An Israeli-Arab music teacher has set up a band for Palestinian kids living in Jenin in the hope that she can bring the two sides together.
Wafaa Younis, a 54-year-old mother of four from Israel has one dream: that every Palestinian kid will own a violin and know how to play it. That instead of living a hard knock life, and resorting to terror and violence, they will learn to love life through music instead.
Younis, a music teacher, has seen far too much pain and suffering from both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict in her lifetime. As an Israeli-Arab she is wedged between two sides: on one hand she has Palestinian friends and relatives who are suffering, and on the other, she has Israeli Jewish friends whose lives have been ripped apart by terror.
Six years ago, after a good Jewish friend of hers lost her husband in a terror attack in a Haifa restaurant, Younis said enough was enough. She decided to head to Jenin, a town in the West Bank known for harbouring young suicide bombers, and start a band.
The band plays on
Younis goes to Jenin twice a week on Sundays and Thursdays, where she is teaching 80 Palestinian youngsters from first grade to the age of 18 how to play music. The band calls themselves Strings for Freedom, and range in age from seven to 18.
Earlier this year, the band played in Israel for Holocaust survivors and seniors from the Israeli Arab community. The event stirred enormous controversy among political parties in Jenin, who threatened Younis, saying that playing for Holocaust survivors was a political statement.
Newspapers reported that the kids were no longer allowed to play. “It’s all lies,” Younis tells ISRAEL21c. “They didn’t break our violins. It was a beautiful day for us. I did it with music in mind, not politics,” she says.
After the show for holocaust survivors, the kids, about 30 of them, went to the Israel Museum to engage in a dialogue about music. “They also went to the sea and had a concert at Bat Yam,” says Younis.
Playing and teaching her first love
Teaching Arabic music rhythms and tonal structures, Younis studied at a music college in Haifa, and also at a conservatory in the afternoons. Working for the Israel Ministry of Education, she started her career teaching music to Arab Israeli kids, teaching Arabic scales and tones.
Today, she also gives seminars to Israeli institutions looking to know more about Arabic or Eastern music, often referred to in this part of the world as Mizrachi music, she says.
Younis plays the piano, the oud, and her first and biggest love, the violin. “I prefer the violin because it is close to the heart,” says Younis who has helped write the arrangements in a new book of Palestinian songs.
The idea to work with kids in Jenin is connected to research she conducted in Israeli prisons, where she was interviewing incarcerated children for a book. They’d been arrested by Israel after inciting attacks by throwing stones.
She knew she had to do something to stop the cycle of terror and violence, so she decided to teach them music, so they wouldn’t need to resort to throwing stones. “It’s hard for them to live where they are living. I decided to work with music. God created us to live. It hurts me. I want Palestinians to love their lives so there won’t be terrorists in the future.”
She teaches them songs from the Arab tradition such as the much-loved Egyptian songstress Um Kulthum, favored also by Israelis who grew up with her songs.
One family from Israel and the West Bank
Today when Younis is not in Jenin in the West Bank, where she rents an apartment for about $250 a month, she lives in Ara in Israel proper, a village not far away. “It’s a quiet area, with many academics around me. The women here are strong in the area of culture,” says Younis, adding: “I am an Arab Israeli – I have a connection with the Israeli people. We are one family.”
Through donations from people like Dan Almagor, an Israeli playwright who donated 50 violins to her cause, Younis is hoping to appeal to the donor community in the United States to help her build a small auditorium in Jenin — a place where the kids can perform, and hopefully one day host Israeli kids, when the fears of entering Jenin subside. She is looking to raise $100,000. So far her project is self-funded, paid for with her pension fund.
In the meantime, she wants to clear up a lot of untrue stories about her ability to enter Jenin: “I am continuing to work. No one is coming close to me. I have new students, and more will come after their tests finish at school.”
As for how the parents of the Jenin kids feel: “Their parents tell me I am like a mother to them. The people in Jenin don’t want extra problems. They already have problems with money and there is fear, but slowly, slowly I am helping to take them away from the pain.
“My dream is to give a violin to every Palestinian kid and to teach them how to play. I want to see children raised with love and not violence. I want to create a bridge to peace.”