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The book of the orphans

 Augustin (Austria) 21 February 2019

The story of how, thanks to much courage and dedication, an orphanage and a girls’ school came into being in Jerusalem. A story about strong Palestinian women and their life’s work. (889 Words) - By Andreas Hackl


Augustin_ book of the orphans

 Photo: The orphanage’s record of its first residents – survivors of the massacre of Deir Yassin. Photo: Andreas Hackl

Hind Husseini enters the old town of Jerusalem. She is on her way to an important meeting about the Arabic population of Palestine, and the hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing from the fighting of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On April 9th 1948, one month before the foundation of the state of Israel and the following attack of the Arabic neighbouring countries, Hind suddenly happened upon a group of children. They were standing huddled toegther, frightened and weary. There were over fifty girls and boys. Many of them were sobbing and seemed neglected. 'What has happened, and what are you doing here, alone on the street?', Hind asked the oldest girl. 'We are from Deir Yassin. We have been dropped here', she said. Her name is Zeina. She and the other children had hidden from the fighting throughout the night in their village. Then the Jewish militia collected the surviving children in the centre of the village, loaded them onto a lorry and dropped them in front of the Islamic quarter of the old town. 'Go to the Arabs' they were told. The children were survivors of the 'Massacare of Deir Yassin'.

Hind Husseini found them, and has provided for them ever since. To start with she did this in small flats in the old town, but as the Arab-Israeli conflict started to intensify, it was too dangerous there. Hind brought the children into her grandfather's mansion in the district of Sheikh Jarrah. With  this move the 'Dar Al-Tifl' ('Home for Children') was born. Dar Al-Tifl offers the orphans of the conflict a roof over their heads, and it gives them the opportunity of an education.

Hind Husseini died 16 years ago, but the aim of Dar Al-Tifl remains the same. Her successor is a calm and peaceful woman called Mahira Dajani. She is old. 'How old?', I ask. 'That, I'm not saying', she says and laughs mischievously. 'I'm near to eighty'.  Her office in Dar Al-Tifl appears very comfortable, a bit like a living room. In the far corner stands a big sofa, and the whole back wall is glass. From here you can see the hilly landscape of Jerusalem and the white houses of the surrounding districts. On the other walls hang pictures and a framed textile work. 'Our children have made this', she explains. The Dar Al-Tifl is today not just an orphanage, but also a school for girls, a museum and a source of hope for a generation of young women.

'Our girls are different from girls in other schools', says Mahira proudly. 'They are educated and independent. Many feminists send their girls here. Parents who want their daughts to have it a bit easier later in life'. Time and time again, Mahira says, Dar Al-Tifl has ensured education in difficult times, even during the many violent conflicts. In the late eighties, during the Palestinian Intifada, teachers and pupils sewed jackets and hats for prisoners and provided families with food and clothes. Many schools were closed at that time and the lessons were held secretly in flats. 'And in the villages we taught the children under trees', she says.

Dar Al-Tifl is today  an all-girls school. With this, the lack of good education for girls was overcome, explains Mahira. She believes that women have a special role to play in Palestine's future. 'They are more serious and work harder. Especially when they are given the opportunity to take a stand for something, they do not hesitate and work hard for their goals.'

Today there are twenty orphaned girls living full time in the house. When Israel sealed off the Gaza strip, around 150 girls had to return there, explains Mahira. 'We give them everything that they need. I wish however, that there were more than twenty here. We have 300 beds, plenty of food and space for lots of children.'

Mahira Dajani stands up from her office chair and goes over to the sofa. 'I want to show you something', she says. On the coffee table lies a very old book. Time has coloured the pages yellow-brown and a few hang loose from the spine. It is the Book of the Orphans. She strokes her hand soflty over the cover and opens it. 'These are the first girls', she says. There they are, assembled in small black and white photos: the survivors of the massacre of Deir Yassin. The first orphans in Dar Al-Tifl.

'And your work?', I ask her. 'What does it mean for you?'. She is silent for a few seconds. Mahira Dajani looks straight ahead, with wide eyes. 'When I see how the girls laugh, how they play and enjoy their life, then I am happy. Yes, I need their happiness to be happy myself.'

Translated from German to English by Amy Fox

Originally published by Augustin ©

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