Spring is a time of change and new growth. As always children represent the essence of spring in their fresh outlook of a new Earth. The children of Ain Arik are no different, yet they go about their lives within confines that are ubiquitous. This spring, the flowering humanity of these Arab Christians blooms forth with a vibrancy that speaks of a source graced with divine care. The children of the little, Latin Patriarchal School in Ain Arik of the West Bank wrote their letters to their friends in the Atonement Academy of Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio, Texas. Many of the children that go to the Atonement Academy come from military families stationed at the nearby bases. Many of their fathers and a few mothers are in the gulf as this is written.

Spring is a time of change and new growth. As always children represent the essence of spring in their fresh outlook of a new Earth. The children of Ain Arik are no different, yet they go about their lives within confines that are ubiquitous. This spring, the flowering humanity of these Arab Christians blooms forth with a vibrancy that speaks of a source graced with divine care. The children of the little, Latin Patriarchal School in Ain Arik of the West Bank wrote their letters to their friends in the Atonement Academy of Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio, Texas. Many of the children that go to the Atonement Academy come from military families stationed at the nearby bases. Many of their fathers and a few mothers are in the gulf as this is written.

There is a HCEF Beacons of Hope partnership between these two schools. In such a partnership, the children in the Holy Land are being encouraged to have hope: to reach out in the confidence of spiritual love. The children in America are being encouraged to be the Beacons of Hope in the exercise of the works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal. These two forms of mercy are conjugate pairs; that is, they exist as matched together. Prayers, empathy and good encouragement in the American letters act to uplift their partners in the Holy Land. These spiritual works move to materialization in good corporal works. Prayer that does not motivate to action is indeed a shallow prayer. On the other hand, action that is not guided by the Holy Spirit is a dry thing that does not bear heavenly fruit. It is prayer that opens these children to such divine influence.

The newest letters from each of the two kindergarten classes and the six grade school classes in Ain Arik are introduced in a letter from the principle, Mirvat Shomali. She expresses herself to her counterpart in San Antonio, Dr. Stephen Hollingshead, in the personal style characteristic of Arabic warmth. “Sorry if I started my letter not in a formal way, but I wanted this to feel that we are close friends and to feel more comfortable expressing my feelings and ideas… We are all fine but we are so worried about what will happen this month. Everybody is afraid about the gulf war, even small kids. We do not know what will happen here, but we will be under curfew during the war on Iraq. That’s why all families are buying food, water, and medicine, because the Israeli soldiers will prevent us from moving or leaving our houses… We are desperate. We can’t think of tomorrow optimistically, but on the contrary we are so afraid and pessimistic… This morning there was a checkpoint between Ain Arik and Ramallah, so we had to wait in line… This also will happen when we leave school to go back home. However we as Christians believe that Jesus will be with us during these hard days and will protect us always. We all know that you care about us and this of course gives us strength and happiness for there are good true friends like you.”

The desperation and fear is reflected in the letters of the children. The children in the older grades have been prompted by their teachers to give a unified response as part of their English language classes. The letters speak of their problems with the ongoing occupation. The responses from Grade 6 are typified by that given by Daoud Shaheen:

“I live in Ramallah in Palestine (Holy Land). There are lots of problems in my country and many children were killed by the Israeli soldiers. They have invaded our land and destroyed our homes. We often don’t go to school because of the closures. I don’t like war in Iraq because lots of people will be killed. I like to be free from the Israelis. I hope for peace in my country and in the world.”

Then again, there are a few outbursts such as: “I love you!” by Ghali Awwad.

In the fifth grade, the children attached pictures cut out of local publications and mounted them on their own letters and drawings. As in the older grade, their teacher instructed them in a fairly uniform response. The example below is by Rami Awwad. He first introduces himself, talks about his family, identifies what he likes in school, and then finishes with his concerns about the situation in Palestine. He writes “I’m sad because I’m not free. Many children are killed in our country by the Israeli soldiers. I don’t like soldiers because they destroy our houses [in the] village.” He attached a picture of two sad children, saying, “These children are crying because Israel destroyed their house.”

The fourth graders again follow the example of the older grades. An exception that gives us a peek at the weather in Ain Arik comes from Abdallah Nemjar who writes, “It is snowing in Ain Arik. I like playing in snow… I went to Ramallah to cut my hair.”

Yet the ongoing occupation dominates the thoughts of these children. Marwan Shaheen drew a picture of a very large and awesome helicopter hovering over the village. Underneath lies a slain child.

