The Children of Deir Yassin
by Pat McDonnell Twair
As hostilities intensified between Jews and Palestinians during the spring of 1948, Hind Husseini, who coordinated the establishment of Arab children’s centres in Jerusalem, found it increasingly difficult to move about the war-torn city. The morning of April 9 has resounded with volleys of gunfire marking the solemn funeral of her cousin, Abdul Qader Husseini, the charismatic leader of the Palestinian resistance. He had died the day before in a six-day battle to regain Kastel, an Arab fortress overlooking Jerusalem. Now this most revered of all Palestinian fighters was being buried at the sacred Haram al-Sharif. This was the biggest blow the Palestinians had so far sustained. As the Palestinians stopped shooting their precious bullets into the air and began to mourn the sudden loss of Abdul Qadar, ominous rumours began to spread of a massacre. The atrocities mentioned in whispers were more horrible than the bereft Arabs could comprehend and they seemed to be taking place that very morning on the western outskirts of the city near Kastel.
A few hours later, Arab authorities announced Jewish terrorists has attacked the village of Deir Yassin. In hope of inciting neighbouring Arab governments to come to their aid, they graphically described the slaughter of Deir Yassin’s civilian inhabitants. The Arab governments did not respond, but tragically, the Palestinian peasants did and began to make a mass exodus from their homeland of millennia to the Jordanian border.
Hind huddled close to the radio in her two-room apartment in the Suq al-Haman neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. She realised a massacre of this magnitude meant all out war. She did not go to her office the next morning as coordinator for the Arab Women’s Union. However, when the level of gunfire sporadically abated, she ventured outside. Turning the corner, the horror of the massacre of Deir Yassin hit her full force as she beheld several bloodied children huddled against a wall.
“Oh my darlings, what happened? Are you hurt? What is this, you have no shoes, why are you in night-clothes?”
The shivering children were too frightened to cry, they stared at her in wide-eyed horror unable to describe the atrocities they had witnessed.
Picking up the two youngest, Hind gently whispered to the dirty, frightened children to follow her. It was bitterly cold even at midday on that April 10 morning. Hind unlocked the door of her apartment and motioned to the frightened waifs to follow her inside. She gently lowered the toddlers onto her bed, rushed to bring blankets from a closet and began to heat water for bathing.
Now that they knew they were safely in the hands of an adult who spoke Arabic but dressed differently than the women of Deir Yassin, the children began to whimper. Mohammed, the oldest, told Hind that he had hid under his parents’ bed when the terrorists entered his home. He had heard his mother scream for a long time. From his hiding point, he had seen the bodies of his sisters and brothers fall to the floor. The house had been looted. Several times hands had pulled out old clothes and shoes from under the bed, but he had not been detected. For the rest of the day and into the night, the little boy had heard groans and cries, gun-shots, screeching tyres, and the strange guttural sounds of the intruders. At daybreak the bodies the bodies that lay in his house were pulled out. When he saw his mother’s lifeless body being dragged by its heels like a sack of wheat, sobs uncontrollably came out of his throat. A terrorist reached under the bed, touched him, pulled him from his hiding place, and roughly walked him to a truck where several other children were holding onto one another.
One eight-year old girl was soaked in blood; Mohammed feared she had been wounded. He didn’t want her to die in this truck. Barely able to speak, she told him her name was Thoraya and assured him she wasn’t wounded. Her aunts had protectively hid her behind them when the terrorists entered their house. The women had been stabbed, their gold earrings and gold bracelets forcibly removed, but Thoraya had remained safe and protected by their bodies which fell over her and which she felt stiffen over the hours. It was only when one of the terrorists returned to make sure all the jewellery had been removed from the corpses that she had been found and taken to the truck.
Hind bathed Mohammed and dried him with a warm towel. Then grasping his arms inside her tightly clenched fists, she looked directly into his eyes and pledged: “You will never, ever be alone again, I swear.”
For the ensuing week, Hind worked with Adnan Tamimi to locate the surviving children of Deir Yassin – 55 in all. In light of the brutality of the attack by the Irgun and Stern Gang militias, it was surprising to some that so many had been spared. Trucks had dispatched the children to the Muslim quarter where they had been dumped on street corners.
