Columnists Katharine Baker and Peter Titelman: Supporting the children of Palestine

  • Children at the Smiling Faces summer camp sponsored by Palestinian House of Friendship in Asira al Shamaliya, West Bank. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Earlier this month, President Trump met at the White House with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine and the Palestinian National Authority.

After their meeting, Trump declared that he would “make a deal” between Israel and Palestine, resolving their century-old conflict, as no previous American president has been able to do. We wish him luck!

Meanwhile a man of peace, Mohammed Sawalha, has a different approach. He is the founder and director of the nonpolitical Palestinian House of Friendship in Nablus, and is returning for the 14th year to Northampton on May 19 to talk with us and get our support for the children of Palestine.

When Sawalha was a young man, just out of Birzeit University, he participated in peace efforts in Madrid and Washington, and set up civic education programs for voter-age Palestinians in order to prepare them for participation in their first national elections in 1994, following the Oslo peace accords. But as they began to unravel in subsequent years, Sawalha, by then a professor of linguistics at An-Najah National University, turned his attention and energy to the younger generation of Palestinians.

He realized that a truly peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfortunately lay far far in the future. The only hope for creating a land in which people of all religions and cultures could have equal rights and respect would become the responsibility of today’s children and youth. How to help them prepare for this heavy responsibility?

Sawalha founded the Palestinian House of Friendship in 1994 to provide a community center where children and young people living in the West Bank city of Nablus and its surrounding villages can relax, play, and learn how to be responsible leaders for the Palestine of the future.

Over the years, Palestinian House of Friendship has developed many programs for children and adolescents, including camp sessions each summer that offer sports, swimming, traditional Palestinian arts and dance, and a healthy midday meal. Campers include children and teenagers from refugee camps, as well as disabled children.

In addition, it has established a 150-member Girl Scout troop that specializes in local social service projects, particularly those that help the elderly. Girl Scouts also have begun a program to clean up their local physical environment.

As of last fall, Palestinian House of Friendship has a new playground, contributed by Playgrounds For Palestine (www.playgroundsforpalestine.org) based in Pennsylvania, and a skateboard park installed by a group of young people from Scotland (www.skatepal.co.uk), who also provide equipment and teach young Palestinian children how to skate. The kids are getting so skillful that they now aspire to send a skateboard team to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

This spring Palestinian House of Friendship, with the help of In Place of War at Manchester University in England, is in the process of setting up a music studio so that young people can perform and record their own music.

We had the privilege of meeting Sawalha in 2003, when he came to the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in Deerfield, and we have been friends with him since, visiting him and his family in Nablus, and welcoming him to our home annually in Northampton.

This year, he is coming to Northampton on May 19 to tell our community more about Palestinian House of Friendship’s activities, the situation in Palestine these days, and his dreams for the younger generation in Palestine. We will welcome him at the Florence Civic Center from 6 to 8 that evening. This gathering is open to the public, and we will be raising funds to support Palestinian House of Friendship and its programs for children and youth in 2017.

We believe that Palestinian House of Friendship’s programs serve the emotional, social, physical and spiritual development of Palestinian children who are fortunate to have the opportunities it offers in Nablus and the surrounding villages.

As a result, these children will grow into strong, healthy, responsible adults who have the stamina and resilience to find not just a “deal,” but a long-term stable peace for their country and their region.

Katharine Baker and Peter Titelman, of Northampton, are family therapists with private practices. More information about Mohammed Sawalha’s visit to Northampton is available by calling Titelman at 413-586-0215.