Grade 3 children prepared extensive letters. They introduce themselves, tell how tall they are, the length and color of their hair, their favorite subjects, tell of their village in Ain Arik, and then tell of their fears of the situation. Atypical of this class, little Sofia Al Muyyed writes in a style that yields no spaces between words and sentences. Deciphering the encryption rendered this communication: “I’m a girl. I’m one meter 30. I have long black hair. I’m a pupil in Ain Arik school. I’m in the third grade. My favorite subjects are English, Arabic, and sports. I live in a small village called Ain Arik in Palestine. It is hot in summer and moderate in winter. Lots of trees grow in the mountains. Nowadays the Israeli soldiers have invaded our land. They kill our people. Destroy our homes and schools. We often can’t go to our school because of the closure. I wish to hear some happy news from you soon. [I’m your friend]”

The second grade teacher is leading the children away from thinking about the occupation. The children notice birds, flowers and trees. From the second grade on down through kindergarten, children helping from the older classes most probably write notes. They most likely interview the younger children. The younger children draw pictures of Ain Arik. Most of the letters forgot to identify their names. Pictures from two examples show the surrounding low mountains and a one-road impression of the village.

The first grade letters were written just after Christmas. The children were impressed with Christmas trees, presents, and images of the manger. Christmas brought its grace of beauty and love into the lives of these little ones. Love was ever on their minds.

Their pictures are colorful and populated with Christmas scenes, butterflies, birds, and sunshine. Examples include:

“I love birds and sunny days. I love you.” Ramez.

“Hello, my name is Ruba. I’m in class one. I like playing with my dolls. I love you.”

“I love peace. I want to play with my friends freely in the mountains.” Ma’zoza.

“I had surgery a week ago. I was in the hospital. I love Jesus.” Hanna.

“I go to church every Sunday. I love summer.” Josleen.

“My name’s Lama. I’m very clever. This semester I took 97 from 100. I love school.”

“I love my small sister. She’s seven months. Thank you.” Izees.

The two kindergarten classes show budding artistic skills, minds that are interested in everything, and hearts that are sometimes free and at other times fearful. In the older kindergarten class comes these examples:

With a drawing of many bright colors, Syma wrote: “My name is Syma. I’m four years old. I’m from Ain Arik in Palestine. I like drawing and playing with friends.”

With a picture of dark clouds and rain falling down, this young pupil wrote: “My name is Luay Nabeel. It rains too much. I like rain and carrying my umbrella. There is no sun in the sky. It’s very cold.”

Drawing a square, Abdallah writes: “This is a church. It’s for Jesus. I like Sundays because I go to church.”

A bright yellow sun above a tree and flowers, Luna writes: “I like flowers. I like oranges trees. I like sunny days.”

Drawing an unrecognizable blob, Maryam writes: “This is a snake. I am afraid from snakes.”

There were two letters laced with fear. Loryeen drew a purple rectangle in the sky, a green three-ringed thing below, a green rectangle beneath that, and a brown patch of land below. She explained, “This [the green figures] is a rocket. It falls from the plane [the purple rectangle]. Israeli drops them on Palestine to kill them. I’m afraid from rockets.”

Five-year-old Sahka Mousa drew a recognizable traffic jam going both ways. A big rectangle sits in the way. He writes, “Hi, my name is Sahka Mousa. I am 5 years old. I draw a real story that happened with me. The Israeli tank prevented me from going to my school and I had to wait in the car and I was bored.”

We will finish this part of the report with the letters from the youngest children at the Ain Arik School. These children are our embedded reporters. They speak from their hearts with an eloquence that an adult reporter cannot match. The younger kindergarten class is somewhat like the American Head Start program. The children are generally four and five years old. From this point on, we’ll listen to only the youngest children.

“My name is Misa. I am five years old. I draw a boy and girl going to college. When I grow up, I want to go to college. Bye.”

“Hi, my name is Rana. This is a picture of me and my brother and my sister, and we are going to school. I like school very, very much. Bye.”

“My name is Caroline. I draw houses, and I draw a flag, and I draw olives, and I draw a mark.”

“My name is Bashar. I draw my house. And that’s our country flag. And that big thing you see is an Israeli tank. And it is preventing the cars from moving. We call that a checkpoint. Thank you for the photo you sent us, it’s very beautiful. Bye.”

“Name is Nijmeh. I draw an Israeli tank. And the two boys was afraid of the tank, and they wanted to hide.”

“Hi, my name is Heba. I draw an Israeli checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers prevent us to go from our village to the town.”

“Hi, my name is Hady. The Israeli soldiers frightened us with their guns, and I was very afraid”

“My name is Falistine. Ibrahem’s mother is happy because he didn’t die. And when he go out of the hospital, she will let him sleep beside her because he was wounded. I love you!”

