Saturday, July 26, 2014

Teen In Gaza: I Lost All Of The Hopes I Had

Salama S. Salama /
A street in Khanyounis, a city in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

By Ahmed Zaqout
Junior Reporter
KHANYOUNIS, Gaza Strip – I used to think I suffered a lot compared to other teenagers across the world. Lately, though, I realized I didn't fully know the true meaning of suffering.
At first, it was a siege. Because Gaza is confined by a closed border with Egypt on one end and Israel on the other, there is no way to get out and no way to bring necessities in.
Since 2007, we’ve had a shortage of life needs, from electricity to water to food, but that is all nothing. Literally nothing.
But the past couple of weeks, the more than 1.5 million people here in Gaza have lived in an endless nightmare.
I can only talk about mine.
The first few days it all seemed to be like any other day of fighting: they bomb a couple of empty pieces of land and it all ends.
Salama S. Salama /
Abedulruhman El Najjar, 5 and Ahmed Taha,
6, fill a bottle with water in Khanyounis, Gaza.
But then, I started to see people falling all around me, houses turned to ashes, schools becoming as flat as the ground and body parts all over the place.
And then the unstopping, heart-stabbing sound of ambulances that get your mind wilder than you could have ever imagined, picturing all your loved ones while hearing only two voices in your head – one that says, Yes it is him or her while the other one denies it. And in my mind, I hear the cries of heartbroken mothers and the silence of helpless fathers.
This kept on going endlessly. I thought nothing could be worse, but the military assaults never cease to amaze me. On the 20th of July, it took them one hour, only 60 minutes, to take 65 souls and cause more than 250 injuries in the same place.
No human can bear such a thing. No human can do such a thing.
My phone never stopped ringing that day. I found more than 30 missed calls from my sister in the United States. When I talked to her, after a while I could hear the sadness in her voice. She denied it, but I could tell she had been crying for weeks. I wished I could do something, but nothing in my reach could ever change any of this.
Salama S. Salama /
Displaced people who fled their homes, or
whose homes were destroyed in the bombings,
shelter here in a school in Khanyounis.
I lost all of the hopes I had in the world that day.
I thought I had become numb from all of the slaughter happening around me. I only wish I had.
Our daily routine has become more like a preparation for our deaths, trying to grab whatever we can and just run. Run to a safe place, run to nowhere.
I envy those who went to God’s mercy in the first couple of days. At least they haven't seen their own mothers, fathers and children heartlessly murdered and blown to pieces.
There are no more words to say, only the pictures of dead and wounded can describe what is really happening.

*** Your tax-deductible contribution can help support this nonprofit at

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bitterness In The Land Of Milk And Honey

Eli Winter /
The sun rises over the ancient fort of Masada.

By Eli Winter
Senior Reporter
ISRAEL – Israel is a country at once captivating and challenging, truly devastating in its beauty. Everywhere you look, there’s a view that looks like it was made to be put on the front side of a postcard.  There’s the sunrise at the ancient fort of Masada, the sun’s reflection off of the Sea of Galilee, the gorgeous Baha’i Gardens in Haifa.
But there also exists a tension in Israel, an unfortunate byproduct of confusion, chaos and conflict regarding which group of people deserves to live there more: Israelis or Arabs.
Forty-three Jewish high school students from Congregation Emanu El’s Helfman Religious School journeyed from Houston, Texas, to Israel this month, arriving at the center of this tension, which is currently the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

The day of their arrival, students learned the names of the three Israeli teens – Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach – who were murdered in June. Israelis, already distraught and distressed by their deaths and the ongoing search for their bodies, were made only more so by the death of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered a day after the three Israeli teens’ funeral.
Friction between Gaza and Israel grew to the point that Hamas began firing rockets into Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion. The conflict continues.
But the Texas students, like many other religious groups touring Israel at the time, stayed in the country. They stayed out of harm’s way their entire time in Israel, experiencing a different side of Israel than the one tourists always talk about, seeing the parts of Israel they would otherwise never see.
First, Poland
Before arriving in Israel, 17 of the students went to Poland to visit mass graves, Holocaust memorial sites, synagogues, and concentration camps to more fully grasp the significance of the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel.
In Poland, students toured the New Synagogue in Tarnow. Only its bimah, or altar, survived a Nazi bombing assault years ago.
In Lublin, Poland, they saw the concentration camp Majdanek, where tour guide Mark Lazar told the visiting Texans the horrifying story of a German soldier who raped a Jewish boy. After that trauma, the boy turned into a sort of special assistant to German officials, who forced him to hang his own parents, the guide said, adding that the boy often spat on Jewish prisoners.

