By Donna Stefano, Project Director for CHF International
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Living in the West Bank with my young American son has convinced me that it really does take a village to raise a child.
My son Omar and I moved to Ramallah in 2008 when CHF International, an international development and humanitarian aid organization, offered me a position in the West Bank helping Palestinian municipalities build good governance. My divorce was still fresh, and Omar was only in kindergarten, but I could not pass up the opportunity. So, sweetening the deal with promises of camel rides galore, I packed up our lives and we moved across the ocean.
We lived in Ramallah for two years before moving to Jerusalem, where we are based today. I continue to commute daily to Ramallah, where I work on helping Palestinian home buyers understand the mortgage process. This is a nascent but critical issue, as the American housing crisis has tainted homebuyers' perceptions, even more so here, where the dream of owning a home for a Palestinian family is closely linked to the idea of security and stability. My job is fulfilling, which makes the daily commute for me across checkpoints well worth it. But it also means that a seamless approach to child care has been a necessity.
Enter my global village.
I can name people representing seven different nationalities who have provided physical and emotional care for my son (and me!) during school hours, after-school hours and those infrequent weekend nights when I needed some time for my own pursuits. More significant is what these childcare providers, my son, and I have learned from each other about our differences and similarities -- from the more mundane, to the significant things that I hope will serve Omar in whichever "village" he ends up as an adult.
For example, I have come to understand that we are all the same worried parents at heart, just wanting what is best for our kids. Here, too, parents want their children to have access to the best education. Palestinian parents are just as anxious about and attentive to homework and good grades as any American parent I know, if not more so! And just like my American friends, the parents here also believe in pitching in to help in a jam. When I drag Omar along to weekend trainings we hold for bank employees at CHF International, trainees make every effort to keep Omar smiling and content. Or when I was finally issued the 48-hour permit to enter Gaza by the Israelis after a two-month wait following Israeli attacks in January 2009, friends -- whose commitment to the delivery of humanitarian aid matched my own -- stepped up to provide day to night care.
Then there are the differences. From an early age, Palestinian children are firmly taught to greet all adults with an affectionate "Auntie" or "Uncle," and to politely offer their cheeks up for a kiss. My son equates kissing a stranger on a cheek as romantic; something he firmly believes is "gross." And so, I am often left trying to explain to my female Palestinian acquaintances that Omar is in no way trying to be disrespectful when he takes a full two steps back when they lean in for a smooch.
However, because I believe showing respect for our global village is so important, I do insist that Omar honor other cultural norms. For example, refusing food is a greater insult to Palestinians than shunning a kiss on the cheek. Therefore, the current mantra in my household is: "You will at least try all the food that you are served on a plate, even if it is entirely green -- and never say you don't like it!" My son also knows he must use Arabic rather than English when conversing with those who address him in Arabic. It is a sign of openness and friendliness -- something so important to convey when you are a foreigner.
Omar's perception of this experience fascinates me. Here we are, a single Christian American mom raising a Muslim American child in the most holy and revered place for three significant world religions -- and when asked what's "exciting" about living in the West Bank, the first thing he mentions is eating sushi that his Japanese classmate shares with him at lunch.
Sometimes adults will remark to Omar, "You must have friends from all around the world!" One time I heard him reply, "Yeah, I have some friends from Canada."
For a child whose current fourth grade class at the Jerusalem American International School is made up of 15 children representing 11 different cultures, Omar's musings make me wonder if our time in the Middle East has had any substantial impact on him.
Friends reassure me that when he is a grown man, Omar will look back on this time with some great wisdom gained only by a child raised in this special place. And I think they're right. Watching non-native English speakers struggle in an all-English school curriculum brings out his natural compassion when he remembers struggling to learn Arabic. With the help of a Jewish teacher who spoke about different Jewish holidays, he learned about religious practices that I never could have explained without confusing him. And play dates at the houses of his Swedish, German and Danish friends taught him that rules and practices in houses differ, but to be a good guest in this global village, being respectful is essential.
Having grown up in the same house in upstate New York my entire life, I've always viewed this time in the Middle East as a wonderful gift. And I have tried to ensure that my son never takes it for granted. But I've finally realized something: For Omar to grow up thinking that life in a global community is just plain normal -- well, that is the best gift I could have given him.