Charity Gall

Crippled children are the latest fund-raising ticket for a controversial Palestinian foundation

At 8:15 on a Sunday morning in June--Father's Day, specifically--families pack the St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Zan Holmes presides over one of the largest African-American congregations in Dallas.

Three Palestinian children sit in a front, left pew of the church, looking bored and tired during most of the service. The two youngest, 11-year-old Amar Emeera and 10-year-old Hassan Mardini, lay their heads on each other's shoulders, fidget, and change seats.

When the Rev. Mack Lee takes the first turn at the pulpit, he asks all visitors in attendance to stand and be greeted by the congregation. Mardini rises, standing on the fake right leg he has needed since he was 7 years old. The other children remain seated. One of them understands little English, and the other is a triple amputee.

Each of the children is maimed, a happenstance victim in one of the countless violent feuds simmering in the Middle East. Their injuries, and the heart-rending stories behind them, are the reasons these children have been invited to Dallas, and specifically to St. Luke, which has the most politically connected and influential African-American membership in the city.

Mardini, a rambunctious boy, lost his right leg three years ago when he stepped on a land mine while picnicking in the mountains east of Beirut. Nizar El-Barky, a quieter 15-year-old, lost his right arm, his right leg, and most of his left foot in 1991. He had picked up a doll while playing in the backyard of his Gaza home, not knowing the doll had been booby-trapped with a small bomb.

But the injuries of Emeera, the 11-year-old wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt as he fidgets in St. Luke's front pew, disturb the most.

When Emeera was 5, someone threw a fire bomb into the kitchen of his family's West Bank home. In the ensuing blaze, Emeera lost two brothers, and any resemblance of a human face.

At first glance, it is apparent that the flames left all the skin on the little boy's face stretched, and his hands gnarled. But the wounds are even more extensive than what is first evident. Emeera's neck, ears, mouth, nose, eyes, shoulders, arms, elbows, and hands are all disfigured. After the bombing, he could no longer close his eyes, turn his head, extend his arms, or move his right thumb, which twisted backward and fused to his wrist.

"Our house was the last home in the village, the first one next to the Jewish settlement," Emeera will say in a later interview, as if that proximity alone would help clarify the inexplicable: why a boy must suffer so when adults war.

If the children look tired during church, it is not surprising. Their weekend schedule in Dallas rivals the rigors of a full-bore political campaign. By the time they arrived at St. Luke, the children had already appeared at an opening ceremony for DART's new light-rail trains, and at the Afro-Awakenings bookstore in Arlington.

After the St. Luke services, the youngsters are scheduled to visit New Hope Baptist Church on South Central Expressway, then close out the evening with a $19-a-plate banquet at the Clarion Hotel in Richardson. For the dinner, the three boys will be joined by Fayza Al-Masry. A girl of 14 who already wears the traditional headdress of a Muslim woman, Al-Masry lost her left eye four years ago, struck by a bullet when Israeli soldiers shot at students demonstrating outside her Gaza school.

Before he finishes the morning sermon, Holmes asks his congregation to say a special prayer for Emeera. On that cue, Emeera stands. Two of the men responsible for bringing the children to Dallas--Shukry Abubakr, executive director of Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, and Thomas Muhammad, a vice president of the Dallas Muslim Council--escort Emeera to the pulpit.

Even though he wears a baseball cap to cover what little is left of his hair, Emeera's disfigurement is striking. Photos are taken. Appropriate sighs of sympathy escape from members of the congregation.

The reaction is human, and it is money in the bank for the adults staging this weekend children's tour to raise funds for Palestinian causes.

Sixty percent of the donations elicited by the children's tour will go to Holy Land Foundation, a controversial Richardson-based nonprofit that sends money to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The Israeli government contends that Holy Land Foundation leaders have links with Hamas, the notorious terrorist group whose most recent wave of bombings has been blamed for undermining the Middle East peace process and propelling Binyamin Netanyahu to election as prime minister of Israel. Either directly or indirectly, the Israelis charge, the Foundation helps underwrite terrorist activities, sending more than a million dollars a year to the Middle East.

The organization's founders--including Abubakr--vehemently deny such allegations, arguing that Holy Land Foundation is a strictly humanitarian endeavor, comparable to the Red Cross. They say the Israeli government is not a reliable source for such charges. Most of the Foundation's efforts, they say, are aimed at helping children orphaned in the ongoing conflicts.

Battered by negative publicity and suspicious of mainstream press, Foundation leaders were skittish about allowing coverage of their most recent local fund-raising effort. The Foundation invited the four youngsters to make a six-day stop in Texas, and specifically asked that Emeera be brought to town.

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