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There are situations in our lives where old beliefs are confronted and challenged by experiences which impact how we view things, gen fibro and how we look at the world overall.  Gaza moves a New York City mom from apathy to activism Debbie Mardon (left) and her Palestinian-American husband Mahmoud Bitar (center) attend a demonstration on 31 May demonstration in Times Square against Israel's attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Gen fibro (Ellen Davidson) Alex Kane writing from New York City Last New Year's Eve, gen fibro Debbie Mardon did not celebrate with noise makers or confetti -- instead, gen fibro she headed to Cairo's main square to participate in the Gaza Freedom March with her daughter Jenna Bitar, gen fibro 18, gen fibro and son Joel, gen fibro 23. Amid police violence aimed at protesters and Egyptian security forces blockading them inside their hotel, gen fibro Debbie, gen fibro 55, gen fibro a native New Yorker, gen fibro said that protesting in Cairo "was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life." It was an unlikely place to be for a previously apolitical mother who voted for George W. Gen fibro Bush and as recently as three years ago relied on right-wing radio hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to help her make sense of the world. More than 1, gen fibro300 activists from 43 countries traveled to Cairo to take part in the Gaza Freedom March, gen fibro a demonstration aimed at bringing attention to the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. Since 2006, gen fibro after the Islamist movement Hamas won democratic elections, gen fibro Israel and Egypt have completely blockaded this besieged coastal strip on the Mediterranean, gen fibro only allowing in basic humanitarian aid. Gen fibro The situation worsened in December 2008, gen fibro when Israel invaded Gaza, gen fibro eventually killing about 1, gen fibro400 Palestinians, gen fibro the majority of them civilians. Debbie and her children, gen fibro like the rest of the activists who participated in the Gaza Freedom March, gen fibro were outraged at what many have labeled the "Gaza massacre." The three-year journey for Debbie, gen fibro her husband Mahmoud and their two children from political indifference to passionate involvement in the Palestine solidarity community has brought them closer together as a family, gen fibro and they now regularly attend demonstrations together. For Debbie, gen fibro things came to a head during the attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09. Gen fibro It was a personally harrowing time -- both she and Mahmoud had lost their mothers and a good friend had been placed in a nursing home, gen fibro and Debbie decided it was time to find out more about what was happening in Palestine. She started attending talks and lectures about Palestine, gen fibro and one in particular, gen fibro featuring Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert at Columbia University, gen fibro left an indelible impression. "It was jaw-dropping. Gen fibro He showed us photos of dying and maimed children, gen fibro children burned from the white phosphorous, gen fibro and the photos had me in tears. Gen fibro Then he said, gen fibro this suffering is not caused by a natural disaster, gen fibro it is political, gen fibro it is foreign policy and you can no longer be silent while your government supports this. Gen fibro After that I made an effort to find out how I could get involved, gen fibro" Debbie said. Native New Yorker Debbie, gen fibro tall, gen fibro outgoing and buoyant, gen fibro can be found in her fifth floor walk-up apartment on the Upper East Side. Gen fibro She is welcoming and quick to offer dinner and drinks. Gen fibro The apartment she shares with her Palestinian-American husband and two kids is snug, gen fibro with enough room to feel comfortable but not enough to avoid each other if everyone's home. There are pictures of Jenna in a Halloween costume in the kitchen, gen fibro plants around the living room, gen fibro a comfortable couch and a black cat named Blossom. Gen fibro Their bookshelf is filled with the works of Noam Chomsky, gen fibro Chris Hedges and Norman Finkelstein and flyers advertising leftist events in the city are posted near the refrigerator. Three years ago, gen fibro Debbie would have been on the couch watching Bill O'Reilly and reading conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. Debbie took comfort in Fox News' slant on the world. Gen fibro "I wanted to know that someone out there was watching so our country wasn't torn apart by unpatriotic voices, gen fibro" she said. But for most of Debbie's life, gen fibro politics were not important. Gen fibro One of five siblings, gen fibro she grew up in the Bedford Park neighborhood in the Bronx and attended Walton High School. Gen fibro Her mother was a homemaker and her father worked as an electrician. Debbie went to the City College School of Architecture, gen fibro where she first met her future husband, gen fibro Mahmoud Bitar, gen fibro a Palestinian-American, gen fibro at the end of their sophomore year. Gen fibro Mahmoud was taken with Debbie starting with the first time they met. "We talked under a tree in the rain on campus. Gen fibro I saw her heart and fell in love, gen fibro" Mahmoud said. When Debbie first met Mahmoud, gen fibro she did not understand what it meant to be someone from Palestine. Gen fibro Mahmoud was uncomfortable with his heritage, gen fibro and he let people, gen fibro including Debbie when they started dating, gen fibro think