While the Palestinian-led weekly demonstrations against the separation barrier are an important and visible part of non-violent resistance, a children’s community center in Burin fights the occupation on a daily basis just by opening its doors, sometimes for as little as half an hour.
Residents of Burin build their community children’s center, which is named for Bilal al Najjar. (Photo: Ghassan Najjar)
In the West Bank village of Burin near Nablus, local youth are building a new children’s center to foster hope in their community.
Burin’s 4,000 inhabitants live in a valley, surrounded on all hilltops by Israeli settlements — Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Givat Arousna, and a Yitzhar “outpost.” The children and adults of Burin live, day and night, in constant fear of settler attacks and army raids.
21-year-old Ghassan Najjar is the director of Burin’s Bilal Alnajjar Community Center, built in 2008 and named after a villager who died in 1984 while he was being interrogated by the Israeli army.
“The youth here are lost,” he says. “There is no outlet for their frustration. The gym that was once open was closed. The boy’s playground is large, but people are too afraid to play there because of the constant army presence in the area…the girl’s school is tiny, and looks like a jail because of all the bars that are up- a caged-up area is the only place where they can play.”
In 2005, when they were teenagers in the village, Ghassan and 25 of his friends committed themselves to building a community center. “We wanted to get the youth away from a life of hanging around, smoking cigarettes and doing nothing…we wanted this center to be their outlet, to give them hope.”
The teenagers went from door to door raising funds. “People were skeptical at first”, Ghassan remembered. “They would disregard what we were doing, or brush it off, and say ‘how can that help?’ But we were determined.”
When the Bilal Alnajjar Community Center was finally established in 2008, the Israeli army began to crack down. From 2008 to 2010, Israeli soldiers targeted the center for harassment, invasion, and vandalism, usually at night.
“From 11 pm to 4 am”, Ghassan says, “everyone in Burin knew this village was for the Israeli army… they would break down the doors, break the computers, and trash the center. They would come and go as they pleased, and hang around, and do whatever they want. But this is something that we came to expect. We used to get upset when they harassed our center, but we continued.”
In 2010, 22 of the 25 organizers were arrested while cleaning the streets of Burin, and sentenced to a year in prison. While in prison, Burin’s younger generation took on the responsibility of maintaining the community center. One of these young men, who wished to remain anonymous, insisted that “we were dedicated to keeping the center open. It is very important to us. We made sure to open it every day, even if only for half an hour, just to show that we were going to keep it open.”
Now, the young men of Burin are building a new children’s center to better serve as a safe haven for Burin’s children. “There are 112 children here who still have nowhere to go”, relates Ghassan. “They don’t want to stay home and sit with their family, they want to go out and have some fun, but they can’t really play in the streets because of fear of army raids and settlers. So they come and hang out in the center but it is small and there is nowhere to play. There is only space to sit and talk.”
At the new children’s center, which is currently under construction, the people of Burin hope to maintain extensive athletic, recreational and educational facilities. Villagers have reported seeing Israeli soldiers enter the construction site at night, but they are not deterred. “Once the center is up we expect soldiers to come, this is normal for us. They can enter as much as they like, we will just continue, and renew whatever they destroy.”
Ghassan, along with the other directors of the Bilal Alnajjar Community Center, are optimistic. “We have a lot of hopes and dreams. We are still young, we are 21, and we hope to educate the ones younger than us to take over the center. We are not dictators, we will one day move on, but we hope that the young people of this village will keep it up, so Burin can remain strong in spirit.”