Eli Winter /
The entrance to the concentration camp Majdanek.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland – site of the notorious concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people lost their lives to the Nazi extermination program – resembles a tin of sardines upon entry. It’s stuffed to the gills with tour groups representing students of a variety of religions, races and creeds. Its historical significance lends a certain authority that other historical sites lack – from the infamous sign telling workers that work would free them and the world leaders who visit it, to its presence in popular culture.
And yet, perhaps because of this significance, the museum at times appeared to be more of a tourist trap than a memorial. Hot dogs, hamburgers and snack foods are available for purchase on the grounds. Group tours, so large that visitors need headsets just to hear their guide, envelop the exhibits, which are often behind imposing glass windows. Thus these very real artifacts are forbidden from receiving the warmth of human touch that they deserve.
Thousands of prisoners’ shoes are shoved into an exhibit that is at once direct but distant. Another exhibit that contains the artificial limbs of disabled prisoners, feels nothing but artificial in its presentation. The museum attempts to welcome visitors onto the grounds to remember the most difficult time in Jewish history, and then keeps them an arm’s length away.
Despite this, the museum left a lasting impression on many of the Texas youth.
Aaron Feldstein, a junior at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, described his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as the most meaningful experience of his trip.
“Seeing where so many people were murdered,” said Feldstein, brought on “very raw emotions… So many people’s lives were cut short at that location, and it just struck me that we were standing where [that] happened.”
Feldstein said the museum’s ‘Yad Vashem’ exhibit stood out. The exhibit, officially referred to as the Book of Names, consists of an enormous book – compiled in conjunction with Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial – which filled a whole room and spilled out into another. Its 8,120 pages hold the names and birth and death dates of Holocaust victims, and more names are added as they are found.

Holocaust Memorial and the Wailing Wall
Yad Vashem itself resonated with students. Matthew Baker, a junior at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Texas, said his visit to the Holocaust memorial was his most significant experience in Israel. He described its Children’s Memorial as being especially meaningful. The Children’s Memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, pays tribute to children who died in the Holocaust by reflecting Yahrtzeit candles against many mirrors, creating the impression that there are millions of stars shining in its space. The flames of the candles, which in the Jewish tradition are lit on the anniversary of someone’s death, are the only thing preventing the room from becoming pitch black. Throughout the Children’s Memorial, visitors can hear a muted recording of someone reading a long list of the names of murdered children.
At the Wailing Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, Jews from across the world flock to pray. They slip little prayers of their own inside the worn Wall’s many cracks, in the hopes that their prayers will be heard. There’s a stark separation along gender lines at the Wall. Women are afforded a fraction of the space given to men.
For some Texas travelers, the Wailing Wall lived up to its name, moving them to tears.
Ely Eastman, a senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, described his experience at the Wall as an “ordeal.”
A Haredi, or Orthodox Jew supervising the area told Eastman that he wasn’t allowed to wrap tefillin (a special ritual with parchment scrolls from the Torah wrapped on the arms and head) as part of praying at the Wall. The man, who told Eastman that he wasn’t allowed the ritual because his mother isn’t Jewish, proceeded to remove the tefillin from Eastman’s body. At the same time, another Haredi Jew unsuccessfully tried to put it back on the teen.
The exchange shocked Eastman, who walked away upset, unable to make his prayers the way he had hoped.
Eastman said he wondered “why I had come so far, why I had experienced all the horrors of the Holocaust,” in the visit to Poland, and why he had “assumed all that collective guilt and mourning. If I was good enough to go to a concentration camp, then how come I wasn't good enough to perform mitzvot as a Jew?”
On reflection, Eastman said he felt that his difficult time at the Wall gave him a “theme for my trip, one about discovering my religious identity and how I could impact my community.”
Other students, however, felt reassured by visiting the Wall.
Feldstein admitted that before leaving Texas, he wasn’t sure he would get very much out of his time in Poland and Israel.
“I just thought that Israel was just ... the home of the Jewish people, you know, ‘Whatever, I’m gonna see a wall, I’m gonna see lots of old buildings, whoop dee doo…’” But he described feeling a “strong connection to my faith” when praying at the Wall.
“When I prayed at the Western Wall,” said Feldstein, “I was praying for the health, well-being of my family, and that felt a connection to it, like it was gonna matter, it was gonna happen, it was gonna come true.”

