In October I joined an MCC-led learning tour travelling through Palestine and Israel to learn about the conflict and to see the realities on the ground first hand. Our schedule was composed of an interesting mix of visiting MCC partners, travelling through the region to see the differences between occupation and relative freedom, and tourist spots including the holy sites.
During one of the mornings, we made our way from Bethlehem to visit the YMCA, an MCC partner, in neighbouring Beit Sahour. The YMCA
We arrived at the YMCA office early and strolled over the shepherd’s field and briefly climbed into an old cave, which shepherds may have used for their sheep at night. While the shepherd’s field was charming, our visit to the YMCA had a very different tone: one of a hard and somber reality. The YMCA offers rehabilitation programs to former child detainees. Every year hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested by the Israeli army, detained, and often serve a prison sentence at an adult detention center or military prison.
Part of our visit to the YMCA was to meet some individuals who had gone through the rehabilitation program. As we finished our introductory session with one of the psychological counselors who works with children, youth and young adults in the program, we all looked at the doors as seven young men walked in.
In that moment I was struck by the reality of the concept of child detention. Before going on this trip, I had been working with MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign for about four months. I had read testimonies and reports, but meeting people who had experienced arrest and detention as a child humbled me. I wondered, how hard it was for them to come and talk to us about their experience and I felt myself cringing, as the first person started to share.
I listened to each heartbreaking story about arrest, mistreatment by military personnel, torture, and physical, emotional, and mental injuries. Detentions and prison sentences ranged from three to eighteen months. While each experience was different, many commonalities appeared.
Each person spoke of an emptiness, hopelessness, and the loss of seeing a future past the experience of the detention. One young man, who is now 17 years old, shared how he was in a vulnerable psychological state when he was released. When he was arrested by the Israeli military, his arm was already in a cast and during the ensuing interrogation the cast was taken off and under torture, his arm was broken for a second time. To this day, he has not regained full mobility. To make matters worse, after his three-month detention and release, military personnel continued to show up at his house, disrupting his reentry into normal life and retraumatizing him. He shared, “When I closed my eyes, I saw them coming to arrest me… I thought I would always see that.”
Another young man shared how he was arrested and detained for two days when he was thirteen years old. At fourteen he was shot in the leg right before he was arrested again. At the beginning of his eighteen-months prison sentence, he spent 6 weeks handcuffed to a hospital bed while recovering from that major injury. When he came to the YMCA, he remembered being completely disillusioned. He could not imagine a future after what he had been through.
While these young men briefly described their detention experience, some not going into much detail, they each made a point of telling us about how far they had come since then. Every-day-life seemed impossible after their release, but they now shared with pride that they were in university, employed, in a trade apprenticeship, or working toward having their own business venture.
These young men underwent significant psychological counselling, and some received vocational training. The pride of accomplishment and hope for a good future was shining in their eyes. However, overcoming trauma in one way or another is not where the story ended for them. These young men are part of a leadership program, designed to allow them to give back to their communities, focusing on matters such as capacity building, communications tools, and teaching others about positive leadership.
After all of the young man had shared parts of their story, one of them raised his hand, signaling that he wished to add something. He looked around the room and said: “The children of the past are the leaders of the future!”
Later, when my group debriefed about the experience at the YMCA, we reflected on the hardship of what these young men had gone through, and marveled at their resilience, positive outlook, and motivation to help others. But we also wondered what their lives would have been like without occupation, without conflict, without the trauma of arrest, interrogation and detention.
We also remembered all of the children and youth who either have not had access to psychological care, or those who have not receive help in time. Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained by the Israeli military, 500-700 each year.
In this advent season, as the YMCA possibly stands on the very ground where the angels appeared to the shepherds in Beit Sahour, let us remember their message of hope and comfort, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV, Luke 2:10, 14).
At this moment in time, peace with justice has not yet come to Palestine and Israel as the conflict persists, but there is hope and the young men we met at the YMCA are determined to not only be part of a better, peaceful future, but they are actively working toward it.
Let us join them.
ACT Today: Sign this petition to urge the Canadian federal government to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.
For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work of MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.
Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office.
This blog post was originally published with the title “From despair to hope on the shepherd’s field: listening to stories of child detention”