A Small Break in the Siege on Gaza: the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project

April 19, 2011 7:54 PM IMEMC News Gaza Strip, Interview, Non-violent action 0
19 Apr
7:54 PM

The Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project is a project co-produced by The Rachel Corrie Foundation and Break the Silence Mural Project along with co-sponsors The Middle East Children’s Alliance, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the International Trauma Treatment Program.

The mural is a community building memorial honoring all those who have lost their lives in struggle and those who are resisting oppression. Inspired by the killing of Rachel Corrie, the mural tells a tale of two cities linked through tragedy, Olympia, Washington and Rafah, Palestine. The overall purpose of the project is to increase the strength and visibility of the global solidarity movement for social justice across the world through the use of art, culture and technology.

‘Freedom Tree’, the first of A Tale of Two Cities- Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project in Gaza, was inaugurated last January 16th. Located in the Afaq Jadeeda (New Horizons) Association of Nuseirat Refugee Camp, the mural was painted by the staff of New Horizons and facilitated by Susan Greene.

Facing the deaths of more than 1400 civilians, destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure after Israel’s large-scale military offensive (December 2008- January 2009), Palestinians in Gaza are finding ways of continuing to cope with trauma and rebuilding their communities.

Susan Greene is co-founder of Break the Silence Mural Project. She is a clinical psychologist, a public artist and a muralist. Through public art projects Greene conducts research on the intersections of trauma, creativity, resilience and resistance. She has been working on the issues of Palestine since 1989 during the 1st Intifada.

1. Could you explain what made you initiate the Break the Silence Mural Project?
I started a group called Break the Silence Mural Project with four Jewish American artists from San Francisco. We were invited to Palestine to paint murals with Palestinians in refugee camps in Occupied Palestine- we painted in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We wanted to go because we were curious to know more about what was happening. Why Palestine? As activists, artists, also citizens of the world and Jews…we felt a sense of responsibility. We lived for three months with a family in a refugee camp, and we learned a lot about life of people on the ground under the military occupation. And basically it changed me for life and I’ve been involved ever since.

The Break the Silence Project was to break the silence around Palestine, not only but particularly in the United States…we couldn’t even say the word ‘Palestine.’ People were very misinformed about the history of Israel and Palestine. Even people who were very well educated and progressive on many other issues had a very hard time talking about Palestine. Often people conflate Judaism with Zionism and with Israel. Often it is considered anti-Semitic or self-hating to criticize Israel. It’s very different today, there are many delegations visiting Palestine, international solidarity movements, and I think people are much more aware and educated about the history. At that time, we wanted to use culture to bring those stories back here to the United States…The overall purpose of the project is to be a window on Palestine. People we met during the 1st Intifada told us: “Bring our case back to your people.” We have been trying to do this using culture and stories.

There was then an even much greater sense of isolation than there is now. And culture, I think, is a really great way to reach people on multiple levels, you can talk to people’s hearts and minds…and this is where people’s change can take place. So we try to use culture and, on the other hand, people told us that it really means a lot to them when you come in solidarity and work with them.

I did some work with the Aamer family, which is surrounded by the Wall on four sides, with Break the Silence and other groups such as the International Women’s Peace Service, Flowers Against the Occupation, Anarchists Against the Wall, and Black Laundry. We painted the Wall together with the parents, their children, their neighbours and others.

The father of the family told us about one occasion, when a peace camp was organized there and many participants were deported and detained. The Israeli army commander from the area then said to the family that nobody was left there to help them and they should just give up. So it means a lot that people have not given up and still come to be with the Aamers.

The father also said that, after his children painted the mural on the Wall, they started to play outside which they had not done for a year. Being surrounded by the Wall and having an Israeli settlement at the back of their property, the kids were afraid to go outside for a long time. After helped painting the mural, they began to reclaim their space. So there’s a relationship between trauma and creativity, coping and resilience which I’m interested in as an artist and a psychologist.

2. What part did you take in the work on ‘Freedom Tree’ mural?

I facilitated ‘Freedom Tree’ at the Afaq Jadeeda Association in Nuseirat Refugee Camp. It was a Break the Silence Mural Project which I have worked on twice. The first time was in 2008. I worked with the Middle East Children’s Alliance and some of their projects.