Long before the massacre of Deir Yassin, which would become the major milestone in her life, Hind had put aside thoughts of marriage as she watched her homeland crumble under the onslaught of European Jews. The Husseini family of Jerusalem was about as close to aristocracy as Islam recognises. Her father, a judge, had died when she was two years old. Being the only daughter of a family of five boys, she was pampered to the extent of preparing to pursue a higher education, but protected in the sense that it was deemed unwise for her to attend a university in Europe with World War II approaching. After she completed high school at the English College for Girls in Jerusalem in 1937, she began teaching at the Islamic Girl’s School. She again broke with tradition when she left the family compound to live in her own apartment after she accepted a post in 1945 with the United Women’s Society Organisation.
Now this pioneer Palestinian feminist realised it was time to return to the family home with her 55 babies. She had only 135 Palestinian pounds in the bank, but Hind wrote in her journal: “I will live with these children or I will die with them.”
Hind’s family was sympathetic to her calling. They turned over to her the elegant Dar Husseini (Husseini House), a house her grandfather had built in 1891 and in which she had been born on April 25, 1916. So on her 32nd birthday, just two weeks after the massacre of Deir Yassin, Hind renamed the stately mansion Dar El Tifl (Children’s House).
Thereafter, construction always seemed to be going on in the compound. Two, four-storey buildings were built, schoolrooms were opened in standing structures. Teachers and yet more teachers were hired. Orphans were rarely turned away.
In 1963, Hind determined she should learn the very latest in educational skills and attended the University of Hamburg for three years.
Concerned that Zionists were attempting to undermine the history of the Palestinian people, the dedicated nationalist found another passion: the preservation of Palestinian arts and crafts. She began collecting pottery, old furniture, and vintage hand-embroidered dresses; she participated in many symposia in neighbouring Arab states that dealt with Palestinian handicrafts. Eventually Hind established a folkloric centre and museum exhibiting baskets, inlaid furniture, brassware, and national costumes of the Palestinian people.
Over the years, Hind remained steadfast in ignoring offers of millions of dollars for her property in the traditionally upscale Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Shortly before her death in 1995, she took the ultimate step to protect it by registering it as a possession of the Waqf (the Islamic religious authority).
Today 250 orphans live at Dar El Tifl and 1450 day students receive instruction from pre-school to graduate level studies. All high school graduates have excellent English skills.
The high standards of the curriculum and staff have earned a prestigious academic record for the school. Conscious that not all students are destined for higher studies, Hind established Vocational training in such subjects as catering and secretarial work. A new science workshop is being overseen by two Palestinian professors living in California for twenty gifted students between the ages of thirteen and fifteen years. Working on five computers, students carry out experiments in fluid dynamics, genetics, and physics. Primarily working with materials around them – grocery bags and bottles – they have created a model submarine and hot air balloon. Dar El Tifl students will be on the Internet in 1998. Two years ago the Hind Husseini Art and Literature College was established on the compound and offers bachelor’s degrees in English, Arabic and social studies. Dar El Tifl shares supervision with Al Quds university over a master’s degree in Palestinian and Islamic civilisation. The original family residence now houses a primary health clinic and guest quarters downstairs while administrative offices are upstairs.
Yet, 50 years after the massacre at Deir Yassin, Dar El Tifl is suffering more than ever at the hands of extremist right-wing Israeli Jews bent on taking over all of Jerusalem. Orient House, the unofficial headquarters of the Palestinian National authority in Jerusalem, has been the special target of the Jewish settlers who brought Benjamin Netanyahu into power as prime minister in June 1996. Orient House is directly across the street from Dar El Tifl, and Israeli militants often break onto the school grounds and threaten students as they approach the school.
Teachers and students alike have received hope from the United States since 1992 when Dalal Muhtadi, a Saudi citizen who lives in California, founded Dar El Tifl–USA. “I had wanted to assist needy Palestinian children for years,” Muhtadi explains. “Then in late 1992 my Auntie Hind called from Jerusalem and said she needed my help.”
Over the years, the Saudi government had made grants to Dar El Tifl but these had dried up after the Gulf War. Muhtadi travelled to Jerusalem, talked to Hind Husseini, the directors and teaching staff and familiarised herself with the school curricula and operation of the orphanage.
