Our task was never easy. It was not paved with roses but mined with bullets and soldiers, anxious mothers and frightened children whose wounds have yet to heal.

Acceptance speech – Arna Mer-Khamis

Distinguished guests,
Honorable Members of Parliament,
ladies and gentlemen.

I was born over sixty years ago in a small community in Palestine, in the Jewish Moshava Rosh Pina and the Arab village Ja’ouni. These rocky but green hills of the Upper Gallilee, between the Sea of Gallilee and the Lebanese border, were at the time under the British Mandate.

Since 1948 Jewish Rosh Pina has grown and developed whereas the village of Ja’ouni has been erased from the face of the earth. Its inhabitants became what we term the Palestinian Refugees, dispersed from their homeland and confined in camps. Even the land, the source of livelihood and the foundation of an entire culture passed into the hands of others, through sheer robbery or forced displacement.

This has left a deep wound in my soul. While one half of me is intact, the other bears the terrible pain of that reality.

In this land were sown the seeds of racism and suffering, wars and death and pain. An entire nation stands before us bereft of human rights, where children grow up surrounded by the imagery of soldiers, stones and guns. They are scared, they are threatened, they are vulnerable. And their cries of suffering are drowned by loudspeakers screaming about Law, Order, Security and Progress.

I came towards these children with the burden of my past, my broken half. I tried to tear away the veil of hypocrisy and crime, piled up like rubbish on the streets of Jenin and its refugee camp. The camp was erected 45 years ago, and its children and grandchildren were born to face Israeli occupation to this very day. It is in the name of all these children that I have come here to speak to you  in a language of life and hope.

Today, on this occasion, we can listen to the resounding human cry of thousands and millions of children throughout the world and especially the Palestinian children on whose behalf I have come. They are telling us: You have an obligation towards us. Yes, we owe them something, these children, who are the hope of tomorrow. It is imperative that we reveal the hypocrisy which leaves these children wounded on the battlefield without first aid. Their wounds are deep even though they are not bleeding. Their souls and spirits are wounded, their development handicapped. They are children beaten and shot who have witnessed their parents and siblings being humiliated by soldiers. They are children who have experienced long interrogations in prison, children who have been prevented from studying, when their schools and kindergartens were closed down. These are children who know the Jew, the Israeli, only as a soldier shooting to kill, who beats and humiliates them.

Ladies and gentlemen, on this day, the 9th of December 1993, exactly six years ago, all these children joined hands in a battle for freedom with a rock and a burning tyre. They shouted their passion for liberty, for an end to oppression and humiliation and for the hope of a better life, the hope of the intifada.

This is where our paths met!

A small group of us from Haifa joined up with – and for – these children in order to put an end to the crimes, and reduce the mental and psychological damage caused by the years of oppression.

We formed an organisation: In the Defence of Children under Occupation/Care and Learning. And we have been engaged in this task daily, hour by hour, on days of closure and curfew, on working days and holidays, trying to bring these children a morsel of happiness and hope by means of books, games and educational brochures. But first and foremost we have been with these children on the street, near the jail house and inside the military courtrooms in order to sow and tend the seeds of hope for a better life.

In return, we have received the greatest prize of all – their smiles, their confidence, their friendship – all of which have served to breed a new human relationship between Jews and Arabs. The only basis for a real peace.

Since 1988 a new landscape has started to find its way into the familiar one. In the alleys of the refugee camp, in the streets of Jenin and in the surrounding villages, large rolls of paper were unrolled, paints and brushes distributed and hundreds of children together could be seen laughing and shouting, painting together their thoughts and dreams, their anger and hope in all the colors of the rainbow. They were six years old, eight and twelve, children for whom these hours were the only time they could feel hopeful in the midst of violent occupation and repression.

These children today are crowded into classrooms of fifty, sixty pupils. As a result many drop out, resigning themselves to ignorance and illiteracy.

These are children who for days and weeks of curfew have been kept locked up with their fears in their homes. Our task has been to reach them in order to alleviate their misery, if only by a little. And so we did, openly as well as clandestinely, armed with books and games, and when needed also milk and bread in order to be with them during these moments.

Our task was never easy. It was not paved with roses but mined with bullets and soldiers, anxious mothers and frightened children whose wounds have yet to heal.

These children have friends, in Holland, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. We, also, have many friends and supporters and together with their help and financial support we were able to set up a network of community child homes. The first was established in 1990 in the neighborhood of Jabal Abu Jihaad in Jenin. It provided the first home, the first library, the first games, the first choir, the first theater and also a human rights center for juvenile detainees, and the children of detainees.
Today, with the help of this prize, we shall be able to build a Home for Young Students, providing educational and social assistance to the children of the Jenin refugee camp. We shall be able to lay the foundation for individual therapeutic care and learning, which will enable hundreds of children to grow and learn, and make up for what has been denied them for years.

To all our friends we say today that we still have a long way to go. But with your helping hand we shall give these children a chance for a better life.

In the name of these thousands of children, allow me to shake your hands and to thank in particular the Right Livelihood Award Foundation which has served to brighten up a long and arduous struggle with a spot of warm sunlight

We shall not halt our struggle on behalf of these children and all others, until peace and freedom can flow from their dreams and become reality.

Thank you.

The Freedom Theatre
School Street, Jenin Refugee Camp
Office tel.: +970(0)42503345