Zleikha. She is undoubtedly the most defiant and strongest woman I have met in my life. The view from her rooftop was breathtaking – as was the view from the Israeli soldiers perched on the rooftops of the adjacent buildings to her house.

Indeed, the highest vantage points were taken by Israelis. Standing from the center of the roof, I was surrounded by Israeli watchtowers on four sides. Zleikha pointed out settlements to me: “One here, another one there, and look, another one over there.”

Zleikha told me that many times, the soldiers would tell her to “Go back home” whenever she is on her own rooftop – an obvious denial of her right to stay in her own home. This is a habit of the Israelis – to repeat untruths in order to erase others’ memories of the injustices. They would normalize injustice so that they could resolve their own cognitive dissonance.

The privilege of using space is exclusively reserved for Israeli settlers. Zulaikha described how a 30-sec walk to the cemetery (one which we have a lovely view of from her balcony) now takes 30 minutes by car.

This latter injustice is particularly disturbing: I saw groups of internationals and Israeli tourists take pictures of the wall, all the while laughing and smiling.  It was sickening, the oblivion of those who are privileged to walk on Shuhada Street.

But perhaps that is why the wall is there: to shield Israelis from the Palestinians’ narratives, lest the suffering of the other side pull at their heartstrings.

Looking around the houses, I noticed many balconies had wire mesh to protect the occupants from stone throwers.  What breaks Zleikha’s heart is that many of these stone throwers are children – many no more than 8 years old. How could parents perpetuate such hatred?

There was a hopscotch set up beside the wall – symbolic of how the conflict is going to be perpetuated by the next generation.

And then there is Mahmoud’s store – broken into by Israeli soldiers.  An Israeli soldier now perches on top of his store.

I did not have much time to reflect upon the multiple sights, because a Jewish settler on Shuhada street soon pointed us out to a patrolling soldier. The soldier gave us a piercing stare. I stared back, defiant of my position on the roof. I am a guest of Zulaikha, and this is Zulaikha’s house – do we not have a right to be in our own house?

In retrospect, it was probably a very irrational action for me to stare down at the Israeli soldier. He has a gun. I don’t. At the moment, I need to tell him – not through words, but through a simple gesture – that he has no right to restrict Palestinians’ movement. But more importantly, I needed to tell him that he is implicated in oppression – an injustice that my eyes have borne witness to.

Fourth day in Hebron, and already it is hard to erase the memory of an Israeli soldier from my mind.

Rites of passage

I sat in on a class with Flor, who taught English to eager 6 to 15 year olds in Hebron. I was later introduced to a 13-year old Palestinian girl. With a confident handshake, she told me her name. Samal would be the first of the many Palestinian refugees who would pass by me everyday. Her status is not obvious – one would not first guess that Samal is living in a UN refugee camp, where running water is not a given, and checkpoints are a part of everyday reality.

I could not imagine the psychological pressure that must have on young children.

Yet, she has the strength to excel in school. As she tells me proudly, she is the best student at her school, which is evident from her fluency in English.

We later went to Hebron’s Old City market, where we bought headscarves and sunglasses for Samal. She doesn’t often go to the market, since it is far from her refugee camp. However, the shops started closing at around 4pm. I later learned that it is because the Israelis have imposed a curfew on the shop keepers. Samal was happy nonetheless, that she got her prizes from the market.

Later that evening, I had the opportunity to hear from an imam. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment are part of their life – a twisted rite of passage that many Palestinians have to go through.

I got lucky

“You are lucky to be in Palestine. You are in the Holy Land.”

Bless the man who said those words to me, as I held the key to his house in Haifa. I tried to hide my embarrassment and shame.  Here I was, a privileged Canadian, who can go rambling about Palestine as she pleases, while a Palestinian – whose house is merely a half-day’s drive away – cannot even visit his own house.

Yes indeed, I am lucky – lucky to have a passport that labels me as a friend of Israel instead of a threat to the Zionist project.

First impressions of Hebron

I arrived in Hebron, shaken from what seemed to be a horrifying 2-hour ride through narrow roads that hugged the crevices of Palestine’s rolling hills.