They’ve been very supportive over the years, and their Gaza Project Coordinator Dr Mona Alfara (who’s a friend of mine) said to me: come and do a mural in Gaza. The idea of ‘Freedom Tree’ was to have a sectional image and people involved with their own images, ideas.

Each of the leaves of the tree is a drawing made by one of the youths at the Afaq centre. I worked with the staff of the community centre, they were interested in doing something at the front of their centre. My role of facilitator was to coordinate the work while using my art skills.

So I mixed the paint, drew the outline of the tree on the wall so everybody could contribute to that, and I showed people how to use the materials. It was really about transferring my skills to enable people to apply such skills in the project and beyond, if they wish to do more murals in future.

3. Before ‘Freedom Tree’ was started, how did you expect an art/social justice project would benefit Palestinians in Gaza?

It’s important to know that ‘Freedom Tree’ is part of an ongoing project that has been going on for 20 years. I have painted other murals in the West Bank and Gaza with Break the Silence. I had expectations based on this long-term project, in this very large body of work, it’s a mutual project from which I learn – I learn so much about life and solidarity, creativity and resilience from the Palestinians I am working with.

So what I think the project does for people there, in part, is it allows people to be more in communication with the outside world and to be less isolated. That is what Mr Aamer was talking about when he said that it means so much to them when people come from outside to work with them so they feel they haven’t been forgotten. And for people in Gaza this is particularly true where the situation is so much more dire, restricted and oppressive than even in the West Bank. One of the things about trauma is a feeling of hopelessness, that there’s nobody there, and there’s no witness.

With the Internet and the use of social networking, there’s a potential for them to have a very global and virtual accessibility…with technology, I think, that’s a really exciting change. So through the project in Olympia, which is connected with this project in Gaza, there can be so many more people who see and interact with people of Gaza, and that’s a really important part which I’d like to emphasise.

4. How did you initially connect with New Horizons in Gaza?

They are connected with the Middle East Children’s Alliance, their Gaza Project Coordinator Dr Mona Alfara, and people that I have met over the years. I have known Dr Alfara since when I first went to Gaza, in 2002 (I believe). Later in 2004, I painted a series of murals at the Rachel Corrie Center for Children and Youth, in Rafah, where Dr Alfara worked so that was also part of the connection. The other people who have been very supportive with the Break the Silence Project over the years are the staff at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

5. What aspects of the work did you find difficult? and what aspects did you enjoy?

I enjoyed the entire process. Difficulties have to do with the Occupation so getting into Gaza was very difficult, getting paint was difficult, getting materials was next to impossible.

This time, I brought my own paint with me. It’s a very challenging ordeal to move around with 150 pounds of paint but I was able to do that. Otherwise, the work is very lively, there’s an amazing energy among the people there who are very resilient, it’s an incredible experience working with people who have so much dignity and life in the face of these horrible atrocities that they have lived through.

And the opportunity to speak about these issues with journalists such as yourself is something I’m grateful for and I also quite enjoy… the difficult part of this work I have found is being able to share it with people, to let them know about it. So I would consider this interview very much part of the project.

6. What main limitations did you encounter in carrying out the project in Gaza?

The limitations of people’s lives, the materials as I said…it’s very difficult to find stuff there, the siege really affects things in a very dire and profound way. The other obstacle is the electricity goes out for 8 hours at a time without warning, so sometimes there’s no electricity and it’s very hard to communicate with people…at night, for example, when people are using generators, you get the sound and smell of the petrol generators that people use so they can run their businesses.

And then, there’s just the stress of living in this way. We were painting one day, there was a gigantic white spiral in the sky…it was the Israeli F-16s making this. If you’ve seen the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, when the Wicked Witch of the West skywrites ‘Surrender Dorothy’ and so there is this threat, it reminded me of that. It was just a kind of threatening reminder of their presence. These are the conditions under which we were working.

7. You have an interest in the intersections of trauma, creativity, resilience and resistance. What did you observe from working with Gazan children?

I think it’s important to mention that people are so resilient and creative. And I met some people in the north of Gaza during this trip, the Samoudi family, and there too there’s an incredible sense of life and resilience but the situations that people have lived through are devastating. So I met these people…28 members of the family were killed, I mean the stories there are very hard to believe and very hard to see. So I want to make sure that that is really understood.

