U.S. relatives honor choices as they worry about safety

For those in the Mideast, devotion is often resistant to threat of bullets, bombs

April 10, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Robert Taubman has lived all of his 82 years in Baltimore. But his daughter Nancy, who left her hometown after graduating from the University of Maryland 35 years ago, has lived in Israel since 1967, building a life and a family that now includes six children and 14 grandchildren.

Over years of Middle East conflicts and bloodshed, Taubman has never asked his daughter to bring her family back to Baltimore. This time he had to.

"Why don't you come home?" the World War II veteran asked his daughter.

Nancy Highkin, 56, who goes by the Hebrew name Nechamah, didn't even pause. "Dad, I am home," she told him.

The State Department, citing a "deteriorating security situation," has warned Americans to defer travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and urged Americans living in the region to consider leaving and relocating to a safer place. But those who have family members living in what has become a war zone - in both Israeli and Palestinian towns - are finding that it's not that simple.

While they worry about the safety of their daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, Americans also know that those who have chosen to live in what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land - where the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict is once again roiling with anger, inflamed passions and violence - don't leave easily.

For those living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza - whether for a year or a lifetime - ties to the region are often ones of spirit or soul or something undefinable, and their devotion is often resistant to the threat of bullets or bombs.

Feisal and Hind Khalil, Palestinian-Americans who split their time between homes in Glassboro, N.J., and Ramallah on the West Bank, are terrified because their son Zaid, a 26-year-old New Yorker, volunteered to go to Bethlehem to assist Palestinians at a refugee camp. Last week, he was hit in the leg by shrapnel.

"He stuck the phone out the window and you could hear the machine-gun fire," said his brother, Sam Khalil of San Francisco. "I'm scared for him - he's my kid brother. But he's also pretty hardheaded, and no one can tell him what to do.

"I respect his convictions. I think it's terrific he feels that strongly."

Indeed, those on the other end of calls and e-mails from the Middle East are often caught between worrying for the safety of their loved ones and honoring their choices.

Taubman, for instance, said he and his wife, Ruth, are concerned for their daughter and her family and call more often these days. "But I support her for having the courage to live there," he said. "I think it's wonderful that she believes God will take care of them."

"No one is there without being really committed," said Miriam Galston, a George Washington University law professor whose aunt, uncle and cousins live in Israel.

"Their commitment and our respect for their commitment," she said, keeps Galston from ever suggesting that they return to the United States.

"That's different from wishing they were nearby," she added. "We worry a lot. Thank goodness for e-mail."

Similarly, George and Kate Gessert of Eugene, Ore., have had to make peace with their son's decision to stay in the West Bank - where he and his wife of two months had originally gone on a tree-planting peace mission - to try to assist Palestinians at a refugee camp near Bethlehem.

George Gessert has talked with his son and daughter-in- law, both 26, about returning to their home in New York - but gingerly. In Joe Gessert's voice, his father said, he can hear a sense of pride and a feeling that he's making a difference by being there.

"They're grown-ups. They're thinking very clearly about things," he said. "We have to respect that. We don't want to burden them by pressuring them to come home when, in their consciences, they know they can't.

"If he had become a fireman, he'd be constantly putting his life in danger. I wouldn't be calling him up saying, `Get out of that line of work because it's too dangerous.'"

Others are having a harder time coming to grips with their family members' insistence on staying in the region.

One Baltimore woman, whose 19-year-old daughter opted for life in Israel instead of college, said she has to "keep a wall up" - which means not reading the news or even talking about her daughter to anyone - to keep from falling apart.

Everywhere she goes, said the woman, who asked that her name not be used, she gets "these pleading, sympathetic stares" from people who don't understand why she hasn't demanded that her daughter return.

But her pleas with her daughter to come home have been met with rejection. "What am I going to do," her daughter tells her, "come home and go to the mall?"

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