The American Reply

Dr. Steven Hollingshead, the principle of the American school in San Antonio, picked up on the warmth expressed by Mirvat Shamali, the principle of the Palestinian school in Ain Arik. He decided that the American children would bring a little sunshine for their partners in Ain Arik by throwing them a party in celebration of Easter. Dr. Hollingshead writes: “After praying and offering up sacrifices for your students all during Lent, our children were happy to get to read your students’ letters and answer them on Holy Thursday. They also collected money to send to your school, totaling $754.75. It gives me great pleasure to know that you will use this money to have an Eastertide celebration, to bring a little peace to your school in troubled times. I think that’s just what our Lord would like.

“Please know that the gift we send has more significance than a little money. That money represents thousands of little sacrifices offered up to God for our friends in Ain Arik during Lent. Some students gave up candy or chips during Lent, and saved the money they would have spent on those treats in order to send to you. Some students did little odd jobs to earn the money. All of them offered up sacrifices for you, and I am convinced that the spiritual value of those sacrifices is immeasurably more significant than the material value of them.

“Please know that we continue to pray for you at our school’s daily Mass. I am convinced that peace in the Holy Land begins with peace in the hearts of the [Christians] there, and will advance through their evangelization of their neighbors. We are proud to have you as our friends.”

The children of the Atonement Academy drew pictures and wrote cards and letters as best they could. The Pre-Kindergarten through 4th grades responded with colorful drawings with short prose growing longer with the greater ages. The higher grades responded with letters that were sometimes annotated with pictures and drawings.

The Pre-Kindergarten class drew rainbows, butterflies, flowers, trees, themselves, dinosaurs, family members, the sun, homes, birds and dogs. Class assistants wrote down what the children had to say. Some comments include:
“We have you in our prayers.” Carolina
“I draw a dinosaur eating fish. I like to hear stories of dinosaurs.” Diego
“I like sunny days.” Luke
“Take care and we love you.” Samantha
“I like to go outside and see the rainbow.” Gaby
“Every day we pray for you! We love you.” Iselas
“This is my family. We like to go to the park.” Isabella
“I draw a rainbow for you and flowers. I like when the sun comes out and I go out to play.” Brianna
“Hugs and kisses for all of you. Take care!” Samantha
“I hope you like my drawing. I made it with lots of love.” Nicholas

The Kindergarten class lead out with Lauren: “I pray that God will protect the galaxy. I live in the United States.”
Other comments include:
“I love you. Happy Easter. I drew a cross for you.” Tiffany
“I hope you have a wonderful day. I pray for you very much.” Morgan
“God created lots of children. He also created a T Rex.” Connor
“I’m going to pray for you. I drew a picture of Jesus rising from the dead.” Sierra
“I drew Jesus on the cross. He died for us.” Veronica
“I hope you have a happy Easter and I hope you’ll be safe.” Matthew
“I am drawing God on the cross.” Sherry
“I drew a picture of the woods.” Adam
“This is a rainbow with pretty angels.” Isabella
“I am sorry you got shot. I’ll pray for you and draw something really nice.” Justan
“I like the letters that you sent. God bless you.” Joshua
“I hope that this war will stop soon.” Henry
“I love you in my heart. Are we going to be friends?” Alexis

Our Lady of the Atonement Church is an “Anglican Use” Catholic Church that embodies the customs of classic England. The Atonement Academy has a large wooden castle in the playground that the children play on as shown in the picture from Cristina in the 1st grade. Other comments include:
“I like to play outside… Play with me. Happy Easter.” Christian
“I love to be with you but I can’t. I like to be holy. I love Jesus.” Olivia
“Dear pen pal, I wish you could see me.” Angie
“I like the summer because I like the sun.” Jacob
“I wish I could meet you.” Victoria
“I like to catch a butterfly and I like to meet you. Happy Easter.” Lauren
“I’m going to be a priest with a church.” Jesse

The 2nd grade made bright cards. These children personalized their letters by writing to specific students in Ain Arik. Since the classes in San Antonio are considerably larger than those in Ain Arik, multiple children in America write to individual partners in the Holy Land. For example Salamah in Ain Arik received five letters with comments such as: “It is spring in TX [Texas]. In spring you can play a lot. It is hot in spring but it is fun. I have a lot of friends to play with. Do you? Love, Mallie”
Other letters include comments such as:
“I like to sing and play tag and to play with my sister and my cat and dog. I live in San Antonio. Your friend, Ashley”
“My favorite place to go is Austin. Happy Easter. Your friend, Morgan.”
“Shraf, that’s a cool name. What does it mean?” Matthew
“We celebrate Easter. Do you celebrate Easter?”
“I think football is a good sport of exercise.” Corey
“I love to go to church because I talk to Jesus because Jesus is my savior and my king.” Mary

