Web lets Palestinian children find world beyond refugee camp
31 December 2003
There are 32 children in the class, all Palestinian, all new experts on the internet. Qassem Sa'ad, a small man with a neat brown moustache, is proud of them and not without reason. Noisy they may be, but enthusiastic they obviously are. And bright.
Where do they all come from, I ask? And the answer, of course, is not Lebanon -- even though they were born there. "Safad," says one. "Hitin." "Tabaria." "Shafa'am." "Nimerin." "Sminya," says a little girl wearing a scarf. All are towns that are -- or were -- in what is present-day Israel.
These children -- and dozens of others -- are beneficiaries of a project by Save the Children UK, one of the three charities this newspaper is supporting in this year's Christmas Appeal for Forgotten Peoples. Though they live in Ein al-Helweh, Sidon, the biggest and arguably the poorest refugee camp in Lebanon, these children now have their own website, called Eye-to-Eye. When The Independent correspondent admits that he does not use the internet, there are roars of laughter. Palestinians 1, Fisk 0.
Through the website, the children of Ein al-Helweh can talk to children elsewhere in the world. They talk to schoolchildren in Wales, to child workers in India -- in a glass-bangle factory near Agra, which sounds, to be frank, an awful lot like being a Palestinian refugee child. They talk to their friends in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. One has found relatives amid the vastness of Ukraine. The introduction to the website is carefully phrased, and Save the Children has gone out of its way to avoid the usual claims of bias. "Save the Children UK recognises the political issues and sensitivities surrounding the current crisis in the Middle East," it says. "Our sole concern is to safeguard the rights and lives of all children, wherever they live." It condemns "explicitly and strongly ... any act of violence against children on both sides".
But through the site children are learning that there are 7.5 million Palestinians, of whom 4.5 million are refugees, that more than 50 per cent are under 15 and that "it is more than 50 years since the first exodus of Palestinian refugees".
According to Save the Children's website the UN decided in 1947 to divide up Palestine into two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state and "the Arab states were not happy with this plan". They could say that again. About 800 000 of the Arab population fled their homes "to avoid the fighting". But Save the Children are honourably trying to tell the Palestinian story.
The website has a quotation from the UN General Assembly's unbinding resolution 194, which demands that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours" should be permitted to do so; this, of course -- rather than the right to a homeland of indeterminate size -- is the new focus of dispute in any Middle East talks, the reason why both Israeli and Palestinian extremists condemned the recent Geneva Accord signed by unelected representatives of both sides.
And Save the Children is bold enough to point out some hard facts. The Israelis, they say, have closed off "islands" of Palestinian territory, and Palestinians "can't leave their own area to go to school or hospital in another area ... Many Palestinians do not have safe, clean water to use ... because the Israeli settlers who live in the settlements can take the water from the Palestinians".
Yet such adult perspectives are merely the framework for the project. Its point is to allow the children to speak themselves, directly, without any interlocutor. On their website the children post photographs of their daily lives in Ein al-Helweh. They take part in photographic competitions. A girl called Nisreen has written of how her parents have the old British mandate documents proving their home is in Palestine, not in Lebanon.
I ask them to tell me who they blame for their lives as refugees. A boy puts his hand up. "The Israelis," he says. Did they all agree? A girl's hand goes up. "Palestinians," she says, setting many heads nodding. An older boy interrupts. "I blame the Arabs," he says. Bright children, these. Could there be better pupils for Save the Children to help?