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As a Palestinian Mother, Here’s How I Talk to My Kids About the Genocide in Gaza

“When my children grow up, I hope they understand that they are Palestinian … and that their existence is resistance.”

Children and parents hold a demonstration demanding a ceasefire in Gaza on November 24, 2023, in Glasgow, Scotland.

The genocide Israel is currently carrying out against Palestinians in Gaza correlates almost exactly with the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians triggered by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Israel’s current war on Gaza is part of a much larger continuum of violence against Palestinians — a history Mariam has taught her children.

The Palestinian mother of two is using a pseudonym because she fears being doxxed and harassed — threats that many Palestinians and their allies who are demanding a ceasefire and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine are facing. Mariam told Prism she feels supported by the small, progressive community where she has raised her children, but she also understands that it’s seen as “radical” to teach your children about apartheid, imperialism, and colonialism.

Mariam’s children have always known they are Palestinian, just as she always knew when she was a child. Like her parents, Mariam wants to instill in her kids a sense of pride and justice—and this has required giving them a political education about the two halves that form their whole. Their father is Jewish. Their mother is Palestinian. Their grandfather survived the Nakba. Their family history is one of beauty and struggle, genocide, displacement, and resistance.

In Mariam’s experience, children have an easier time understanding injustice than adults, who avoid taking a stance publicly and even within their own homes because what is happening is “too complicated.”

“The line here about who is oppressed and who isn’t oppressed in the context of Israel is very clear,” said Mariam, who went on to say that parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about world events — including ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

Mariam recently co-organized a family event with other mothers who are demanding a ceasefire. The children in attendance gave Mariam’s daughter their full attention when she gave a short speech about her Palestinian heritage, Israel’s war on Gaza, and her hopes for the children of Palestine.

“I want the kids in Palestine to have homes and dreams and to go to school,” she said. “I want the kids in Palestine to grow up and have a bright future… I say to the kids of Palestine, ‘Free free Palestine! Let Gaza play!’”

Shortly after the event, Mariam spoke to Prism about her family’s history, the wave of international support for Palestine, and why parents cannot ignore the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces. Here she is, in her own words:

I don’t think I realized at first what was happening on October 7. I was scrolling on Instagram and saw something about it and then I got a call from a friend, who said, “Are you seeing what’s happening?”

The first thing I thought was: Oh, shit. My mom was traveling internationally and I was worried about her safety. I didn’t know if she would be able to get back into the U.S.

It’s been live-action my whole life. We lived through the Oslo Accords. One day, my mom was at work and one of her co-workers said she hoped they bombed and killed all Arabs. Then of course September 11 made everything very present for us. I was in college living with my parents and we saw it on TV. When the second plane hit, I thought, “Holy fuck. What is going to happen to us?” I was immediately worried about my family because I knew it was going to affect how we were treated in this country.

When I was in elementary school, my teacher said to me in front of the whole class, “You were born in Kuwait and Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. What do you think of that?” I was in fourth grade. That’s obviously weird for a teacher to ask, but I was like, “My parents said that if Israel can take Palestine, why can’t Saddam Hussein take Kuwait?” They obviously didn’t want him to, but the point was why is one OK and the other isn’t?

I tell that story to say that I always knew that I was Palestinian. I knew what that meant, and I always knew that Israel took our land. My mom was born in the West Bank and my dad was born in Jaffa in 1940. His entire family was displaced during the Nakba. They all became refugees. It was important to my parents that we knew our family history, but I didn’t really understand the agricultural part of my family until I started to work with farmworkers and ask my parents questions.

One of my mom’s uncles always spent time in his fields; he even died in the fields. Everyone in my parents’ villages work the olive harvest. When you harvest the olives, you bring these huge loads into your house that they almost reach the ceiling. You harvest so many olives, you almost don’t know what to do with them all. My mom’s family could make anything out of olives — olive oil, soap, and of course pickled olives. They used the olive pits to make the fire burn. My mom’s grandmother was a medicine woman and healer. She used what came from the land for medicine. If someone gave birth in the village, she was there to help. If someone broke a bone, she would set the break and make the cast. My people are just very much from the land, and that’s why the land is so important. I’m not crying talking about this because it’s sad. I’m crying because it’s beautiful.

