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Jim Kenyon: Upper Valley man shaped by his experiences as Palestinian refugee (Part 1)

  • “This is so healing every time I come here,” said Mohsen Mahdawi as he stepped onto the Cross Rivendell Trail that skirts his land in West Fairlee, Vt., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. He hopes to one day hold retreats on the land. “My purpose in life is to make peace in myself and teach other people to make peace inside themselves,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Two boys play on a street in Mohsen Mahdawi's neighborhood in the al-Far'a Refugee Camp in the West Bank. Mahdawi took the photo during a trip to visit his family in 2018. (Mohsen Mahdawi photograph) Moshen Mahdawi photographs

  • Mohsen Mahdawi, when he was 8, with his father Khader in portrait photo for Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic holiday when many Muslims dress in their best clothes. Mahdawi's outfit was given to him by a West Bank charity. (Courtesy Mohsen Mahdawi) Courtesy Mohsen Mahdawi

  • Mohsen Mahdawi in the cemetery where his best friend and uncle are buried. Both were killed by Israeli soldiers. Mahdawi returned to the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugee camp where he grew up, for a one-month visit in 2018. (Mohsen Mahdawi photograph)

  • As Mohsen Mahdawi cleared trails with a rented excavator and a brush hog on his West Fairlee, Vt., land last fall, an image from his memory of an Israeli soldier bulldozing the homes of Palestinian refugees was stuck in his head. He told himself he was not like that man, but found empathy for him as he used the machines to make his own path. “It’s a crazy thing about how we get stuck into stories and we teach our kids the story and they inherit our pain and our suffering,” he said of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Mahdawi returns to his vehicle after an afternoon on the land Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/27/2020 12:22:24 PM
Modified: 12/27/2020 12:35:35 PM

WEST FAIRLEE — On a forested hilltop high above the village’s elementary school and general store, Mohsen Mahdawi has found his Jannah.

In Arabic, Jannah means paradise.

From the land’s peak, the 30-year-old Mahdawi can see across the valley into distant hills, where copper was mined 150 years ago in neighboring Vershire.

Deer trails crisscross the forest’s underbrush. A stream runs through the property’s hemlocks and red oaks. Young white birches dot the ridge above a shallow pond.

“In the summer, maybe there will be swimming,” Mahdawi said, pointing out the pond with an air of optimism.

After seeing the property advertised on Facebook Marketplace, Mahdawi purchased the 21 acres for $51,000 in October, using much of his savings and borrowing the rest.

“He was pretty appreciative,” said Chris Clark, a Vershire logger who owned the off-the-grid parcel for 20 years before selling to Mahdawi. “He seems to really love it up there.”

With a new chainsaw and a rented brush hog, Mahdawi has cleared a spot on a knoll for a small cabin. It’s here where Mahdawi plans to write about his journey — a venture that began 30 years ago in a Palestinian refugee camp, 5,500 miles from the Upper Valley.

The West Bank, sandwiched between modern-day Israel and the Jordan River, covers 2,200 square miles — roughly one-fourth the size of Vermont or New Hampshire.

The Israelis and the Palestinians have both claimed a historical right to the territory, but Israel has long held the upper hand.

In June 1967, the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan was a brief but bloody conflict. More than 20,000 Arabs and 800 Israelis were killed.

As the casualty numbers suggest, Israel came out the winner. The West Bank, formerly part of Jordan, was among the territories that Israel claimed and placed under its military rule.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is in its fifth decade. About 500,000 Jewish settlers occupy the territory, along with 2 million to 3 million Palestinian Arabs, including thousands trapped in West Bank refugee camps like the one that Mahdawi grew up in.

“Socioeconomic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate infrastructure such as roads and sewers,” the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which provides schooling, health services and food to 19 camps in the West Bank, reported in 2019.

For three generations, Mahdawi’s family has lived in the al-Far’a Refugee Camp in the foothills of the Jordan Valley. An estimated 8,000 Palestinians are packed into 63 acres — just three times the size of Mahdawi’s parcel in West Fairlee.

Located in the West Bank’s northern tier, al-Far’a is surrounded by farmland and orchards. Centuries-old olive trees grow in sun-baked red soil. “Some live a thousand years, which makes them very symbolic,” Mahdawi told me. “They can outlive the occupation.”

