Living in conflict zones with a teenager can be a huge challenge. Claudiaexpat remembers her experience in Jerusalem with her son.
I wrote this article at the beginning of my stay in Jerusalem, in 2010. Up to the end of our mission there, things were more or less under control from a personal security point of view. I spent one year alone with my son there, while my husband was working in other places, and I was never really worried about his safety – he had grown and knew how to behave, what to avoid, etc. When we left Palestine, things changed. The inhuman attack on Gaza of June 2014, which killed more than 2000 people, was the beginning of a spiral of violence, which continues today. My friends in Jerusalem tell me that young Palestinians are constantly under threat, that the already large number of soldiers that patrol the city has increased, that tensions are on the rise. Just a few days ago a Palestinian drove his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers, killing four of them and injuring many more. I am glad we were able to experience living in Palestine in a relatively relaxed state of mind, and I am terribly sad about what is going on there now.
For years, I hadn’t lived in a country ravaged by political tensions. I was no longer used to the atmosphere which surrounds you in a country where conflict is either latent or in full swing. Our Latin American phase was long: ten years had been enough to diffuse the memory of how we’d felt in various African countries, when our days were punctuated by news of what was happening in the city or in the countryside, curfews, and in the most extreme case, evacuation.
Nobody likes to live with a threat hanging over them or their family. For example, in Brazzaville, I hated going to bed knowing that people were massacring each other on the other side of the river, in Kinshasa, and that the very city where we lived, where my son went to school, and where we carried on our daily existence, was pervaded with a sense of settling of scores, acrimony, and a desire for revenge.
Yet in Africa, we were so used to danger, to being constantly watchful, to reading the myriad signs hidden in the faces and attitudes of individuals and crowds, that we barely noticed these any more. It was when we moved from Africa to Latin America that I realized how much the social and political tension present in the place where you live permeates all your cells and spontaneously activates a string of extra sensors, which automatically deactivate when you move out of the context and no longer need to be on high alert at all times.
In Honduras, but even more so in Peru, I gradually got over the fear that political events in the country would affect my family and me. In both countries, even elections, which in Africa often bring with them uprisings and clashes, took on a soap opera atmosphere, and everything unfolded in the utmost calm.
I don’t want to imply that Latin American countries don’t have their political issues: for example, only a couple of months ago, there was a coup in Ecuador. But my experience of the two continents was very different: while in Africa tension creeps into your daily life and influences your movements, your habits, and becomes an integral part of your being, in Latin America, politics does not necessarily intrude in your life, and your mind might well be focused on other things, not all of them negative.
our physical safety in Jerusalem is not threatened by assaults, robberies, or sexual harassment, but is linked to finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time
Before we moved to Jerusalem, I knew that the situation would be anything but calm, even if I had trouble imagining exactly how this would affect our lives. Once we had arrived, I went through the settling in process with renewed temerity, because I recognized in this posting certain characteristics from my early postings abroad.
I quickly realized that, unlike in Latin America, our physical safety in Jerusalem is not threatened by assaults, robberies, or sexual harassment, but is linked to finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The traumatic period of suicide attacks from a few years back is not altogether over, and many people, particularly expats, avoid using Israeli buses or going to busy places where crowds might gather.
There are many situations and places which should be avoided, depending on which way the political wind is blowing, and you need experience and a good network to be able to organize yourself.
But in this article I’d like to focus on how families react when they find themselves in a conflict situation, how everyday structure can be put into your life in the middle of political tension, and I’d like to highlight the feelings and motivations that determine how much freedom parents in these circumstances can afford to give their children.
When you’re living abroad, it’s essential for a family’s wellbeing to create and maintain some sort of routine. But in conflict areas, any ordinary plan can be turned upside-down in the blink of an eye by unexpected occurrences.
Let me give you an example: a couple of months ago my son was celebrating his fourteenth birthday. He’d invited a group of friends, and had asked us to leave them alone in the house. Fair enough, for a youngster of his age, and we agreed, taking into account the fact that we’d recently arrived, and it was important for him to forge new friendships.
The day before his birthday, which fell on a Friday (a holiday for Moslems), two Palestinians were killed in Silwan, an occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood where the Israeli authorities have planned to build housing. When things like this happen, tensions quickly mount, especially when it’s a Friday, and East Jerusalem Moslems head to the Old City to pray, thus creating what the Israeli army considers to be dangerous gatherings.
