November 5, 2015

Yousef Bashir: A New Friend with an Interesting History and Point of View

With each passing year, family and friends become increasingly valuable to me. I'm very fortunate with both.

What I particularly enjoy about my friends is the diversity -- young and old, gay and straight, single and partnered, many different nationalities. The gay and AA communities I belatedly joined in my 1977-78 turnaround have blessed me with many good friends. Another gold mine for friendships was BNA, where I worked for 40 years. BNA specialized in hiring people who were smart, talented and quirky. My kind of friends. D.C.'s Palisades neighborhood -- where I've lived for the past 65 years -- has generated many friendships.

And that's where I met my new pal Yousef Bashir. He lives on Sherier Place, the street where we had our first house.

Yousef was born in the Gaza Strip. A few months ago, he got his master's degree from Brandeis University. What happened in between those two events is a fascinating, moving and inspiring story, particularly an event that took place in 2004.

But first some background information

Yousef's Family History
Yousef is from Gaza, specifically Deir el-Ralah. Unlike many residents of Gaza today who are newcomers, Yousef's family has been in Gaza for generations. The family owns a three-story house. Behind the house is farm land where for years his family has raised fruits and vegetables for the market.

His father was headmaster in a high school where he also taught English. He had a special fondness for Victorian literature.

Yousef, his parents, and four siblings lived in the house, which was next to the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom which, in turn, was next to a military base. In 2000. the Israeli Army seized the house and used it as a sentry post. Other houses in the neighborhood had been destroyed after the army ordered the residents out. Yousef's father refused to evacuate his family.

In a strange compromise, Israeli soldiers took over the house except for the living room, where the seven-member Bashir family lived from 2000 to 2005. They were permitted to buy groceries once a week. They had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, had to be accompanied there by an escort, and were told not to close the bathroom door.

Despite all of this, the father was a model of tolerance for his family. He warned the children against succumbing to a hatred for the Israeli soldiers. They are only kids trying to obey orders, he told them.

In 2002, a CNN news crew visited the family, having heard about the bizarre living arrangement... and also about the father's warnings against hatred and intolerance. After the first interview, the father was hit in the neck with stray shrapnel and rushed to the hospital. When they heard what had happened, the CNN crew returned to interview the father again and ask him if -- after his wounding and hospitalization -- he still believed in peace. He responded that he believed in it more than ever.

Listen to the father explain his views:

During these early years, Yousef was a somewhat rebellious teenager who found it difficult to understand his father's words and actions.

The Bullet
On February 18, 2004, a United Nations delegation visited the house. Yousef had been planning a bike ride but decided to stay home and listen to the discussion. He went out into the front yard to wave goodbye when the UN delegation left. 

There was a single gunshot and Yousef crumbled to the ground. An M-16 bullet, fired by an Israeli soldier, had hit near the spine. Three pieces of that shattered bullet remain in Yousef's body, and the pain is occasionally excruciating.

Yousef was rushed to a Gaza hospital and then transferred to the Tel Hashowmer Hospital in Tel Aviv, where the doctors and nurses saved his life.

The army apologized to Yousef for crippling him. But it was the hospital staff that, in Yousef's words "cared for me with such love. They were so ashamed of what the army did. And after seven months, I could walk, although I can't play sports or do anything that could cause the bullet to move and cripple me forever. I'm in pain, but I walk."

The  Impact of the Hospitalization
When Yousef recovered and returned to Gaza, his friends said "now you must fight the Israelis." But his father had different advice. "My father told me that God didn't save me so I can fight. He said that Israelis shot me but other Israelis saved me," he says.

The months he spent in the Israeli hospital -- and the compassionate care he received -- resulted in Yousef's coming around to his father's viewpoint. Before his hospitalization, Yousef had only known Israelis as the men with guns, soldiers whose permission he needed to watch TV or go to the bathroom.

"But now," Yousef says, "they are surrounding me, playing with my hair, [and] asking me how I am doing.... It was a life-changing experience that taught me how to understand my father's passion for coexistence."

In the hospital, Bashir says, his father told him that he could turn his pain into something positive and not let the bullet define how he lived his life or viewed his future. That is what he is trying to do today.

Here's Yousef in his own words:

Yousef says it took him some time to believe in his father's values, and that the process had to happen the hard way. "In the end, I feel very privileged that I am his son," he says.

Yousef and the U.S.
While still in high school, Yousef was accepted for the summer camp in Maine sponsored by the Seeds of Peace organization. That group hosts kids from areas of conflict. There, the kids share all the usual summer camp things -- meals, living quarters, backgrounds, and experiences. 

After his time at camp, Yousef decided he wanted to finish his last year of high school in America, and to make plans to attend college here. He applied to just about every private boarding school in the U.S. But only one, a school in Utah, accepted him.

In 2009, Yousef's father died of a stroke at age 50. It was a devastating blow. Yousef sees his father's life as a monument to peace and tolerance.

Four years before he died, Yousef's father had seen the Israelis leave the Bashir family home and withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Yousef comments:
He was the only one who never fired  a shot. He was the only one who didn't hate. He taught me to be a human being.

Yousef is close to finishing the draft of a memoir he is writing. He has given it the title "Words of My Father".

After graduating from the high school in Utah, Yousef completed his undergraduate education at Northeastern University. Several months ago he got his master's degree a Brandeis University which offered what Yousef wanted for his post-graduate studies -- a student body that includes a large number of Jews. His degree is in conflict resolution and coexistence. 

I'm glad he's come to our nation's capital. We have lots of conflicts but few resolutions. Coexistence is in short supply as well.

I've gotten Yousef together with several good friends who are Jewish. Watching them interact with mutual respect  gives  me hope. My spirits also were lifted when listening to Yousef talk with Nimesh, my Nepali housemate, and share their aspirations to help those in need in their home countries.


Kathleen M said...

Many thanks for this blog entry, John. One of the best and food for thought and hope.

John Schappi said...

I agree with you Kathy as usual. BTW, our friend Mono told me recently that he always looks forward to your posts on FB.