The transition to letters is evident by the third grade, but pictures make up 50% of the page. This greater maturity of mind is evident in their understanding of the situation in Ain Arik. Some highlights include:
“We have made sacrifices to send alms to you.” Samantha
“We are all praying for you and your country. We made small sacrifices…” Christine
“We pray that there will be peace in Ain Arik.” Chris
“I want to let you know that you’re in my prayers. We are sacrificing some money for you. Just to let you know you’re always in our hearts and minds. We won’t forget about you ever. I hope you all there in Ain Arik have a happy Easter day.” Camila
I pray for you and your country. I pray peace throughout the world. I wish we could all just be friends. It would be nice if we could all stop fighting and stop having war! I wish the best for you and your country. May God bless you and keep you always.” Nicole
“If you do try to catch the Easter bunny, I caught it once. He is so cute! Try, I know you will love it. We have all been offering small sacrifices for you. I will keep you in my prayers.” Dylan
“I hope that war stops and that Jesus will put his right hand over you and guard you.” Shayenna
“We all hope the soldiers leave so you can have a joyous Easter. Why are they there? Alex

The 4th graders have longer letters talking at great length about their lives. Courtney drew a full page portrait of herself. Christopher listed all the names and numbers of his favorite players of the Lakers basketball team. Megan’s father is training to be a policeman. Asia loves her mom’s steak. Jorge likes riding horses. David writes “I hope the war we’re in and the war you’re in stop soon.” Emily wishes it would snow in San Antonio but does not hold out much hope for that. Nathaniel is “praying for you and assure you that God is with you forever.” Nicholas drew Garfield, the cat. Christopher drew Spiderman.

The 5th graders write full page letters with a few drawings as in the monastic letters of the Middle Ages. Some highlights are:
Ara writes “I hope you become free someday!”
Jasmine drew a flower.
Sabrina was thankful for the letters from the Ain Arik children.
Osvaldo wrote a letter to Rami thanking him for his letter and asking him to remember the world trade towers.
James drew a tank with a bar crossed over it to mean no more war.
Corrine notes that “for us the war is almost over. I hope the war is almost over for you all.”
Joey wrote “I wish you peace.” And then drew the outline of an F-17.
Will drew a battle between a space ship and a tank.
Michelle drew her horse.
Adrianna writes “The war in Iraq started on March 19th 2003. I have a brother and a cousin fighting in the capitol of Iraq. I hope the war ends soon. Thank you for your letters! I liked them a lot. I am praying for you. I hope that your war ends soon. I hope that you have peace in your country.”
Stacey gives us a peak at the Texas culture: “I love horses and horseback riding. The horse I ride is Terry. I go to horse competitions. I get ribbons if I do good. Do you like horses? Have you ever ridden a horse? I am very sorry about what is going on in your country. Everyone deserves to be free.”

The 6th graders write pure letters with not a single sketch. A few sentiments include:
“A lot of times we will find sticks and pretend we are on an adventure against monsters with swords.” Ryan
“I am very sorry for you and pray for you.” Garrett
“The United States is worried about what’s happening in the Holy Land and Ain Arik.” Victoria
“This war is very bad.” Evan
“We pray for all of you every day at Mass.” Blaise
“You have probably heard of me from my previous letters. I won’t bore you with the same information.” Laura
“Have faith and you will get through this war.” Kayla
“I was very excited when your letters came.” Robert

The 7th and 8th graders display better penmanship in their letters. A few sentiments expressed include:
“We have some pictures of some of the people who live in you town. They look like very nice people.” Jeff
“God bless you.” Danielle
“I hope you stay healthy and safe.” Emilie
“I am kind of skinny and I look weak. I love to read. I have written a book that I’m gonna publish in a magazine. My dream is to make a difference in a lot of lives.” Megan
“I am hoping to find a duck in my Easter basket. We are already raising chickens.” Clare
“I think you and I have a lot in common. My country is in the middle of war just as yours is. I pray for you every day, and hope you have a joyous Eastertide.” Brooke
“I hope you are safe. I can not imagine having to live in fear.” Graham
“God is with you in the time of war.” Stephanie

In summary, the children of the Atonement Academy are succeeding in their acts of mercy and have drawn closer to their good and true friends in Ain Arik. They have become true Beacons of Hope. There is a light in Texas.