After 50 years, the memories continue to haunt me often. I was 3 years old when the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and neighboring Arab countries on June 5, 1967. Everyone fled after a plane targeted our home and almost killed my mother with a bullet the size of a pen. However, I got separated from my family, because I could not put on my shoes in the darkness. I ran with strangers and found my family the next morning, but I could not find my sense of safety again.
In Ramallah, the Israeli soldiers turned our neighborhood into an army training camp, so Mother took me and my three siblings to live and study in an orphanage in East Jerusalem. I saw some of the effects of the war on other children’s lives, including seizures, lost limbs, nightmares, eating disorders, despair, and depression. The idea of crossing from a Palestinian childhood toward adolescence felt like crossing a dangerous jungle.
At the end of the school year we went home, and for two years, coexisted with the sights and sounds of army target practice, shootings and explosions, and helicopters landing and taking off in front of our house. But when some soldiers began knocking at our door and making obscene gestures at Mother when my father was away at work, my parents sold our house and we moved.
For many years, I would put on my shoes compulsively in the evening, which awakened memories of the war. I called 6 o’clock the war hour. When I first saw a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, I instantly understood it. The clock draped on the branch in the painting resembled a cloth I imagined Mother had washed and hung to dry on the clothesline. But this clock-cloth was stained by war. If squeezed like a wet shirt, people’s screams and nightmares would drip a pool of pain under it.
As a teenager, I was educated at United Nations schools for Palestinian refugees and then at government schools administered by al-halkem al-askaree, the Israeli military administrator. We could be punished for saying the word “Palestine” or drawing the Palestinian flag. Only soldiers and settlers were allowed to have weapons. Palestinians were expected to accept harm without defending themselves, so the soldiers and settlers behaved with impunity. Often, snipers on rooftops would point their guns at us as we walked to school.
I used to wonder whether people in other parts of the world knew what it was like for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. I found hope by writing pen-pal letters to people from around the world and memorizing a summary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, personalizing it for myself and others by adding our names. I also made an early decision that when I became an adult, I would not have children. The prospect of losing my child to war, or being unable to protect my child, felt unbearable. Helping to create a safer world for children already born by encouraging creativity and kindness, and by sharing personal stories from the heart to foster more empathy, inspired me.