There’s a very profound and exciting effort that people make in trying to understand and make sense of their world even when it’s completely not understandable. What’s happened in Palestine and what’s happening in Gaza, and what took place with the assault of 2008-09 is unbelievable but that still has to somehow be thought about so that’s where creativity comes in.

Even being able to think about it is a kind of creativity…but how can you think about something that is so unthinkable? So I think art can play a role in this kind of effort..in being able to somehow engage with these things that have happened. There’s also a lot of love in Palestinian society, this is another thing that really keeps people from completely losing their minds…there’s a kind of community feeling where people, children are able to have a way of believing somehow in keeping on with life.

There’s a kind of switching back and forth from normal life to war. At the Afaq centre, you see kids are playing, running around, they have a psycho-social program, art and dance classes, and it’s a wonderful alive place, there’s an adult leading the games where I feel there’s a way to provide at least some time of containment for the children. This is another thing which is really important, a kind of containment from this craziness.

The drawings that are in the Tree have many depictions of daily life including the harder scenes of death, destruction and violence of the Israeli attacks. And also, there are these pictures of homes, seas and flowers and other thoughts…more of a kind of innocence, desire for what is just normal life. .

8. The Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project is partly inspired by the life of Rachel Corrie. How far did the project contribute to making Occupied Palestine ‘visible’ among people of Olympia and beyond?

That remains to be seen. This is partly where the work of journalists is really important because then the project gets to be known outside of Olympia. Definitely the street corner where the mural is, it’s 4.000 square feet so it’s hard to miss that.

There are a lot more people who are aware of this than before, but the mural itself is an embodiment of cross-movement building and international solidarity, there are 150 groups represented in the mural from all over the world. Some of them are Palestinian groups, some are Palestine solidarity groups, but many are not.

The point of that was to really make the connections between the root causes and these oppressions. And it’s not at all to be essentialist and say that every oppression is the same but they are connected, in other words the Occupation of Palestine affects people in the US, it affects people in Olympia…also we have our own issues with borders, there’s a wall on the US/Mexico border to keep ‘illegal workers’ out of the US, then the US is dependant on the labour of these ‘illegal workers’ because it’s cheap. And who was really first in the United States? the west coast of the US at the end of the day, it used to be Mexico.

And even before that there were Native Americans – so here too we are walking on occupied land. Sometimes I talk about Palestine and people think I say ‘Pakistan’ because especially in US people are so un-aware and un-educated. So it’s really about establishing these connections and making these great distances smaller.

On the wall, images are juxtaposed with each other so people can start making connections, making meaning between these different images. And the mural also shows that there are Israeli groups mobilising against the Occupation, there are these movements inside Israel and there are Jewish Israelis who don’t think Zionism is a good thing.

In the Olympia project, there are these audio files where people can call on a cell phone and hear the person or group who made that image talking about why they made the image, who they are, and people can hear a music piece or poem that express their idea, feeling of what they’re doing…it’s also another way to expand the educational possibilities, it’s not just the image, you get more than one sense involved.

And you can find out more information and get a sense right away, otherwise when you look at the website there are, of course, different images but you don’t know immediately who made them, where they are from, so there’s somehow a deepening experience, an interaction that can take place between the viewer and the work.

9. What did you learn from ‘Freedom Tree’?

What I’ve learned is a deepening conviction that there’s more work to be done. One of the things I want to find is ways to allow people to be involved and to add to the mural so that it is a living work, where the project can continue, more children can do more drawings and put them on the Tree.

Also, so that it’s not finished but people can keep adding to it and changing images…I’m interested in all of that in all these projects, even in the one in Olympia where you’re able at one point to add more images, and on the website people who see the mural can also send their images.

We’re starting a project where people can make their own solidarity trees and send them to this website, then there will be a gallery of the trees. So it’s another way of bringing people together, capturing people’s imaginations, and being able to tie this into campaigns such as the BDS campaign- it’s reaching and engaging people in various ways…

10. When you shared your experience, upon return to the US, how engaged did you find the American audience was? And how do you think perceptions of Palestine are changing among people in some of the communities you toured?