Palestine was still a British colony when Jews fleeing Nazi persecution emigrated from Europe in large numbers before and during World War II.

A United Nations General Assembly resolution created the state of Israel in 1948. Shortly thereafter, war broke out. Within two years, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians had fled or were driven from their homes in the fighting that surrounded the first Arab-Israeli war.

Growing up, Mahdawi was told stories about a Jewish militia storming what was then the Palestinian town of Um Khalid on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, where his great-grandfather owned a nearby vineyard. Along with thousands of other Palestinians, “my family ran to the West Bank,” he said.

The refugees believed that once the shooting stopped they could return to their homeland. But two months in the U.N.’s tent cities turned into two years. Rustic homes made of cinder blocks replaced the tents.

Seventy years later, there’s no end in sight. “My family has experienced this feeling of uncertainty since my great-grandfather,” Mahdawi told me. “It’s probably why the land (in West Fairlee) means so much to me. For the first time, there is certainty in my life.”

In 2019, a New York Times opinion piece described the West Bank as a place where “2.5 million Palestinians live under military rule, with all the misery that entails.”

At least 100 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks continue to “heavily restrict the movement of Palestinians,” Amnesty International reported last year.

Living in a West Bank refugee camp puts “you at the mercy of 18-year-old Israeli soldiers about whether you can leave or not,” Mahdawi said.

He recalled the time that his infant brother, Mohammad, developed a high fever. “My father needed to take him to the hospital outside the camp, but the soldiers wouldn’t let him go,” Mahdawi said.

His brother — one of his two siblings — never fully recovered. Mohammad died when he was 8.

His father had a small convenience store that sold rice, flour and canned goods in the camp, but his mother wanted more, Mahdawi said. When Mahdawi was 7, his mother left the camp. “She had reasons,” he said. “She wanted to escape the fear and misery of living in the camp to pursue a different future.”

His father remarried. With his new stepmother and her children moving in, the household eventually grew to nearly a dozen people sharing two rooms. Everyone slept on the floor. “I didn’t have my own mattress, but I had my own pillow,” Mahdawi said.

Like many kids in the camp, Mahdawi grew up fast. By age 12, he carried a knife and smoked cigarette butts that he found on the ground.

Mahdawi didn’t back down from street fights and most of all, he didn’t pass on an opportunity to throw a rock in the direction of an Israeli soldier. “I saw the Israelis as the reason for my misery,” he said.

He’d brashly tell friends, “I will get killed before I get arrested.”

Mahdawi refused to accept that living under Israeli military rule was his lot in life. He believed one day that his family would get back to their homeland. At 9, he slapped a sticker on the front door to the family’s home: “The Right of Return is Never Outdated.” More than 20 years later, the sticker remains.

In the early 2000s, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, known as the second intifada (the first began in 1987), made the camp even more dangerous.

One day after school, Mahdawi and some friends were hanging out in the street. “We were playing with a basketball,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a basket and we didn’t have a court. We just pretended that we did.”

But the playing stopped at the sound of gunfire. “The Israelis are here,” a boy shouted.

From experience, the boys knew that Israeli tanks wouldn’t be far behind the armed foot soldiers. Mahdawi was with his best friend, a boy named Hemida, who also didn’t have a mother, which solidified their bond.

The two boys picked up stones to throw at the approaching tanks. “Before we even got close enough, an Israeli soldier came out of an alley,” Mahdawi said.

The boys raced off in different directions. “I hear shooting over my head as I’m running through the alleys,” Mahdawi said.

A half hour later, with the tanks and soldiers having moved on, he returned to the street, where a crowd had gathered. “I went to find Hemida, but he was dead,” Mahdawi said. “An Israeli soldier had shot him in the chest.”

In the two decades since 13-year-old Hemida’s death, not much has changed. In 2019, Israeli military and security forces killed at least 38 Palestinians, including 11 children, during demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Amnesty International.

“Many were unlawfully killed by live ammunition or other excessive force when posing no imminent threat to life,” the human rights organization wrote in its most recent annual report.

To escape the chaos of the streets, Mahdawi often retreated after school to a cemetery inside the camp. He’d sit under an olive tree that shaded the graves of his younger brother and best friend.

