“When our project director in Gaza went to a boy’s school in Bureij refugee camp, she asked what MECA could do for them,” says Barbara Lubin. “And they said what they wanted more than anything else was to be able to come to school and have a clean glass of water to drink.” That was all Lubin needed to hear. Beginning in 2009, the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s Maia Project—Arabic for “water”—has provided 16 UN schools and 22 kindergartens with safe drinking water in refugee camps and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including Bureij. This is no small feat. Israel’s ongoing blockade has made satisfying basic needs very difficult for many Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. According to the UN, more than 90 percent of Gaza’s water supply is unsafe to drink.
When Lubin cofounded the Middle East Children’s Alliance in 1988, Palestine faced a similar humanitarian crisis. Amidst the devastation of the first intifada, Lubin traveled to Palestine and organized MECA soon after. The group quickly began sending shipments of winter clothing, raising money for Palestinian food co-ops, and organizing delegations of Americans to see firsthand the realities that had inspired Lubin to action. For nearly 25 years MECA has struggled to give some semblance of normality and stability to young lives torn apart by conflict, while also making Palestinian voices as deeply heard as possible, particularly young voices.
Of course, we’re not used to hearing from children in the Middle East. Especially in places like Palestine and Iraq, the most vulnerable victims of sanctions, blockades, and bombings are often the most silenced. American coverage of Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza overflowed with references to Hamas fighters, militants, and rockets, but almost never spoke of civilians or children. The same is true of Iraq, where civilian deaths during the U.S. occupation were never officially tallied.
That’s what makes MECA’s focus on the voices of children so radical—and controversial. Seeing war as an assault on children, or seeing war through their eyes, is an unsettling idea, and can upset cherished narratives about the necessity of conflict. This is especially true of Let the Children Play and Heal, one of the group’s most well-known projects, launched in 2009. In the wake of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which ended in January of that year, human rights groups were struggling to deal with the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza. MECA responded once again with truckloads of food, clothes, and medical supplies, but quickly found the need to be much deeper than what they had seen before. The brutality of the invasion had left an indelible mark on the thousands of children who had witnessed the conflict unfold in front of them.
“They were wetting their beds, they were unable to sleep, they were acting out, all over Gaza after that bombing,” says Lubin. And so together with Afaq Jadeeda, MECA developed Play and Heal, a program that encouraged children to express their trauma through dance, drama, writing, and especially drawing. The project also trained hundreds of Palestinian mothers to further help children suffering from PTSD and other emotional scars.
The controversy came when the Middle East Children’s Alliance planned to exhibit the children’s drawings at Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art last fall, and were eventually turned away. The museum’s ban drew headlines across the country, but did little to sway students and teachers who wanted to learn more about the conflict. After MECA found an alternate venue, and began showing the drawings in other cities, more and more people began to see the art for themselves. “School buses were showing up everyday,” says Lubin. “Kids would look at the exhibit and then we’d have them sit down on the floor, and we would talk about what they felt about it and what was happening. And it was an incredible thing.”
The idea that dialogue like this could be controversial is more than a little amazing, but it also illustrates just how powerful children’s voices can be, especially if they’re telling uncomfortable truths. Silence is very often a weapon, particularly in this conflict. But a refusal to be silenced is also a critical part of the human rights struggle in Palestine, says Lubin. “They use this one word—I’ve heard it for 25 years from the mouths of thousands of Palestinian people—the word is steadfast. Sumud. They use it and they mean it. ‘We are steadfast. We will not be moved.’”