From Salisbury to West Bank refugee camp
By Kathy Chaffin
Chris Chaney says he can still remember the lines separating countries on the world maps hanging in his school classrooms.
“When I saw the first pictures that were broadcast around the world from space, however,” he says, “I didn’t see those lines. I realized with even more conviction that we are all created by one God, and that it is we who draw lines of separation and barriers to oneness and unity.”
The realization was a turning point in his life that would not fully manifest until a few years ago.
Today, Chaney hopes his work with a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank will help erase some of those lines.
A different direction
Chaney, who has returned to the states for a month while waiting for his visa to be renewed, worked for 25 years helping North Carolina children and families in crisis.
Seven of those were in Salisbury as the director of the First United Methodist Church Child Development Center, a weekend patient advocate at Rowan Regional Medical Center and outreach coordinator for Smart Start Rowan. Though he enjoyed the work, Chaney says he felt called in a different direction.
After being accepted into the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., he made the difficult decision to leave his son, Jonathan, behind in Salisbury in August 2006 to begin studying conflict transformation. The concept goes a step beyond conflict resolution to identify conditions creating an environment in which conflict is likely to occur and works to change or “transform” those conditions.
Fellow students at the School for International Training represented 30 countries and spoke more than 50 languages.
Chaney, 58, compared the course work “to squeezing a two-year academic workload into nine months,” he says.
For his internship that semester, fellow student Ziad Abbas, the only Palestinian on campus, arranged for Chaney to spend almost three weeks in Dheisheh, a West Bank refugee camp. Abbas grew up in the camp and was later co-founder/co-director of the cultural organization, Ibdaa, there. In Arabic, Ibdaa means “to create something out of nothing.”
More than 12,000 people live within 1.5 square kilometers in the refugee camp. “That gives you an idea of how crowded it is,” Chaney says. “Salisbury looks like the wide open plains next to this place.”
For years, he had felt an affinity for the Palestinian people and an appreciation of their history and culture. But once Chaney arrived in Dheisheh, he fell in love with the refugees, who welcomed him into their homes and their hearts.
After finishing his second semester in Vermont, he returned to Dheisheh in June 2007 to do his field study for his 12-month practicum. Once there, he agreed to teach a course on conflict training at a new Arabic/English language school in Nablus, two hours north. He was there almost three months, training teachers how to communicate better with students, students’ families and each other.
Then he returned to his practicum work at the camp, doing conflict training with the social workers. Chaney also works with several organizations within the camp, including the Health Committee, and last summer started a support group for children 9 to 12 years old who are going through loss and separation.
Helping the children
Though the whole community reaches out to each other in times of sorrow, he says children who have lost family members to death or have family members in Israeli prisons “sometimes need the support of someone who will just sit and listen and say, ‘Tell me what you are thinking. Tell me how you’re feeling.’ ”
Chaney uses art therapy as another way of helping them to deal with their pain. The first time the children did an art project, he says they tore their work up.
“To me, it represented that they didn’t like the situations they found themselves in,” he says. “They wanted something to change, and as the support group continued, their art changed.
“They began to use brighter colors. They were able to express themselves more.”
The living conditions in Dheisheh are poor, Chaney says, with only one doctor for 10,000 people and not nearly enough medicine. “Diabetes is a real problem there,” he says. “Heart disease is a real problem there. Cancer is a real problem there.”
People can’t afford hospital care because unemployment that runs 50 percent to 70 percent in the West Bank.
Educational opportunities are also limited, with 24 teachers for 1,800 students, he says.
Even though the Israeli presence was supposed to end with the signing of the 1995 Oslo Accords, Chaney says the army remains very visible. Pregnant women and/or their babies have died because they couldn’t get through checkpoints, he says, and sick people have died because emergency vehicles couldn’t enter.
In December, Israelis shot to death a Palestinian man they mistook for a wanted criminal. “That happens all the time, and it never gets reported in the Western media,” he says.
Four Palestinian leaders were assassinated in Bethlehem about four weeks ago, Chaney says, for resisting the Israeli occupation. “A couple of weeks before, another man was murdered in Bethlehem,” he says. “Two months before, a 17-year-old from my camp was killed in Bethlehem by Israeli soldiers.”
Chaney walked with the hundreds of refugees who carried the young man’s body through the streets to the cemetery. “No matter how many times you see this scenario on television,” he says, “it can never be the same as being there, hearing a mother weep for her son or a father looking at his son’s body in disbelief and anger and lost hope for what could have been.”
Israeli solders maintain the environment of fear by driving through Bethlehem occasionally and dropping noise bombs, he says.
To satisfy part of the requirements for his master’s, Chaney plans to travel throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to gather research for a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I want it to be balanced,” he says. “I want it to be realistic. I want it to be accurate.”
Chaney says more people need to understand what’s going on.
“If America had the full information,” he says, “I don’t know of an American whose heart wouldn’t go out to the Palestinian refugees. I know how good-hearted Americans are, but we can only make decisions based on the information that we have.”
One of Chaney’s goals while in Dheisheh is to educate children to stand up for their rights in appropriate, nonviolent ways. Many children who have retaliated against the Israeli occupation by throwing stones have ended up in prison, he says.
Despite their living conditions, Chaney says the refugees continue to amaze him with their hope and resilience. “I don’t know how they seem to be able to sing and dance and laugh and welcome strangers,” he says, “but they do.”
Chaney embraced the religion of the people of Dheisheh even before he met them. After being active in his church for years, he converted from Christianity to Islam a year before leaving Salisbury.
“I was 25 when I first read the Quran,” he says, “and the message spoke to me.”
For Chaney, the decision to convert did not come quickly or easily. “I lost a lot of friends when I became Muslim,” he says, and he may lose more when people read this article.
But he would tell them: The world’s religions have many more similarities than differences.
“If we could focus more on our similarities than our differences,” he says, “I think we could come closer to living in peace.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or email@example.com.