Returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah today, I found myself seated beside a young, articulate English speaking Palestinian girl from Jerusalem. She has been studying at the university in Ramallah and is excited about her upcoming graduation, with plans to work as a dietician in an acute care hospital.
A few minutes into the journey we arrived at the Qalandiya checkpoint. My seatmate explained that even though she has traveled here daily for the last 4 years, she must get out and go through the checkpoint. I attempted to get off with her but the bus driver instructed me to stay on. the young student disappeared into the crowd.
As an international, I was not required to go through the walking checkpoint. I would stay on the bus with the elderly and the numerous mothers traveling with small children, all of whom would have their ID’s checked on the bus. We pulled up to the gate and a female soldier boarded. The woman sitting in the front seat attempted to show her ID. The soldier took one look at it and loudly and forcefully ordered everyone off the bus. I got out with everyone else and stood in line at the walking portion of the checkpoint.
The line started out with about 100 people, a number that only increased as time went on and more buses arrived. People lined up in a roughly 12 foot wide fenced alleyway. At the far end was one turnstile gate that was opened occasionally by someone inside for anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds and a gate marked “humanitarian gate” that opened once during the time we were there for one woman pushing a child in a stroller. I looked around. The line consisted primarily of students carrying books, young parents with small children, and some older adults. We waited and waited and waited and waited. As time went on, people became increasingly more frustrated. As we drew closer to the front of the line, pushing ensued as people positioned themselves to get into the turnstile, a few at a time. Humanity crushed against humanity. Small children cried.
An elderly woman came towards us from one of the buses. Clearly, she had difficulty walking. She pleaded with 3 very young looking soldiers to check her ID and allow her to bypass the line. They refused. She pleaded again, and again they refused. She was visibly upset. I called the Humanitarian Hotline to report this situation and to ask them to intervene on her behalf. Meanwhile, the woman struggled to the end of the line. At once, people stepped back from the jostling and the line opened, allowing the woman to walk directly to the turnstile. Respect for elders is an important element of the Palestinian culture, something I have grown to appreciate in my time here.
The jostling continued. Like everyone else there, I felt pushed, shoved, and leaned on from every direction. The woman directly in front of me, a woman in her 60’s, was carrying a beautiful coleus plant in a deep 10 inch diameter pot. She lifted it onto her head and balanced it there for about 15 minutes. I was amazed. It looked like a very heavy pot. The line continued to move at a snail’s pace. The turnstile only opened for a few seconds at a time, with minutes passing between each opening. By now, we had been there for over 40 minutes. Unable to stand it any longer, the woman calmly took the pot off of her head, very deliberately ripped the plant off at it’s base, set it in her bag and placed the pot on the ground.
I got closer to the turnstile. The crowd continued to push forward, everyone desperate to get through. In front of me, a small boy of about 3 wimpered endlessly, his face inches from steel bars. To my side, a young mother held her daughter, a beautiful little girl of about 7 months. I thought of how sore her arms must be as the child squirmed in her arms. Off to the side was a young father holding his baby. Ahead was another woman with a small child.
I looked down and found a little girl beside me, about 5 years old. Her mother was behind, trying to get the child closer to her. It was impossible to move in this mass of humanity. My heart went out to this young woman. She was carrying a small boy of about 5 months and beside her was her 3 year old son. I smiled and motioned that I would look after the little girl. I asked the child her name and she said it was Saheena. I told her my name was Jan and she took my hand, holding it tightly. How could this precious child not be scared as she was pushed and shoved in every direction by adults several times her size? I looked to my other side and found the little girl’s 3 year old brother. Their mother was anxiously trying to get him back closer to her, another impossibility in this crowd. Again, I motioned to the woman that I would keep them together with me. I put my other arm around the boy. More pushing. More jostling. People pressing in from every direction. Eventually the turnstile opened. I manouvered the two children into the turnstile behind a young man and attempted to step in with them. We didn’t fit. My backpack was caught outside and was preventing the turnstile from moving. People were hollering. The man ahead pulled my shoulders forward, enough to get the back pack in. I noticed the little girl crying. Her beautiful long black hair was caught on the button of the coat of a man standing behind. I reached back and managed to free her hair. The man ahead pulled my shoulders even further forward. I felt as if I was losing my balance. The turnstile gate moved forward and finally, we were through!
I looked back at the mother who was still caught in the crowd behind the now locked turnstile. I smiled at her and she smiled back, her eyes full of emotion. Gathering the two children to me, we moved to the side of the narrow passageway. I knelt down with them, holding an arm around each child. The little boy leaned into me, his face almost against mine. The little girl stayed close, content to be comforted by this total stranger – a woman with no head covering wearing western style clothing. A couple of minutes passed. The children shared a water bottle between them. The turnstile opened and their mother and baby brother made it through and came towards us. “Shukran, Shukran.” Arabic words of thanks. She took the children and proceeded to put their belongings through the xray machine, take each child through the metal detector, and provide their ID to the soldier sitting inside the glassed in booth. I went through the same process. Unable to resist sharing my thoughts, I told the soldier as he read my ID that this was cruel and inhumane treatment of innocent individuals. He shrugged.
I left the checkpoint and boarded the Jerusalem bus. More than 55 minutes had passed since we first lined up. 55 stressful, exhausting, cruel, inhumane and humiliating minutes. As I got on, my eyes met the young mother’s. She offered her seat. I declined and found a seat further back. As the bus moved on towards Jerusalem, I went up to speak with them. A young man seated behind her interpreted for us. I wanted to know their story – why were they travelling? She responded that she and her children live near Ramallah and were going to Jerusalem to visit family. I explained that I was from Canada and would tell the story of how they and the others were treated to as many people as I could. I told her that I believed that what we had experienced was awful – that it was cruel and inhumane and I believed they should not have to endure this treatment. I gave her my card with a brief Arabic explanation of EAPPI. She asked my name. Smiling, she said in English, “God bless you.” I was speechless. We had shared a horrible situation. In the midst of it I had simply reached out to help, doing what any decent human being would do. In my heart, she is the one deserving of praise. She is the one to be honoured. I will go home in another 6 weeks time to a country where this kind of humiliating, degrading abuse does not happen. She will go through this checkpoint every time she goes into Jerusalem to visit family, to shop, to seek medical care. As we got off the bus, she took my hand and shook it, with the English words “thank you.” I smiled and responded “Peace be with you.” Across cultures, across language barriers, across faith traditions, each of us had found the presence of the Divine in the other. God in all of life.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,