Siham Abu Awwad grew up in a Palestinian family in a small West Bank village. When Siham was 14, her mother was imprisoned for six months for demonstrating against the military occupation of the West Bank. Siham became the woman of the house, caring for her four brothers—Khaled, Youssef, Ali, and Maha.
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With their mother in jail, Siham and her brothers became very close. “We had a special place in each other’s heart,” she told me. Missing her mother, and with little time for friends, Siham became especially close to Youssef. “I told him everything. He was kind and sensitive. He was like a sister!”
When Siham’s mother returned from prison, she continued her political activism and was soon arrested again, but she maintained a sense of humor and challenged her children to be kind and good.
The establishment of a nearby Jewish settlement led to ongoing seizures of land from Siham’s village, and there were frequent protests. By the time Siham was 17, her mother and all her brothers had been in and out of jail for participating in the protests that are illegal under Israeli law. Knowing she would likely be imprisoned again and concerned for her daughter’s future, Siham’s mother encouraged her to marry. Siham did, and eventually gave birth to five children.
Youssef and Ali both married too, but happiness was short-lived. Two months after his wedding, Ali was shot in the leg by a settler. Doctors wanted to amputate his leg and feared he would not survive, but his mother arranged treatment in Saudi Arabia, where Ali’s life and his leg were saved. While preparing a celebration for Ali’s return, Youssef was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. “Youssef was our angel,” said Siham, “always with a smile.”
When Siham’s mother returned from Saudi Arabia, she immediately joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization of 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost a family member to the conflict. Siham’s mother began talking about reconciliation, but Siham would have none of it. She told her mother, “If I see the soldier who killed Youssef, I will kill him.” For four years Siham pushed her mother away, angry that she refused to seek revenge.
Then, suddenly, her mother died of a stroke. During the period of mourning, a group of Jewish women from the Parents Circle came to visit Siham. Strangely, one of the Jewish women looked exactly like Siham’s mother. “I thought, this is just like my mom to send me a message through a Jewish woman!” When the woman saw a slight smile on Siham’s face, she hugged her. “I needed that hug,” said Siham. “I thought, if she has my mother’s face, maybe she has my mother’s heart. I fell in love with that whole group of Jewish women.”
Siham wishes her mother were alive to see that she—and her brothers Khaled and Ali—are active members of the Parents Circle. “It’s hard to open our wounds to each other the way we do. But we—Palestinians and Israelis—have one goal. We want a different life. We want to stop killing each other.” Siham believes that what really killed her mother was the pain of losing Youssef. “I don’t want more mothers to die of that kind of pain.”
The only Jewish faces Siham had seen while growing up were soldiers’ faces. “When I was young I never thought of them as a human being with a heart, with a mother and a father,” she said. “I just saw their gun.” Today she sees them the way she wants to be seen: as human beings who deserve to live.
Today, if Siham met the soldier who killed Youssef, she would invite him to her house to meet her family. “I understand now that my greatest enemy is the soldier’s fear. His head is filled with many ideas about me that aren’t true. I want to give him another view of me and my family, so he doesn’t need to fear us.”
Siham taught herself English so she could tell her story. I met her in Chicago with Robi Damelin, an Israeli Jewish woman. I watched them whisper and laugh and offer each other a quick hug as they headed off for another meeting where they describe their loss, their pain, and their commitment to seeing each other’s humanity and embracing the journey of reconciliation.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.