Zeppelins had been flying over the old city non-stop since morning. Israeli forces use these to zoom in on and photograph what’s going on even in the tiniest alleyways. It was clearly not advisable to go gallivanting about the city. But we couldn’t let our son down, so at five o’clock, when our son’s friends arrived, my husband and I got into the car and looked at each other.
‘Where shall we go?’
Shabbat had already started and everything was closed in West Jerusalem. It’s never a good idea to go to West Jerusalem on Shabbat anyway, because of the risk of getting mixed up in gatherings of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in their neighbourhoods where your car could so easily be targeted by stone-throwers.
But the bitter taste of insecurity hung over us and over our son’s birthday
East Jerusalem was the alternative, but being Friday, people were celebrating under strict control of the Israeli authorities, who are anything but gentle if crowds show the slightest sign of discontent. In the end, we took refuge in the American Colony, one of East Jerusalem’s most beautiful hotels, and we were able to sit and relax with our books on the blossom-decked patio. But the bitter taste of insecurity hung over us and over our son’s birthday. At least we knew he was safe at home.
It’s another story when he goes out, and we sit worrying about him at home. Fourteen is not too young for a boy to be out and about on the town with his friends, having a pizza, or hanging out in a park. In Italy the dangers would be different, and our anxiety would be focused elsewhere.
Some time ago we heard that in the very park where Mattia goes with his friends at the weekend, gangs of young Israelis were beating up any hapless Arabs they met along the way. Three violent assaults had already been reported. The police were unable to intervene, because the trouble was sporadic. Mattia’s group of friends is made up of an equal mix of Francophones and Palestinians, and he could easily pass for either.
you have to find a balance between giving your child the necessary space to grow, to become independent, to live his experience, to make mistakes, while on the other hand ensuring his safety and protecting him from traumatic experiences
Naturally, as soon as we became aware of the situation, we cut out the article about the attacks so that he could take it to school and discuss it with his friends. For a short while our youngsters moved on to another park, close to a friend’s home, which would be more accessible by parents in case of emergency. But they missed their old familiar haunt, which was bigger and closer to school, and once things had calmed down, back they went, much to the parents’ chagrin.
My point is that you have to find a balance between giving your child the necessary space to grow, to become independent, to live his experience, to make mistakes, while on the other hand ensuring his safety and protecting him from traumatic experiences. This balance is hard to find even in a familiar context, so you can imagine how difficult it is when you’re living in a conflict area which prior to now you had only seen on a TV screen.
Like all parents in a similar situation, and I can assure you that there are many in the same boat, the first thing we did was to look for a house that would give our son (and us) a sense of security, a place away from the ‘hot’ areas, that would eventually form an oasis – an escape from the constant hammering of news, happenings, and injustices which we have to witness day in, day out in this part of the world. A house that is protected from clashes, stone throwing, shots, and blasts, simply because it’s in an area that people don’t frequent because they don’t know it. A house where we can take refuge every time we hear there’s trouble and it’s not a good idea to be out and about.
When, whether or not by choice, you oblige your children to live in a context where you can’t guarantee their physical and psychological safety, you have to find a strong justification for doing so
Another priority has always been to talk to our son, keeping him updated on what’s going on, and ensuring that he’s aware of the risks that he is running, simply by virtue of the fact that he could pass as…one of any of the local ethnic groups! A tough task, when you’re dealing with an adolescent who wants to have things his way despite the dangers. If he boldly decides to wander about the centre of West Jerusalem chanting Arab slogans with his friends, we sit in a cold sweat, trying to explain that it’s a crazy thing to do (for various reasons which he is perfectly well aware of), but at the same time trying not to hurt his self-esteem or put a barrier in the way of the development of his ideals and values.
For the rest, we arm ourselves, as we have always done, with a good dose of philosophy and stoicism, the same tools we used in Bissau when our first-born, who was then just a year old, had a temperature of 104° and we didn’t know if he had malaria, or in Brazzaville, when we learnt that civil war had broken out.
When, whether or not by choice, you oblige your children to live in a context where you can’t guarantee their physical and psychological safety, you have to find a strong justification for doing so; you have to cling onto those important values that help you overcome the feelings of apprehension and guilt that are a result of seeing your children forced into situations they would never have to confront had they not been dragged to wherever it is that you are living.
Personally, I have always held that if you want to grow in the world (and if you want your children to grow), you can’t avoid sharing the tensions and problems of your host country, or at least a part of these, with them. The challenging task is to find a balance between living a normal life and safety, or between exposing the children to situations that could turn violent and preserving your own principles on this tortuous journey that is our expat life.