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Apple tree versus tanks

by Martin Verfürth

In brief

German and Palestinian pupils play together in the Dar Al-Kalima School in Bethlehem in 2011.

German and Palestinian pupils play together in the Dar Al-Kalima School in Bethlehem in 2011.

Cologne’s Irisweg Primary School and Bethlehem’s Dar Al-Kalima School have been involved in an intense partnership for over 15 years. It was not always easy.

In 2000, our partnership activities were abruptly interrupted. The first small exchange with a few teachers, pupils and parents’ representatives was supposed to take place in September. We wanted to do an exhibition about Cologne and our school life at our partner school in Bethlehem.

On the day we arrived, Ariel Sharon went to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, triggering the riots of the 2nd Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Dar Al-Kalima School was closed for days on security grounds, later it was occupied by Israeli soldiers and even partially destroyed. Construction of the wall around Bethlehem began. We managed to put up the exhibition, but we couldn’t organise any meetings with school children, teachers or parents.

Maintaining the partnership under these difficult conditions took much strength, courage and creativity. We suddenly had to take a stand politically and spoke out for peace, respect for physical integrity and self-determination.

The focus of our partnership changed. Shaken by events, pupils, parents and teachers started an unprecedented number of support projects: we sent solidarity messages, our reports were published in newspapers, and students gave interviews to national broadcasters like WDR and Deutschlandfunk. We held vigil and lit candles around the school and the Cologne Cathedral, we wrote letters and notes of protest to politicians and embassies, and we ran street collections. Moreover, we donated a symbolic apple tree to our partner school.

The apple tree survived the occupation. In December 2002, the exhibition called “German-Palestinian partnership during the Middle East conflict: an apple tree versus tanks” was on display in several schools in Cologne, showing photos, images and essays by students.

As life adapted to the new conditions in Bethlehem, contact with our partner school returned to normal. We began a school-garden project in 2003. Wanting to overcome the distance between Cologne and Bethlehem, the children in our school started a fund-raising drive and symbolically handed over the money to their partner school. Four years later, in April 2007, the school garden was completed. The section built with our donation is called “Cologne Garden”. It includes the apple tree planted in 2000. (mv)

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