From 1989 until now, things have really changed and many more people know about Palestine and have been to Palestine, and there are many delegations going to Palestine, and major Hollywood productions like the film ‘Miral’ by Julian Schnabel where people defended showing the film at the UN just recently.

So there are some major shifts but I’m trying now to reach people who are really not progressive, you know we call them PEPs (progressive except for Palestine) but I’m also trying to reach the mainstream.

Jewish Voice for Peace has many thousands of members now, there are many more joining after the Israeli assault of 2008-09 and that’s a huge change, there’s also the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network which has a very specific anti-Zionist critique. So there’s so much more going on now. And the BDS movement is growing so things are very different.

11. The mural features artwork by numerous local, national and international artists and organizations. How easy/hard was it to gather contributions from so many artists?

It was actually very easy, and also a lot of work. We were really not sure what the response would be. So there are actually more people who wanted to be part of the project in Olympia than we have room for. So it’s been amazing and I really hope that we can keep having the response of the media to get the word out.

Also, what we hope is that each of the organizations that are in the mural will promote the project and its ideas…part of the idea was to reach a number of people that normally we don’t talk to much because of the way groups tend to be separate, they’re just not very connected and aware, so bringing all these people together on the wall is quite an achievement. We will now add ‘Freedom Tree’ to the mural in Olympia, so that’s going to be another connection with Gaza.

There are various groups involved including anti-war groups, organizations from different countries, individual artists, movements, homeless organizations, environmental justice groups and the list goes on..it’s very broad.

12. In anticipation of the MAIA Project, what do you look forward to?

I think one of the things that is most exciting to me about the MAIA Project is what keeps me excited about the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ Olympia-Rafah solidarity project, which is making connections between the issues in Palestine and other broader issues.

The project is about water, and the global water crisis which is taking place on a global scale is having such a huge impact in Gaza. Also, it looks like we’re going to be partnering with ‘Water Writes’, a project of the Estria Foundation that runs public art and mural projects around the world on the issue of water in environmental catastrophes occurring globally. So again, it’s about tying in the global aspect of this, making global connections between what is happening in Palestine and in other places across the world.

Marwan Diab is a psychologist and Director of the Public Relations Department at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

1. Could you say what’s your involvement in the Gaza Community Mental Health Program?

At the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, we provide mental heath and human rights services for children, women and victims of human rights violations.

2. How did you get involved in the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project in Gaza and what role did you play in the project?

We got involved in the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project after meeting Susan Greene who had visited us at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program a few years ago. Susan had also worked with two other artists, in cooperation with our program, on a mural in Rafah with the Palestinian Health Committee…Our role in the project was, first of all, to have some Palestinian artists doing art work, photographers, and any others who could be involved in the project.

We talked to them, and collected contributions from Susan and the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity movement so to include at least one of their art works in the project. We also provided children’s drawings as well as dealt with the children who contributed to the drawings. Besides, Susan is a good friend of our program and a great person that we like to receive in Gaza once in a while to do some projects together. Sometimes, she may also help us with raising donations to set up some organizations in the Gaza Strip.

At the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, we are interested in working with artists and different media outlets, and integrating art into our work. Art is not just for people who have an interest in it, we have been using art in addressing several issues concerning children by organizing art exhibitions and talks upon torture, human rights violations, and other issues that are relevant to mental health.

So we can claim that we were the first organization in the Gaza Strip that conceived the idea to involve art in supporting our work. Initially people thought we were irrational, but later everybody started using art in their community work or activities, so we are really proud to have spread the message that art can be involved in social issues.

3. What was the leading idea behind ‘Freedom Tree’ mural?

The idea was introduced by Susan Green, and we thought it would be a very good opportunity to present some of the Palestinian artists in order to show that Palestinians also have hobbies, they are human beings who can enjoy life, and they are not violent as it is widely portrayed in the media.

Palestinians are very creative, they can achieve a lot and compete on an international level. And the idea of having a mural in Olympia altogether was an integration of different artists from different cultures. It showed that art is very important for all people in the world, including Palestinians, and it brings people together rather than dividing them.

4. The mural involved pictures drawn by children about (among other subjects) the Israeli military assaults during the 2008-2009 war on Gaza. How hard was it to work with Gazan children less than two years after the war?

