Once I was asked to stand here and talk to you I went through
Layla Alsheikh - "Where is this affection coming from?"
I am Layla Alsheikh from the village of Battir in the Bethlehem governorate. A Muslim Palestinian and a mother.
I was born and raised in Jordan. Mine was a peaceful and normal life. I graduated with a degree in accounting and business management. I met my husband in Jordan and in 1999 I went to Bethlehem where my husband lived, for the wedding. Like any Palestinian born far from his or her homeland, it was a dream come true.
In 2000 our daughter was born, a wonderful and beautiful child. Two months later, the Second Intifada broke out and for me it was the start of tragedy. At the time, the Israeli government applied diverse, random measures, one of which was to stop the distribution of “Family reunification” permits and since I hadn’t received my permit yet, I couldn’t leave the house for the most part or visit my family in Jordan. My husband and my daughter kept me busy until a year later Allah gave us a son whom we named Qusay. He was a beautiful, clever baby and we were so happy when he came along.
Sadly our joy was cut short. When the baby was 6 months old, on 11.4.2002 at 4 a.m., he woke from his sleep in dire health after military troops hurled tear gas in the village. We attempted to rush him to the hospital in Bethlehem, but we were surprised by a makeshift IDF barrier at the village exit. They prevented us from leaving, under the pretext that this was a restricted military zone. We tried to change our route and take him to Hebron, though it’s a 20 minute drive, but this time the soldiers prevented us from going through saying that the road was closed.
We had no choice but to take a rocky and long route among the villages. But we were met by another military barrier. The soldiers searched the car and checked the IDs of my husband and his father. My father in law said that the baby is very sick and we must rush him to the hospital. But they instructed us to remain in the car.
Time went by and Qusay’s health declined. At this point I considered taking a risk, getting out of the car and talking to the soldiers. I risked the soldiers finding out that I didn’t have a permit to stay in Palestine; they would either take me to jail or make me go back to Jordan, never to return. So in both cases I would no longer be able to be with my children and husband. But my thoughts were only focused on saving my son, so I got out of the car, spoke to the soldiers and told them about my son’s condition. They merely laughed at me and instructed me to stay in the car until they gave us permission to go through. That was the first time I felt totally helpless; my son was fighting for his life in my arms and I couldn’t do a thing.
Four hours later we were allowed to go through. We reached the hospital, the doctors examined him and said we arrived so late; if 48 hours go by and he doesn’t die, then he’ll be physically and mentally handicapped. I burst into tears; it was as if a building had collapsed on top of me, since both options were devastating. At 2 p.m. we were asked to leave the hospital because the Occupation soldiers had arrived to remove anyone who had no reason to be there and since our son was in the ICU, they told us to leave. The soldiers’ excuse was that several armed men could be hiding in the hospital. Thus, we went back home. I went to my father in law’s house and called the doctor at the hospital who explained my son’s condition to me. He spoke to me in professional terms, trying to tell me something, but inside I didn’t want to believe what he was saying and he repeated himself twice. Then I realized, my son had died.
The next day my son’s body was brought to us so we could see him for the last time and part with him. I held him in my arms, I had missed him so; the last 24 hours were the first time he hadn’t been with me since he was born. I pulled back the cover and I was horrified. He was blue. Quickly, and without thinking, I tried to kiss him as I always did, but this time was very different and it felt as if I was kissing a snowy rock. Without understanding what I was doing, I held him close to my breast to warm him and those were our final moments.
From that moment my life changed to the extreme. I was full of hatred and rage at every Israeli, since they were all responsible in some way for his death. I thought, the Israelis always have an excuse, and the reason they kill or arrest every Palestinian is because someone threw a stone or committed an act of sacrificing their life against them. But my son was only 6 months old, what did they deem was his fault??? The answer I would give myself was that his only crime was being a Palestinian.
I never thought of revenge, nor did I think of forgiveness and my husband and I started to argue, because after a while he tried to convince me that we should have another baby. I objected adamantly and I asked him: Why do you want me to have another baby??? After all, we know how his life will end before he’s even born; in some way or another he will be part of this endless conflict and there are only two options: Either he’ll wind up in jail or die a martyr’s death. I finally gave in to my husband’s insistent pleading and we had a son. We gave him the same name: Qusay, so his memory would live on forever and he would always be a reminder to me of what happened.
One day I was invited by one of my friends to attend a Parents Circle Families Forum gathering in Bethlehem. At first I firmly refused, but on the day of the gathering, when my friend called me and said “Where are you? We’re waiting for you”, I decided to go.
At first there were only Palestinian participants; I started to get to know them until the Israelis arrived. When I saw them entering I stood up to leave, but I was taken aback by the warm welcome they got from the Palestinians and I asked myself: “Where is this affection coming from?” Then the Israelis started telling their stories. I was so surprised because it was the first time I saw them as people, bereaved, like me, sharing the same pain and the same tears. Afterwards I decided to take part in the “The Parallel Narrative Project” with a group of 30 Palestinian and Israeli women. For the first activity we were asked to talk about something that affected our lives during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was the first time I talked about my son’s death in front of so many people, especially Israelis, and I felt I was reliving the moments. I burst into tears and couldn’t complete my story. To my surprise, one of the Israeli women came over, sat down on the floor next to me and said: “I’m sorry”. I looked at her in wonder and she said: “I’m sorry, because the people that harmed your son and family are my people. I am a mother too and I can feel the pain you’re talking about”.
That woman knows that with those plain words she changed my world. Her words were like a light in a dark place, illuminating the darkness and opening up new horizons. From that moment on I decided to become an active member of the Forum and it was one of the most important decisions of my life.
I started viewing myself as a survivor, not a victim. I started to think, it’s so easy for us to talk about peace and reconciliation, but it has to be a decision that comes from the heart and mind. When we feel hatred or rage, these feelings blind our eyes and our hearts and prevent us from thinking properly.