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A Temporary Vermonter

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By Tory Rhodin

For me, the “conflict” in the Middle East wears the face of a young, complicated, disabled artist sheltering, with a large number of relatives, in his mom’s and brother’s apartment in Gaza City. Salam is a young Palestinian man who joined my family for a school year 11 years ago. For a year, he was my son. For a year, he was a Vermonter.

Salam (the Arabic word for “peace” is not his real name) came to Vermont from Gaza just after his sixteenth birthday, through the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, a scholarship opportunity sponsored by our country’s Department of State, which brings talented young people from primarily Muslim countries to live with U.S. families and to study for an academic year in U.S. high schools. Salam arrived a little late because the borders between the Gaza Strip and the rest of the world were closed for several weeks late that summer, but he got here in time for the beginning of school potluck at the Sharon Academy, where he and my daughter were classmates. 

During his year here, Salam improved his already excellent English, learned about woodland ecology, created art, went hiking for the first time, canoe camping with our family in the Okefenokee Swamp, participated in the all-school performance of “South Pacific,” and attended the school prom. He lived as part of my multiracial American family in a small Vermont town, attended Quaker meetings with our family, and was invited by good friends of ours to a Passover Seder. He also enjoyed warm and inclusive holiday visits with our extended families, which include French Canadian and Swedish Catholics, Jews with deep connections to Israel, and Palestinian Christians with roots in Ramallah on the West Bank. Salam also learned to ski that year.

One of the first evenings he was with us, we invited some classmates over for a campfire in our backyard. The local kids talked about “snow days,” when they got a day off from school because of weather. Salam told them about “bomb days,” when he missed a month of school due to Israeli bombardment of his city. Salam did an immeasurable service to our local community and his school community by giving his far-off country, his religion, and his culture, which to many neighbors were unknown and mysterious, the human face of a quirky artistic teenager with no particular interest in politics. He told us recently that he remembers Vermont as the place he discovered nature for the first time, a peaceful place where an owl roosted in the backyard.

At the end of the eleventh grade, Salam returned to his beloved family in Gaza. He finished high school there, studied for a year in Turkey and then three years in college in the U.S., where he felt supported in exploring important aspects of his identity in ways that were neither possible nor safe at home. Many Vermonters would recognize his “alternative” manner of showing up as being like our own adolescent and young adult children, but the safety and protection afforded his American classmates at their liberal midwestern college did not extend to a complicated, stateless kid on a student visa. By that time he had developed significant issues with his mental and physical health (much of it, I believe, rooted in the trauma he had experienced growing up in a war zone.) Eventually he had to leave college, returned to Turkey for a while and then to Gaza, where his health has continued to deteriorate in the absence of a functioning health care infrastructure.

We spoke with Salam the day after the appalling Hamas murders of Israeli civilians, which deserve and have received the condemnation of the civilized world. We stayed in touch since then by Facebook, grateful for “proof of life” every couple of days, including videos of caring for the pigeons that stopped by the sixth floor balcony. For a time, as the violence continued (the violence still continues) Salam’s posts became less and less coherent. We try to send encouragement as best we can, and occasional music, although in the circumstances it’s hard to imagine it does much good. For several weeks we heard nothing at all, and eventually assumed the worst. One morning communication inexplicably resumed. Salam had just watched three men die on the street outside his balcony. As he wrote, he was crying and talking with God: “What am I supposed to make out of life when I keep watching day after day that life is slipping out of Gaza’s hands, or is Gaza slipping out of life’s hands? … The destruction is unprecedented. … We do not need a miracle, we need a magnitude of them.”

Up to today, about 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israeli bombs or died of hunger or illness — that’s about one out of every 100 people in Gaza, and most of the population of the territory has been displaced from their homes. 

What is happening today in Gaza is the assault by a wealthy, technologically developed, well-armed nation supported and funded by our government, on what amounts to an impoverished refugee camp administered by terrorists. Theologians and ethicists speak of “just war,” but this is not that: this is a massacre of thousands upon thousands of poor and vulnerable people. One of them was, for a time, a Vermonter. 

Victoria Rhodin is a Quaker social worker and weaver who lives in Montpelier.

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length. 

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