Can Two Cultures Coexist?
Hope for a better future has remained constant in Israel since the state’s inception in 1948, in large part because of the consistent conflicts it has faced from air, land, and sea, and, some say, from the media. This time was no different. Students expressed empathy for Israelis and a desire to experience the things they did during such conflicts. While he was “frustrated” by the group’s itinerary changing frequently because of the conflict, Eastman said he “[didn’t] think I would mind hearing sirens, seeing as many Israeli citizens go through that experience hourly.” Baker described the conflict as “very disappointing.” Feldstein said that the conflict created “a very difficult situation” for Israelis and Arabs alike.
Students saw positive interactions between Jews and Arabs firsthand when they visited the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, which educates Jews and Arabs together. Most Israeli schools only educate one ethnicity or religious group, and there are only a few other schools like the Max Rayne School in Israel. Affiliated with the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, Hand in Hand’s mission is “to create a strong and inclusive shared society in Israel” through a network of integrated, bilingual schools.
Despite the school’s efforts, Baker said he saw more intolerance of different ideas in Israeli society than acceptance.
“Israel, being a mostly Jewish state, brings to rise ... problems ... when trying to assimilate two completely different cultures” like Jews and Arabs, Baker said. “You can’t make them get along.”
Indeed, the conflict between those two cultures escalated while the students were in Israel. Cities where the two cultures coexist are rare: Acre, in the north of Israel, Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and Jerusalem, in the center. But it is often possible to determine whether a village or town is predominantly Jewish or Arab by looking at the rooftops of buildings. Arab houses will have black cylinders on their roofs.
Eli Winter /
The Israeli flag flies over Masada.
To Baker, the conflict is extremely one-sided. “Israel cannot do anything to protect itself without hurting Palestinian civilians,” he said. “You can see that Israel is trying to help the Palestinian civilians by trying to instigate cease-fires. They’ve been sending in humanitarian aid.” Although he chose not to visit Poland before going to Israel, Baker offered its Jewish history as “living proof that the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust did not die in vain. Their deaths opened the door to the creation of the state of Israel, and [for] that I am forever grateful."
Students who had witnessed evidence of the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland before arriving in Israel felt an especially strong desire to help Israel in the future. Both Eastman and Feldstein said visiting Poland put their time in Israel into a different light. Poland “put the entire Israel trip into context for me,” said Eastman. “By experiencing the sadness in Poland, I was able to see why Israel's existence is so important.”
Feldstein said Poland gave him a different perspective on what he saw in Israel and a different view of the history of the Jewish people. Poland offers a chance to remember the lowest point in Jewish history, he said, while Israel celebrates the Jewish people.
“It’s a different kind of remembrance,” Feldstein said, adding that Israel’s existence says, “We made it, we have arrived, we are the Jewish people.”
The Texas students described themselves as feeling more sure in their support for Israel after their visit.  Baker said he felt “extremely informed and ready to teach the truth about what’s going on.” Eastman and Feldstein both expressed support for Israel’s army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and Eastman said the trip “made me interested in joining the IDF.” Students felt a personal connection to the IDF after their security guard, Ben Balmas, was recalled to join his army unit as a medic.

Introspection in the Desert
Although Israel has felt the need to defend itself since its inception, there is still a place where one can be at peace within the country, the Negev, Israel’s largest desert. The student travelers stayed in the Negev for a large part of their time in Israel because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Eli Winter /
The Negev Desert in southern Israel.

One night, they went to the sand dunes, first sliding down them as if they were on a hill, then scurrying back up the dunes in a frenzy to slide back down again. Then they were asked to sit down in a quiet space, alone, to take time for introspection and reflect on the demands the desert made. They remembered how they could only go through the sand so fast, or else their fatigue would make them move even slower. They let their eyes set on the darkness of the sand dune’s shadows in contrast to the bright yellow bomb of the sun against their faces, and they stepped their way like tin soldiers over red rusty rocks and tried not to tumble. They found how quickly the sand slipped through their fingers with the wind.
Here, the students were not alone, and yet they felt completely alone. But it was not like the loneliness that everyone has experienced. It was instead a state of solitude, of being at peace with the world and oneself. And here, the students were at peace, and they knew that peace would come, peace would most definitely come. If only the world would know where to look.

*** Your tax-deductible contribution can help support this nonprofit at

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Antarctica: Peace, Cold And Penguins

Antonina Machado /
Giant icebergs are part of the beauty of Antarctica

By Antonina Machado
Junior Reporter
ANTARCTICA – A few months ago, my parents invited me to go on an expedition to Antarctica – it was my mom’s dream.
Antonina Machado /
Whales were the first animals encountered
on a journey to Antarctica.
To get me interested, my father gave me a book about the discovery of the seventh continent, explaining the expeditions of Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole, and an earlier Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Both traveled more than a century ago.
The vessel we traveled in had the same name the Amundsen’s, MV FRAM.
I’m glad I decided to go, because the journey never stopped surprising me.