My dad ended up in Kuwait because life wasn’t sustainable in Palestine. He tried to apprentice with a printer and a tailor and other jobs, but everyone kept fleeing for the U.S. So he became an electrician and moved to Kuwait at a young age because he had family there, and he helped take care of his nieces and nephews. He helped raise children before he even had his own. This is why me and some of my siblings were born in Kuwait.

My parents weren’t very strict about us speaking Arabic, but it was really important to them that we knew we were Palestinian and we were raised with the core family values of Palestinian and Arab culture. My family is Catholic and Greek Orthodox. We are from the place where Christianity was born. Our village is so old that Jesus walked through our village. My mom and grandma would tell us that the key to the house she grew up in was like a foot long. It was a stone, domed house with a manger underneath it. They used that part as a shelter for the war in 1967. [It was] the kind of house Mary and Joseph weren’t able to go into so Mary could give birth to Jesus. One of my brothers was born in the West Bank. It’s all right there. It’s all Palestine. My father’s U.S. passport has Palestine as his birth country. When my family moved to the U.S., my parents would laugh their heads off when a city was referred to as “historic.” They were like, “What do you mean?” My dad didn’t like going to church in the U.S. because it couldn’t really compare to church in Palestine. He went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.

I think a lot of Americans believe that where we’re from is just deserts and tents. Until all of the recent images, they probably didn’t realize what Gaza really looked like. During the Nakba, my family didn’t have to live in refugee tents because my great-grandmother had a house in the West Bank. I actually wanted to take my family there next year, but we had concerns about our safety. Israel’s checkpoints can be dangerous; they are extremely militarized and there is always tear gas going off. Now I don’t know if we’ll be able to see that house any time soon.

I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t aware of colonialism. My family’s life was shaped by it. Our last name was even changed because of French soldiers in our village. That’s how much of an influence imperialism and colonialism has had in our lives. When my mom went to school, she learned French and English. My dad learned English too. My dad had to leave school early because of how poor his family was. Without colonialism and imperialism, everything could have been different. They could have had a totally different life.

I think the trauma really stays with people too. My mom’s dad was a cafe-keeper and he witnessed the Israeli military beating an elderly Palestinian man. He stopped to help him. Later that night, my grandfather had a heart attack and was unable to reach the hospital because of Israeli checkpoints. He survived, but a few years later, Israel arrested him, interrogated him, and accused him of having weapons. I still don’t know everything that happened, but people in our family said he wasn’t the same after that. They still attribute his early death to what happened. He came to the U.S. around 1980 and he died a couple of years later. The family blames his death on trauma from the Occupation.

I’ve done a lot of organizing work, but I’ve never really done very straightforward organizing around Palestine. I’ve been called in to help support things like teach-ins and protests. When I first started dating my husband, organizers were really interested in our relationship because he is Jewish and I’m Palestinian. When we were younger, we spoke at a synagogue about our relationship and the struggle. Once, I was also asked to give a speech about taking risks. I talked about why it felt like such a huge risk to date my husband because of the history between our people, but [I also talked about] how it was worth the risk. We went to Jewish Voice for Peace events together. I wasn’t the most active organizer, but after October 7, I have to be. I know the history and the reality and I need to do what I can.

It’s important for me to teach that to my kids. They have always known they’re Palestinian, just through little everyday interactions, like a song you sing to your kids in Arabic during bathtime. Or the way we name each other in Arabic. You call your mom “yumma” and your mom calls you “yumma.” You call your dad “baba” and your dad calls you “baba.” I do that in English with my kids. People are always like, “Why do you call your kid ‘mom?’ That’s so weird.” It’s what we do. My kid knows I’m their mom because I call them mom and they call me mom. That’s how we’re bonded. That’s how they know who their grandma is. Their grandma calls them grandma in Arabic. I think it’s beautiful.

My kids can tell you why Israel is bad, just like they can tell you why the police in the U.S. are bad. My kids know what it’s like to be brown in the U.S., and they already have fears and doubts around it. They’re at the age where they ask what it means to be brown or white. We have tried to give our kids political education, and their understanding of being Palestinian is part of this continuum of education around social justice and truth. A lot of kids don’t get a lot of education around political struggle. Our kids have a really wonderful opportunity to understand and engage with these subjects because we live in a very politically active place in the South.