I was immediately received by my Arab host family. I felt embarrassed that I did not know a single phrase in Arabic besides “Salaam alaykum.” As my coordinator translated Arabic for me, I was constantly asked this one question: “Where are you from?  Sin-neh?” As it turns out, not a lot of Asians travel to this part of the world, and I felt the burden of trying to represent the entire 1 billion plus people that comprise China.

Palestine is beautiful.  As I looked from the roof of Rafat’s house, I saw the gently rolling hills that continue onward from the landscape.  Colourful homemade kites dot the blue heavenly canvas.  But again, beneath the seemingly calm weather, there is the constant reminder of the occupation. Watchtowers, fences, barricades dot the landscape.

Of course, a day cannot end without shisha, chai, and Arab coffee.  I’m living the good life in Palestine.

Haifa – real coexistence?

The demographic war was apparent from the very moment I got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport.

I could easily have been with that group of Asians cornered and sent to a special interrogation room, or that African, who was being questioned about his citizenship and true purpose in Israel. Instead, my double-identifier as a Canadian and a “pseudo-fervent Christian pilgrim” gave me all the privileges a foreigner could wish for in Israel. With these simple identifications, I was exempt from the interrogation received by other less fortunate sojourners.

As I strolled onto the train to Haifa, I was immediately reminded of Israel’s reality – its existence is premised on occupation.  Soldiers in their early twenties touted guns and donned Ray Bans, with almost a look of pride – or perhaps nonchalance – over their actions in defending Israel from the barbarous Arabs.

How this image contrasts with my first impressions of Haifa, a city that is seemingly characterized by a certain kind of rhythmic calmness. Some would attribute it to coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, one would not find the usual markers of colonialism and feud in this port city.  I saw Jews and Arabs working side by side, with Shaloms and Salaam alaykums passed to each other.

But how wrong I was. These impressions were facades of a larger storm underneath the friendly exchanges.  In fact, the everyday “normalcy” should be contextualized within the larger structural conflict. It is inherently power-laden, where one side has the power to dictate the terms of negotiation, while the other has to yield to the externally-defined parameters for engagement.

This is apparent in how Arabs of 1948 Palestine talk about their everyday lives. “We survive and try to live each day as normally as possible.” These words are spoken so that they can cope with their realities. Arabs know they are not in a position in power to openly fight back. They cannot openly criticize the state and oppress every symbol – whether it is the Israeli flag, or the national anthem, or the fact that Hebrew gains primacy over Arabic in their everyday lives – that tries to wipe out their narratives of the place.

Oh yes, they do not forget their connection with the land. As one man in the Wadi pointed out a pre-colonial building to me – “It’s my home” – I realized that the Israeli government cannot erase the memory of the Palestinians, whether they are inside the 1948 borders or not. Atrocities cannot be erased by mere renaming of cities and districts, house demolitions, symbolic and empty peacemaking gestures, and suppression of speech.

Alas, I want to end on a happy note.

I’m staying with a mixed family in Haifa. The wife is Jewish, while the husband is Arab. Their story is one of real coexistence – one of compassion, empathy, and true understanding.

I thank God for the opportunity to witness such love amidst the oppression.

Looking down from the Ivory Tower

4 years in the ivory tower

I often forget who/what the numbers in World Bank and UNDP reports refer to.  It takes constant reminders that behind these numbers are faces that describe a developing country.

Today, I had a great talk with a friend about the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.  The true realities of these individuals – from a first-person account – are often not reflected in the analytical and technical ways through which we, from the heights of our Ivory Tower, study issues of (under)development, conflict, and politics, to name a few.

We are privileged in looking, critiquing, analyzing, and judging the world from a place of comfort, security, and ease.  From our Ivory Tower, we can never truly understand the pain, the suffering, the urgency, and the hopelessness these individuals on the other side of the world are experiencing every day.

Would this kind of setting – one of comfort and detachment – allow us to approach crucial issues such as developmental aid and foreign military policies in a constructive and effective manner?

That is for you to decide.  But for me, I’m going back to the place where I can hear people’s personal narratives of their daily struggles.

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