Antonina Machado /
A view of our ship from the shore, where
we spent our days.
One of my first experiences there were the three whales. They were right in front of the ship, but no one saw them at first.
Only when the captain started talking did we passengers realize the whales were sleeping, just there, floating in the water. 
All of us rushed to take pictures out on the frosty deck.

The captain whispered, so as not to wake them, but continued to tell us curiosities. 
Between the splashes from the penguins swimming around, and the clicks from the cameras of the astonished tourists, I didn’t know how they could be sleeping.

Beyond Expectations
Antonina Machado in Antarctica
with the ship in the background.
Usually, when you go on a trip, you have expectations in mind and ideas about what it’s going to be like.
Antarctica exceeded all of mine.
When I started telling people where I was going for vacation the expression that filled the faces of every single one of them was surprise.
They asked me questions like, “How are you getting there?” or, “Where are you going to stay?” and finally, “Why are you going?”
This last one was definitely the winner, but I can’t blame people for wondering. It’s not every day you talk to someone who is going to such a place.
When I think back, the three words that pop into my head are peace, cold and penguins. Well, maybe whales, too.
Antonina Machado /
A penguin at rest.

Harmony and Adventure
What really caught me off-guard, though, was the harmony between all the animals, and in the place itself.
Antonina Machado after making camp
on Cuverville Island, Antarctica. 
There was no sound pollution, no cars, no malls, just pure nature. Even city lovers may find themselves delighted with the white quiet experienced there.
During the 11 days I spent going from island to island on the continent, I found myself faced with the opportunity to do something special: spend one night camping at Cuverville Island with some of the expedition leaders, a few other people from the boat and the gentoo penguins as neighbors.
We called it the Amundsen experience, but with thermic sleeping bags and tents.
Fortunately for us, that day was the warmest one. It was summer there then, so we got lucky enough to have two degrees Celsius above zero, and sun!
To celebrate the rare event, we went kayaking around the island, alongside the joyous penguins and sleepy wales. Some people even thought it was warm enough to go for a swim – in totally normal, non-thermic bathing suits – a crazy idea.
YJI reporter Antonina Machado, in the front seat of the nearest kayak, takes to the icy water on a warm day in Antarctica.
At dusk, we started setting up camp, followed by some free time to explore.

Penguins are curious animals. If you just sit on a rock and wait a couple of minutes, you will find yourself surrounded by those cute, fat, cold-loving creatures, coming to check you out and bite your boots, like they were asking you to play.
Antonina Machado /
Penguins are curious, friendly animals who interact with visitors to Antarctica.
Nevertheless, an interesting fact about penguins is their strict bedtime. About 11 o’clock they start gathering and heading into the land.
Then the calm, quiet environment gets a negative feel and you finally perceive you are in the middle of nowhere and even the animals are gone.
Antonina Machado /
From their camp on Cuverville Island, travelers - and penguins - can see the lights of their ship as darkness descends on Antarctica.
It’s a moment of sad loneliness but it goes away as soon as you look up and realize you’ve never actually seen the sky. There are no lights whatsoever and yet it blinds you.
It’s impossible to notice the darkness behind when you can’t take your eyes of all the stars, shining so bright, looking like thousands of fireflies, dancing in front of you, bringing back the magic feel that the place had before.
Unfortunately, the mornings aren’t as wondrous as the nights. There is no need to set your alarm clock there, since you have penguins trying to invade your tent at the first glances of sunlight.
Antonina Machado /
Penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Antonina Machado /
Three gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Global Science Presence
Antonina Machado /
After leaving the camp, we set off to a place where all the scientific bases were. There were bases belonging to Chile and Argentina and I even got a stamp on my passport from the Russian one. 
We were able to go inside them, but not allowed to see any of the special equipment they keep.
Another really amazing place we saw was a Russian Catholic Orthodox church on the top of a hill, there, in Antarctica.
Antonina Machado /
Antarctica is home to scientific bases from many
countries. This island hosted bases 
for Chile, 
Argentina and Russia.
It may be a remote continent, but it’s definitely not forgotten. The scientists and workers there run their own little village. There is a schedule for visitations and souvenirs shops, so you can actually buy a postcard from Antarctica to send to your friends.It may be a remote continent, but it’s definitely not forgotten. 
Our next destination was a place they called the whales bay, and what a big surprise it was when the captain told us it was actually a volcano.
Antonina Machado /
An abandoned building from an old whale
oil factory in Antarctica.
Many decades ago, in its last eruption, the walls collapsed, leaving only a narrow passage to allow ships to go inside it.
There, besides the dazzling surroundings, we were still able to see ancient constructions – whale oil factories and houses and a ghost town, still preserved after all those years.
My journey to Antarctica gave me a roller coaster of emotions. With breathtaking views as our constant scenery, we stopped in places only seen in films. I got to climb a mountain and roll back down, kayak in the frozen sea and now, share this unique experiences with people from all over the world.
My advice to anyone who is planning a trip is to go to Antarctica. It will blow your mind.
Antonina Machado /
One gentoo penguin, alone on the ice of Antarctica