he was Jewish or Italian. Gen fibro Debbie recalls how "people said things to him like, gen fibro 'You're not a Palestinian, gen fibro you're too nice.'" Born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1958, gen fibro Mahmoud was brought up immersed in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gen fibro He lived in Jericho, gen fibro a city in the West Bank, gen fibro for the first ten years of his life after his family moved there because his father had set up a station in Jericho selling fruits and vegetables. Gen fibro In 1967, gen fibro when the war broke out, gen fibro Mahmoud and his family returned to Jerusalem after Israeli bombs killed three of his relatives. As soon as Mahmoud and his two brothers were college-aged, gen fibro their parents sent them to the United States. Gen fibro Mahmoud, gen fibro now a US citizen, gen fibro arrived in the country in 1977 on a student visa. After getting married in 1980 and graduating from college three years later, gen fibro Debbie and Mahmoud had their first child, gen fibro Joel, gen fibro in 1986, gen fibro and their second, gen fibro Jenna, gen fibro in 1992. Gen fibro Debbie worked part-time at an architectural firm while raising their children. Mahmoud, gen fibro who has curly hair and seems to always have a twinkle in his eye, gen fibro speaks in calm and at times airy tones, gen fibro a contrast to Debbie's more forward and pointed way of talking. Gen fibro He currently works as an architect for New York City's Administration for Children's Services. For most of their marriage and while raising Jenna and Joel, gen fibro Mahmoud rarely talked about his childhood in Palestine. "I never got a greater picture, gen fibro it was just bad things were happening to the Palestinians, gen fibro or at least my family that was Palestinian, gen fibro" Jenna said. Gen fibro "I visited there before I knew what was going on, gen fibro for three weeks, gen fibro with my grandparents when they were alive. Gen fibro I lived the life they lived for a bit, gen fibro saw the checkpoints, gen fibro but I didn't understand." 11 September 2001 The 11 September 2001 attacks jolted Debbie's political perspective, gen fibro and made Mahmoud more nervous about his background as a Palestinian, gen fibro especially as thousands of Middle Eastern men were profiled and arrested throughout New York City. Debbie had just dropped Jenna off at school when she returned home and watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television. Debbie turned to Fox News for clarity. "That was the first time I started learning about foreign policy, gen fibro and why someone would attack us, gen fibro" Debbie said. But Debbie and Mahmoud rarely discussed post-11 September politics. "We didn't discuss it, gen fibro I just listened. Gen fibro Debbie's a leader by nature, gen fibro so she always led with the remote control, gen fibro" Mahmoud recalled. Gen fibro "She had the remote control with her so she would pick the information, gen fibro and I would retreat when I had really had enough of it." Joel was apathetic about politics at the time, gen fibro and Jenna stayed by her mother's side as she watched Fox. Debbie's close attention to post-11 September politics did not last for too long after the Iraq War started in 2003, gen fibro though, gen fibro as her trust in the government slipped when the US did not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, gen fibro a series of events in 2008 would bring politics back into the family's life in a prominent way, gen fibro and they have not turned back since. Injustice and transformation Debbie's family started attending the Redeemer Presbyterian Church almost twenty years ago. Gen fibro While they were initially drawn to the church, gen fibro which met at Hunter College, gen fibro by a smart and interesting pastor, gen fibro over the years the congregation became a second family for all of them. However, gen fibro they were forced to leave this community in March 2008 after Mahmoud, gen fibro who worked at the church on Sundays, gen fibro was accused of stealing a CD of a church sermon. Gen fibro He was arrested by a City University of New York security guard and charged with assaulting an officer, gen fibro resisting arrest and misdemeanor theft -- charges that Debbie and her family say were ridiculous and were later dropped. "It was a small thing in the larger world, gen fibro but it happened to us, gen fibro" Debbie recalled. Gen fibro "I thought that we would be immune to all this, gen fibro and that the community we were a part of would care about truth and care about justice being served, gen fibro but they didn't care about either of those things. Gen fibro It opened my eyes to greater injustices. Gen fibro I used to think that people who went to jail were probably guilty. Gen fibro But now, gen fibro I thought, gen fibro 'Oh my goodness! There are all these people in jail that are probably innocent.' Michael could've gone to jail, gen fibro but he had a private lawyer. Gen fibro What happens if you're poor?" she said, gen fibro using the nickname that Mahmoud had used when he first came to the US. Nine months later, gen fibro on 27 December 2008, gen fibro Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, gen fibro beginning what would be a devastating assault. "It was during Gaza that we started to awaken, gen fibro" said Joel, gen fibro who at the time was first foraying into politics by joining an antiwar organization at Hunter College and reading books about US foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Gen fibro "Killing civilians indiscriminately