Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"We are Muslims. God created us to have good lives, not to stop it." Wafa Younis, music teacher and conductor


I was in the Jenin Refugee Camp sitting with a group of children, waiting for the arrival of their music teacher, Wafa Younis. As the taxi pulled up the children sprang up and ran towards it, yelling and laughing, waiting for their turn to hug and greet her. "This is my family, here in the Jenin Camp," Wafa explained to me. "I love them so much and they love me back."

Wafa was recently a reluctant star in the international news after her group from Jenin gave a short performance to a group of elderly Holocaust survivors in Holon, Israel. The performance caused turmoil in the Jenin Camp that resulted in the local leadership temporarily shutting down her student group. "When a newswriter from Jenin called me to tell me that there was a problem I laughed," she said. "I made no mistake. They are old people we played for. I am not playing music for (Israeli defense minister) Ehud Barak or (Israeli President) Shimon Peres. But I am ready to play music for people in pain."

Wafa grew up in Israel in the Arab village of 'Ara, and went to high school in Haifa, where she was the only Arab studying amongst Jews. After graduating she became a music teacher, the first in the Wadi 'Ara (the area surrounding the village). During the early years she worked with 40 children in a class for eight hours a day. "My head hurt a lot," she says.

In March 2003, a suicide bombing in the Haifa restaurant "Mattsa" took the life of the husband of a Jewish friend, Paula Yeroshalmy. "I can't tell you how strong the relationship between me and her is. It was such a tragedy."

Wafa learned that the suicide bomber came from the Jenin Camp, and decided that she would begin building a school here. "We are Muslims. God created us to have good lives, not to stop it. It wasn't like this in all the history of Islam."

"We Palestinians want our country. We have to fight for it, but not by taking lives. We can do it through music, talks, meetings, but not bombing."

She spent 40,000 dollars of her own money on the project after receiving no help from either the Israelis or Palestinians. After building the orchestra and putting on concerts inside Israel she received more attention and was able to receive donations of violins from private donors and universities. She now teaches 40 children in the Jenin Refugee Camp as part of her orchestra, "Strings of Freedom." Continuing to run the group is a difficult task, as she explains, given the difficulties of funding for renting space for rehearsals and acquiring new violins in addition. There is little money left, she says.

Wafa has also been working on three books for children. One of them, "Children for Peace," interviews 60 children, including Palestinian children in Israeli jails, about their thoughts on peace in the region. Another is a book of songs in Hebrew and Arabic, and she was able to get permission from Yoko Ono to use a Beatles song in it. The last contains musical settings of poetry written by Palestinian poets, "None of the poetry talks badly about Israel," she says. "They just reflect on their sadness on losing their homes and land."

Her immediate plans for the future involve building up the orchestra, which she needs new violins for. In the long-term she hopes to build a music academy in Jenin. "I want these children to be the first Palestinian music teachers in the West Bank," she says. Convincing the PA Minister of Education to mandate music teaching in Palestinian schools is a part of her mission.

"It bothers me so much that Israel says that the Palestinians are terrorists. I have been here in Jenin for seven years. I want to tell the world that the truth is not being told. Jenin isn't just Kalishnakovs. It is music as well."

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