Visiting Palestine for the first time in 2011, I travelled to the West End to work at the Balata Refugee Camp. It was built adjacent to the city of Nablus, where the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) sponsors a school for 1,200 girls, from kindergarten to high school. There, I had the privilege to conduct workshops for some young teens.
I asked the students to draw what was on their minds. Repeatedly, the flag of Palestine, in green, white, red, and black, would appear along with the map of Palestine. Not the map of Palestine as it is currently defined, but as it was before the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The momentous event is termed Nakba, “catastrophy,” when over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes due to armed conflicts and the hostile takeover. The conflict between the occupying force and the resistance still continues today. It results in wanton destruction with numerous people dead or incarcerated.
During our residencies in the West Bank in 2014 and 2015, Barefoot Artists members participated in the celebration of Prisoners Day in Nablus. Thousands of children and families gathered in the big park in Nablus to show solidarity with their loved ones, including children who were locked away in Israeli prisons. We painted the hands and faces of hundreds of children. Although many asked for the images of flowers and hearts, almost every child wanted a flag and or a map.
Flags and maps are profound images to the Palestinian people who have lost their land, homes, communities, and economic means. When their history and very identity have been threatened under the oppressive occupation, they see these images as symbols for their survival. They were once free people, from a land of bounty. Although they have lost most of their land, they must not lose their memory, spirit, and hope.