“I was convinced Dar El Tifl was accomplishing the goals it had set for itself. Now it was my turn to muster support for it in the United States,” continued Muhtadi, a great-niece of Hind Husseini.
But, why, we asked, would Israeli extremists want to terrorise Palestinian orphans? Hasn’t enough blood been shed over the past half-century?
“They don’t hide their motives, Muhtadi replied. “Fundamentalist fanatics in Israel want to wipe out every trace of a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem.”
Mean-spirited settlers do their best to make life miserable – even scary – for Dar El Tifl students. Settlers have broken the gate of the school, entered the playground area, and threatened children. In their protests against Orient House, fanatic settlers have installed themselves in front of the school and raised wooden signs painted with a skull and crossbones on the school wall. When day students approach the school, shouting settlers with raised fists make them walk a gauntlet of insults and loud curses.
Mahira Dajani, who heads Dar El Tifl’s board of trustees, writes: “We have tried to teach our children the love of peace and to train them to accept peaceful coexistence as a reality and to forget the evils of war. The presence of settlers outside the school gate changed the children’s outlook on life as a whole. The settlers harassed the children in many ways, including uttering filthy words and making lewd gestures, throwing rotten fruit and empty bottles at the school gate and inside the school grounds, and trespassing on the school grounds repeatedly, so that the school has been forced to erect a wire fence over the wall.”
The Israeli military also has intensified its presence in front of Orient House since Netanyahu’s election. Dar El Tifl’s school wall has become a favourite place for Israeli troops to stand, thus imposing a siege mentality on the children in the playground. School officials complain the tear gas the soldiers use has an unpleasant smell. But the bad odour is nothing compared to the stench of urine. Portable latrines have been set up in front of the school for the soldiers’ use, but they relieve themselves throughout the area. The Palestinians believe this is a deliberate insult and provides a frightening spectacle to young girls on their way to school.
“You can’t imagine how terrible it is,” Muhtadi commented. The urine odour is overwhelming for a three-block radius.”
Many day students have transferred to other schools rather than be chased and threatened by nasty settlers. The Israeli policy of making Jerusalem off-bounds to West bank and Gazan Palestinians has left students from these areas with one of two choices: either to become boarders at Dar El Tifl and seldom be with their families or transfer to schools in Gaza or the West Bank. The school has also lost those of its teachers who live on the West Bank, because Israel won’t grant them identity cards to enter Jerusalem.
What are the circumstances of the children who live at Dar El Tifl? Two such youngsters are Sabreen, 5, and Wafa, 15. Sabreen’s father was shot and killed after he finished his prayers at a mosque in Gaza. At the time, Sabreen’s mother, who has twice undergone surgery for a heart condition, was pregnant with her third child. She had no choice but to leave Sabreen at Dar El Tifl. Wafa is from Bethlehem, where her mother was shot dead by Israeli bullets while she was shopping. Wafa’s father is unemployed. Rather than have his children starve, he brought Wafa and her two brothers and two sisters to Dar El Tifl.
Despite the racist behaviour of the settlers, Dar El Tifl continues to heal and educate. Each year since 1950, some 800 Palestinians have graduated from the institution. Funds from Dar El Tifl-USA have established a counselling centre where a social worker, a graduate of the Hind Husseini College of Art and Literature, works with traumatised students and refers those with special needs to professional caregivers.
Immediately after the death of Hind Husseini in September 1995, Muhtadi announced a memorial would be given in her home in Yorba Linda, California. Word spreads as fast among the Palestinian community of California as it does in the homeland and dozens of people whose lives had been affected positively by Hind came to Muhtadi’s home.
“I shall never forget it,” Muhtadi recalled, “when an older couple entered the living room. The woman said ‘I am one of the children of Deir Yassin.’”
It was Thoraya, who years earlier had married Muhammad, and together they had had four children.
For most of that evening the couple recalled the traumatic events of April 9 and 10 and their rescue by Hind.
They left that night for their home in San Diego. Muhtadi has never since been able to find them. Their phone was disconnected. Messages left at their children’s homes were never answered. The tragedy of Deir Yassin has left deep scars that will last for generations. Nonetheless the vision of Hind Husseini has given hope to many who were beyond hope as later Israeli onslaughts left their toll of traumatised, orphaned Arab children.