I can still remember pushing my daughter in a stroller for pro-Palestine marches. A lot of these marches go downtown, so you pass by the jail and city hall and these other significant places in a community. Those are opportunities to talk about political struggle and how so many things are connected. We know that the police receive training from Israel, and we know that Cop City is part of that struggle. We take these opportunities to talk to our kids about these connections. Part of our parenting is teaching them that you can talk about all of these things — you can talk about Palestine and you can talk about Israel — and it doesn’t mean you hate Jewish people. [My kids] are Jewish too. This shouldn’t be seen as “radical” to educate our kids about who they are, what it means to be who they are, and how all of our struggles are connected. But I guess to some people it is radical to be anti-genocide, anti-occupation, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. I see it as giving our kids political education so that they understand oppression — and how sometimes they are privileged and sometimes they are oppressed — and how they can fight against oppression.

When I was doing farmworker advocacy work, I told my daughter about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the campaign against [the fast food chain] Wendy’s. One time, we were in the middle of nowhere and Wendy’s was the only food around. She remembered what I told her and she said we couldn’t eat at Wendy’s. She heard about injustice and she wanted to support people fighting against it. I think that’s really cool.

Seeing all of the marches for Palestine has been amazing. I’ve never felt this kind of support in my life. This is decades of work. People have been building for a Free Palestine for 75 years. Black and brown people have been building for Palestine. Anti-Zionist Jewish people have been building for Palestine. There have been countless teach-ins over the years; there have been delegations to Palestine. There have been professors speaking out and writing on these issues for years. This is the culmination of all of that people power.

When you’re in social movements for a long time, it’s hard to see how it’s building. You’re like, “Yeah, I guess we’ll do another teach-in. I guess they’ll be another delegation.” But then when there’s a moment of crisis like we’re in today, you see the mass movement. You see the support for Palestine like you’ve never seen before. When I see all of this, I can’t lose hope. We can make a difference. I feel hopeful that Palestine will be free. I just don’t want everyone to die before we get there.

I feel a lot of grief, but I’m trying to be productive. I have a friend who organizes moms around childcare and daycare. A few weeks ago, she called me, and she said she wanted to do an event for mothers demanding a ceasefire. More and more people joined—and I feel like before it wouldn’t have grown so fast. But like I said, we’ve been building toward this. Now, people want to get involved. You’re hearing people say “free Palestine,” people who would have never said that before. People want to be on the side of justice, and the line here about who is oppressed and who isn’t oppressed in the context of Israel is very clear. You can’t keep fooling people into thinking this is “too complicated” for them to get involved. Obviously, antisemitism exists — and we must fight it. Never again here, never again anywhere. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about Palestine and Israel.

We held the event at a park so kids could come and play and be with their families. So much of the fight for justice is framed as a sob story. That’s not what we wanted. Of course, we are upset. Of course, we are emotional because what is happening in Gaza is horrible. But we can’t lose hope. We have ways to take action.

At the event, my daughter gave a speech that people really loved. She said in her speech that we should let Gaza play. She said that because of the amount of children who are being killed. People kept coming up to me after and saying, “You did that. You raised your daughter so well.” I said, “No, we did this.” She would not be this way if she came from any other community. We live in a community where people really care about social justice, and she is a product of that community. She is also an amazing person. When she was in her after-school program’s international club last year, all of the kids presented on different countries and she did her presentation on Palestine. She talked about occupation and she included pictures of her family protesting. She educated her peers and helped other kids understand why we fight for Palestine.

This is why I have no patience for people who say the issue is too complicated to talk about. You cannot have 10,000 dead Palestinians and not say anything. I’m shocked by people who won’t say anything. My nine-year-old understands the issue, and she’s helped other kids understand the issue. If they can, so can you. Parents should talk to their children about what is happening in Gaza. We have a responsibility to talk to our kids about it, and we have a responsibility to fight for people who are being oppressed.

I told my daughter that Israel is bombing children younger than her. Recently, she saw a picture of a child being pulled out of the rubble in Gaza. She started to cry, and I told her that’s why her speech was so important. It really had an impact on her. When I see the images, I feel survivor’s guilt. When other people see them, I hope they understand we’re not fucking kidding when we say this is genocide.

When my children grow up, I hope they understand that they are Palestinian and that their grandparents and great-grandparents were Palestinian and that their existence is resistance. I hope that when my children are adults, there is a free Palestine and they know they were a part of that.

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