It was very difficult to work with the children who had been exposed to all kinds of military violence during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza. Children displayed various types of behaviour, many of them were traumatized or still affected by the recent war.

It was part of our community work to carry out debriefings, provide trauma counselling, and give assistance to those children who had been exposed to various violent attacks.

And most of the things that children drew were naturally about the war, violence, and their experiences of home demolitions, killings, etc. This project was a work to transfer memories of what they had drawn. It was certainly difficult when the children sometimes wanted to talk about their personal experiences in this particular respect.

Some professionals who worked with the children found that some of them were drawing destroyed houses and, when asking about these drawings, they would say at times: ‘This is my house, it was destroyed during Israel’s war on Gaza’ or ‘This was the place where I used to live’.

5. Could you describe any images of hopes for peace and justice the children expressed through their drawings?

These images were very few, unfortunately. Children would not talk about justice and peace, rather about their right to be free…most of their drawings were about war and violence, tanks and missiles attacking homes, militants attacking people etc. You could hardly find any images that showed or resembled hope except for messages of children claiming their rights, asking people to intervene and help them at a time of aggression they were going through.

6. What challenges did you face throughout the project?

It would have been good for us to take part in the opening of the mural in the US, it’s unfortunate that we could not be present. Susan was able to come here and meet with us but we could not go there. For some of the people here who were involved in the project, it would have been something more involving to meet with other artists at the opening and perhaps show them their own work rather than just to send their art contributions.

The other challenge.. as I mentioned, art is not given priority because of certain issues such as military, security, political, development related which are considered big priorities. As a result, even though it is important, art is not prioritised while other concerns take the attention over it. But the media coverage should be more than that in our project.

And we need people to talk more about how important it is to have communication between Palestinians and people in the US, for example, because many Americans are willing and able to help Palestinians from there in many ways, and we have a delegation from Olympia coming every 6 months to Gaza.

7. How well did you raise international support?

We strive and think it’s very important to have people talking to people, not politicians talking..that’s certainly not of benefit to our cause. We need people who are able and willing to come, and help Palestinians in their cause..I don’t say suffering because it’s a word that gives a very negative image of the Palestinians. We are resilient, able to struggle, we stand still facing all challenges and overcoming those that we have passed through.

Even if that means enduring large military actions, I think it’s very important for us that we are perseverant in our resistance. We have several networks with whom we communicate very effectively, and they understand the Palestinian cause.

Our networks are in the US, Australia and other parts of the world. We count on solidarity groups, friends, professionals, academics, researchers, supporters of the Palestinian people who come from all over the world and know about our cause quite well.

These people help in any way they can and they were involved in the past too, the mural is only one of the many projects that we have run. We had people supporting us not just financially but also professionally, ethically, through boycott or lobbying to their governments to pressure Israel to stop its military attacks. So we are very proud of our friends who are ambassadors in the world and know well about how the Palestinians live, how inhumane is what they face up to in daily life.

8. How concretely do you think this and similar projects can help people in Gaza in rebuilding their communities?

Such projects are very important, as I said, to show solidarity with Palestinians, to make people aware and expose the human rights violations that Palestinians endure. Once people in the world get to know about the Palestinian people, see what their life looks like…that will encourage more solidarity and advocacy, will help build our community and fundraise for our projects. So this is a really important project, definitely valuable in this respect.

9. Could you anticipate anything about the future projects?

I always welcome any new ideas and projects that we think are important in raising awareness about the Palestinian cause. Art is surely a language that is understood by everybody in the world. It’s very crucial to get our message heard by people outside, and they know how they can help us in our struggle against the Occupation, against the siege and all the rights violations. I don’t have a particular project in mind right now, but if any upcoming initiative is feasible and raises awareness about our issues, we will study it very thoroughly and work on as many other initiatives.

Related Links:

Tale of Two Cities: Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project
http://olympiarafahmural.org

Break the Silence Mural and Arts Project
http://breakthesilencearts.org

Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice
http://rachelcorriefoundation.org

Childhood under Fire –An Exhibition of Children’s Drawings One Year After ‘Cast Lead’
http://www.gcmhp.net/File_files/bookMar2k10.pdf

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