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Palestinian children receive peaceful experience

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FALL CITY - Last Friday was a hot day in Fall City. At the start of a weekend with record-breaking temperatures, many Valley residents were complaining about what they would have to do to keep cool for the next couple of days.

For Fayez Abdinnour, it couldn't have been better. The 13-year-old from Jerusalem was doing things he had never done before, like playing on a Slip N' Slide in a grassy yard and seeing a river.

"There are no police and no checkpoints," he said. "There is greenery everywhere."

Abdinnour was one of 13 children visiting Washington from Palestine for a program called Kids for Hope, which is a part of the Jerusalem Arc project that is trying to build the Christian community in Palestine and keep Christians in the Holy Land. Jan Bolerjack, pastor of the Fall City United Methodist Church that was hosting the children, said in the past 10 years the Christian community in Palestine has dwindled from 20 percent of the population to just 4 percent.

Bolerjack heard of the program from friend and colleague Rev. Sharon Moe, who now leads the Mercer Island United Methodist Church. Moe was on sabbatical for a year and visited Israel, where she found out about Jerusalem Arc. Bolerjack also visited Israel, where she also learned about Jerusalem Arc, and began working with Moe to get the first children from the program to come to Washington. Moe raised all the money for the children's trip in a matter of months, relying mostly on donations from church members.

"We want them to have a glimpse of what life can be like," Bolerjack said. "We didn't want to seduce them to want to come here."

Moe said most of the children, ages 5 to 13, had never left their village and none had ever traveled more than 15 miles from their homes, so getting them across the ocean was no small logistical feat. The children came in two groups, one from Jerusalem and the other from the West Bank. The group from Jerusalem got to leave from Tel Aviv, but not before being interviewed individually. The group from the West Bank had to leave from Amman, Jordan, after spending the night on a bridge at the border.

The long journey was worth it by the time the children had spent some time in the United States. In letters the children sent before they came, they said they wanted to participate in some of the regular parts of American life, like shopping, going to see a movie and going to church. Although the children live on the Mediterranean Sea, most had never seen a river.

Since the children arrived, the hosts have done their best to squeeze as much in as they can. The early group of children went to a Seattle Storm game in Seattle. They got to spend time at the Seattle Center where the international fountain was a big hit. Both groups went to the Nike outlet store in North Bend and saw Snoqualmie Falls. They saw a Mariners game and sang in the Bolerjack's church before heading to a camp on the coast this week where they will meet American children. They even tried oatmeal for the first time.

While the children's days have been full of specific experiences, they said they can only think of the absolute differences between Palestine and America. They all commented on how clean America was and how much respect the residents have for nature. The lack of fences in Fall City added to the children's sense of security, since people can freely walk wherever they want. The children said they got the feeling the government here cares about its citizens.

"Each neighbor respects the other," said 12-year-old Lubnah Abraham.

The children said the way people interact with one another in America is perhaps the most striking. Many of the children's parents were unemployed and many had at least one parent who was deceased. Some were orphans. What impressed them was that in America, there is no stress from soldiers or violence. People are not worried and take the time to talk to each other.

"You see people who are happy," said 13-year-old Julie Khoury.

Bolerjack and Moe said their ultimate goal is to give the children a motivation to work toward peace. If they can show the children what a free society is like, perhaps they can strive to build their own in their homeland.

"We want to give them a sense of the wider world so they are not helpless in their own world," Moe said.

For Americans, Moe and Bolerjack hope some time spent with children from Palestine will show that everyone is pretty similar.

"We get to see that they are actually just children," Bolerjack said. "And they get to see that Americans are actually nice people."

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 8888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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