One day, his favorite uncle, Thayer, sat down beside him to offer a history lesson. After the 1948 conflict, Palestinians “lost everything but our minds and souls,” his uncle said.

“My uncle taught me that all Palestinians live in hope, and great people emerge through suffering,” Mahdawi said. Education is the only way out, his uncle stressed.

Not long after, Mahdawi’s uncle became another casualty of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I was devastated, but each time I thought of his words, I felt strong,” said Mahdawi, who built a memorial out of stones, concrete and his uncle’s picture in front of his father’s store that’s still there today.

Mahdawi had always done well in school, but after his uncle’s death, he worked even harder. He finished second in his high school class and passed the national university entrance exams with honors.

At 18, he headed off to Birzeit University, two hours from the camp, to study computer science and engineering. At the 15,000-student school, Mahdawi became active in campus politics and was elected to the student council.

One day outside of class, he overheard a young blonde woman speaking in broken Arabic. Meagan Dechen, an American who had come to Birzeit to learn Arabic, seemed to notice him as well. With black hair, dark eyes and a slender build, the 6-foot-tall Mahdawi is hard to miss.

What started off with him teaching her Arabic and her teaching him English blossomed into a romance, and later a marriage. “She’s such a wonderful woman and adventurous, too,” Mahdawi said.

With his birthday approaching, Dechen rented a car. She wanted to take him outside the barrier wall that Israel began building around the West Bank in 2002, following a series of suicide bombings in which 130 Israelis were killed in one month alone.

Mahdawi had spent his life “running away from Israeli soldiers,” and now the American woman that he’d fallen in love with was proposing to casually drive past them at a border checkpoint.

But Dechen had a plan. When they approached the checkpoint, Mahdawi would shield his face with sunglasses and pretend to be asleep in the passenger’s seat.

Somehow it worked.

In spite of living 30 miles from the Mediterranean, Mahdawi had never walked a beach or smelled salt air. “I grew up dreaming about the sea, and now I was there,” he said. “Generations of Palestinians are born and then die without having ever seen the sea.”

But his freedom lasted only a day before he had to retreat behind the wall. Dechen, who came from Colorado, needed to get home as well. She was starting at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine in the fall of 2014.

The couple continued their relationship long-distance, messaging over social media and talking by phone. But it wasn’t enough. “I’ve made up my mind,” he told her. “I’m going to visit you.”

He asked a friend, an engineering student, to build a 30-foot ladder, strong enough to hold a 160-pound man. Before dawn, Mahdawi and two friends carried the ladder to the barrier wall, which is topped with barbed wire and seals off the West Bank from the outside world.

Mahdawi lugged rope and pliers to the top. He waited for an Israeli army vehicle to turn the corner. He used the pliers to cut the wire and twisted the rope around a post in the wall before sliding down the other side. By the time he reached the ground, his hands were raw and bloody from rope burns. He should have worn gloves, he said to himself.

Mahdawi raced across the street to a bus stop. Since some Palestinians are permitted to work on the Israeli side of the wall, he wasn’t totally out of place.

After changing buses a couple of times, he reached the U.S. Consulate’s office in Jerusalem. Inside, two lines were designated for people seeking visas to the U.S. Israelis formed one line; Palestinians the other. When his turn came, Mahdawi handed over his paperwork. If he passed a background check, he’d be issued a visa.

On the way home, he walked through a checkpoint, no questions asked. Getting into the West Bank was far easier than getting out.

After the visa arrived, a relative took out a small loan to help cover the cost of his plane ticket. Mahdawi also had $800 in savings.

In July 2014, with his travel papers in hand, he headed for the main airport in Jordan, which borders Israel to the east. He still had one more barrier to clear — Israeli customs.

A female customs agent questioned Mahdawi about why he wanted to go to the U.S. It probably seemed like he was flirting, but he also had a question for her.

“Do you have a husband?” he asked.

No, but she had a boyfriend.

Then you can understand, Mahdawi said. He just wanted to be with the woman he loved. “Don’t look at my skin, don’t look my nationality, don’t hear my accent,” he pleaded. “I’m a human being, like you.”

The customs agent stamped his travel papers. “I will let you go,” she said.

“For the first time in my life, I saw an Israeli as a human,” Mahdawi told me. “Not as an enemy.”

Sunday: Mahdawi starts a new life in the Upper Valley.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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