To enlarge these photos, click on any picture and a slideshow will appear on your screen. *** Your tax-deductible contribution can help support this nonprofit at ***

Flight MH17 Is A Stark Reminder Of The Dangers Of Living In A Violent World

Caroline Nelissen /

The windmill in the Dutch town of Harderwijk, where residents, like their fellow citizens across the Netherlands, are mourning the terrible loss of life after the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last week. About two-thirds of the 298 people on board were Dutch.
By Caroline Nelissen
Senior Correspondent
TORONTO, Ontario, Canada – As a Dutch person temporarily living abroad, I usually don’t follow news from home very closely. That changed when flight MH17 was shot out of the air, killing all 298 passengers on board. As soon as I read that 193 of the  passengers were from the Netherlands, I turned to the Dutch media for more information.
I probably don’t even fully feel the weight of this tragedy because I am so far away from my home country, but despair leaps at me from the Dutch newspaper websites.
They’re filled with endless reports on grieving family members, friends and communities and stories of people who were going on a simple trip, unaware it would be their last.
News sites meticulously track developments, with the only unequivocal certainty that all of these 298 people are dead.
As I scan through the passenger list, many of the Dutch last names carry the familiarity of home and I can easily imagine the kinds of lives these people led,  the kind of towns they’re from.
They could very well have been my family, friends or acquaintances.
It horrifies and disgusts me how many people lost their lives in a single instant and how many more lives have been ripped apart by the loss of loved ones.
Of course I have always been aware that people die like this every single day, as I scan over the headlines announcing the death toll in yet another war.
People get caught up in conflicts that aren’t theirs and their lives are wiped away in a matter of minutes. From one second to the next, families and communities will never be the same.
Myah Guild /

A silent march in Amsterdam Wednesday
evening paid tribute to the memory of those
who perished on the plane.
Most of the time, these people are not from my own country. I don’t know what they look like, what their plans for the future were and how many people will miss them for the rest of their lives.
It feels different when it hits so close to home, but it’s not.
So when I think of the pain the communities around those aboard flight MH17 feel right now, I also think with horror of the countless people who have been through the same thing, and all the people who will in the future.
There are people who are alive right now, who won’t be tomorrow because they will get  caught up in a conflict they did not start and one that they have no control over.
People will lose dear friends and neighbors, children and parents. Because they find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because we live in such a violent world.
It’s most people’s worst nightmare to lose the ones they love, yet we can’t seem to escape from the eternal cycle of violence and destruction we find ourselves in.
It is all so pointless and it is so hard to know what to do to make any of it better.
So I just want take a moment to contemplate the  gravity of the death tolls we have had to read about every single day.
Because it’s the only thing I can think of doing.  

*** Your tax-deductible contribution can help support this nonprofit at

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thousands Mourn MH 17 Crash Victims With Silent March In Streets Of Amsterdam

Myah Guild /
A crowd marches silently in tribute to the victims of the MH 17 plane crash.
By Myah Guild
Senior Reporter
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands – A large crowd took to the streets in Amsterdam this evening in tribute to those who died aboard the Malaysian Airlines MH 17 plane that was shot down over Ukraine last week.
Today, as the first bodies arrived from Ukraine, was a National Day of Mourning in the Netherlands. Of the 298 who perished on the passenger plane, 193 of them – about two-thirds – were Dutch.
A silent march in memory of the dead took place at the Dam starting at 8 p.m., according to information posted on the event’s facebook page. Organizers asked people to wear white and said balloons would be released at the end of the march.
The crowd, which numbered about 5,000 people, included many wearing white and carrying white balloons.

Myah Guild /

Myah Guild /

Myah Guild /