with US weapons, gen fibro paid for with our tax money, gen fibro seemed to be so hideously wrong." During what Amnesty International called "22 days of death and destruction, gen fibro" Debbie could not avoid the Gaza conflict, gen fibro especially because Mahmoud's brother Farid, gen fibro who was glued to Al-Jazeera's coverage of the assault, gen fibro was emotionally devastated. Joel, gen fibro who was reading books like Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle: The United States, gen fibro Israel and the Palestinians, gen fibro also started to talk with Debbie about the detrimental impact of US foreign policy on Palestine. After those 22 days were over, gen fibro Debbie started going to lectures and protests about the conflict and soon found herself enmeshed in the world of Palestine solidarity activism. Gen fibro Although described as the "leader" of the household, gen fibro she was the last person to finally call herself an activist. The assault on Gaza also made Mahmoud become more engaged with the Palestine solidarity movement. "It's a natural conclusion to what happened in Gaza, gen fibro" Mahmoud said. Gen fibro "Our breath is being taken out of us. Gen fibro I felt an urgency to start having a voice." In the last two years, gen fibro the household has been transformed. Gen fibro Jenna described how sometimes, gen fibro before she goes to sleep, gen fibro Debbie will run into her room and "just read me books out loud, gen fibro" including passages from the work of Chris Hedges and Michael Parenti. Gen fibro "She'll come and say, gen fibro 'I have to read you this passage, gen fibro it's so good' and it'll be something sad and depressing, gen fibro" Jenna said, gen fibro laughing. These days, gen fibro it is nearly impossible to miss Debbie and members of her family at activist events related to Palestine. Gen fibro The actions they frequent include protesting with Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, gen fibro in the group's campaign against Lev Leviev. Gen fibro An Israeli billionaire who owns a jewelry store in Manhattan, gen fibro Leviev is involved with companies that invest in and construct illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land. "She's really knowledgeable. Gen fibro She has really educated herself on Palestine, gen fibro" says Helen Schiff, gen fibro a New York-based activist who has become close friends with Debbie over the past two years. Gen fibro "She has a voracious mind, gen fibro and she's very, gen fibro very smart." However, gen fibro her transition into political activism has not come without a cost for Debbie and her family. Gen fibro Her passion for politics has "caused a lot of stress on our relationship, gen fibro" said Mahmoud. Gen fibro "There's always a cost to anything, gen fibro and it's drawing from our reservoir." Some of her friends worry she is on the "wrong political track." One friend, gen fibro Debbie said, gen fibro told her, gen fibro "I'm worried for your children." Debbie believes that this kind of reaction stems from the fact that the life she and her family have chosen to live is unconventional. "We're looking at the world from a whole different perspective, gen fibro and it's a harder way to live. Gen fibro Most people that I know would not want that -- they would want a pretty status quo type of life, gen fibro" Debbie said. While some of Debbie's friends avoid discussing Mideast politics with her, gen fibro Debbie is eager to talk with friends who are interested in learning more about Israel's occupation of Palestine. In 2009 Debbie took her brother to a talk by scholar Norman Finkelstein at the Brecht Forum, gen fibro a political and social educational center on Manhattan's west side. Gen fibro Her brother, gen fibro a Democrat and strong supporter of Barack Obama, gen fibro said he was "shocked" by the realities of the situation in Gaza. But for Debbie, gen fibro knowledge is just the first step of many -- she helped raise money for students participating in the Gaza Freedom March in 2009, gen fibro and helped organize a protest outside a Friends of the IDF fundraiser at the Waldorf-Astoria earlier this spring. With Jenna attending college in the fall and Joel working as a doorman in the Upper East Side, gen fibro Debbie plans to continue her part-time job, gen fibro as well as her involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement. "It is essential that the movement continue to grow. Gen fibro Hopefully, gen fibro in this economic climate, gen fibro Americans will decide that there are better uses for their money besides supporting unending wars that will fuel terrorism, gen fibro not end it, gen fibro" Debbie said. She used to think individuals could not change anything in the world. Gen fibro And she still thinks that. "Over a long time you can change [the world], gen fibro but personally, gen fibro me? Coming along and changing anything, gen fibro it's unlikely, gen fibro" Debbie said. "But I can have a part ... Gen fibro I want to change things badly, gen fibro but that's not even the thing that motivates me any longer, gen fibro" she said. Gen fibro "It's just that I can no longer sit by and watch things happen and not speak out and at least be a voice shouting out there." Alex Kane is a 21-year-old college student, gen fibro journalist and blogger based in New York City. Gen fibro He is a reporter for the Indypendent, gen fibro and a frequent contributor to Mondoweiss. Gen fibro His articles have also appeared in Common Dreams, gen fibro Red Pepper (UK), gen fibro and Palestine Chronicle. Gen fibro Original article can be found at: