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.
A picture of the boy--with no baseball cap to obscure his disturbing appearance--was featured on tickets for the evening banquet, along with a caption that read almost like a circus advertisement: "The child who lived to tell the story." After a hasty discussion, Foundation leaders would bar the Observer from attending the fund-raising dinner.
But there was little need for media attention: The four crippled children were enough to draw large crowds of potential donors. The fund-raising tour also underscored the great pains Holy Land Foundation is taking to widen its support by forging alliances with African-American groups in Dallas.
So far, the new friendships with African-American leaders seem to be taking hold, explaining why Abubakr arranged for the children to appear at St. Luke.
At the close of his sermon, Holmes fumbles. With other pressing matters on his mind--it's the week churches have been burning in East Texas--Holmes mistakenly tells his crowd that the Holy Land Foundation banquet for the children was held the night before.
It's a mistake that Dallas Muslim Council leader Muhammad is compelled to correct. When young church members walk the aisles after the sermon, passing around silver collection bowls, Muhammad slips to the pulpit and whispers to Holmes. Corrected by Muhammad, Holmes tells the congregation the banquet is actually that evening, and that they are welcome to attend.
"I wasn't sure what their agenda was," says Stephen Sosebee, recalling his early contacts with Holy Land Foundation. Sosebee, whose lanky, all-American good looks contrast sharply with the dark beauty of his Palestinian wife, is responsible for bringing the four wounded Palestinian children to the United States for medical treatment.
Sosebee is president of a Kent, Ohio-based nonprofit agency known as Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF). His wife, Huda Al Masri, is a social worker for the agency.
A former free-lance writer, Sosebee traveled from Kent State to the Middle East in 1988 while studying international relations in college. He grew sympathetic to the plight of war-wounded Palestinian children, and founded PCRF six years ago.
For most Palestinian children wounded or disfigured in the ongoing conflicts, sophisticated medical treatment cannot be found, even if their families could afford it.
Starting on a case-by-case basis in 1990, Sosebee began raising money to bring such children to the United States for treatment. Now, PCRF has grown to include a team of field workers looking out for children in need of its help.
Since 1991, Sosebee has brought to the United States some 75 Palestinian children, and last year raised about $180,000 for his agency. Raising money is hard, he says, so he often shows the children to potential donors as living--and compelling--proof that their philanthropy will produce some tangible good.
But despite his growing success, Sosebee had never before drawn a crowd of potential donors the size of the one that gathered at the Clarion Hotel in Richardson on Father's Day evening. That's because the PCRF founder had never before linked up with Holy Land Foundation, which invited Sosebee and the children to Dallas.
Holy Land Foundation is among the more prominent and successful fund-raising organizations within the Palestinian expatriate community, sending more than $60,000 a month in charitable aid to the occupied territories, according to its chairman.
When they started the organization in Los Angeles in 1989, Gasan Ashi, still the Foundation chairman, and Shukry Abubakr, the executive director, intended their charity to provide help for small, local Palestinian agencies in the occupied territories, rather than raising money for bigger, politically controlled welfare institutions.
"We wanted to help the little guys," Abubakr said in an interview with the Observer in 1993. "There were organizations for the big institutions, but nothing for the indigenous charities." Working for the little guy, Holy Land Foundation leaders have nevertheless earned a reputation for managing their fund-raising efforts with professionalism.
"These guys know what they are doing," Sosebee says.
But the Foundation, which moved from California to Richardson in the late 1980s, has gained prominence for more than just its efficient management and fund-raising muscle. The Israeli government has characterized the nonprofit organization as part of Hamas, the Islamic defense movement that has been linked to a long list of terrorist acts worldwide. Holy Land Foundation leaders have denied the allegation.
But the charges have been explored often in press reports--including stories by the Dallas Observer ["Helping orphans or terrorists?" March 14, 1993], The New York Times, and The New Republic.
Press accounts have raised questions about Holy Land Foundation's motives, and identified one of the organization's donors as Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas political leader. Not surprisingly, the scrutiny has soured Foundation leaders on the mainstream media.
Holy Land Foundation chairman Ashi and executive director Abubakr have helped organize weekly demonstrations outside The Dallas Morning News' main downtown building since that newspaper recapped the controversy in an April story.
"We are sick and tired of being singled out," Abubakr says in a brief telephone conversation. The media, he contends, "show only what the Zionists want the public to see. It fits into an overall campaign to demonize the Palestinian people."
For this story, Abubakr refused requests for an extended interview. He also refused to open the Foundation's tax records for inspection, even though federal law requires all agencies that receive tax-deductible donations to make the records available to the public. The records would show how much money the Foundation raises, and how the contributions are spent.
"I'm not so desperate for some journalist to polish my image," he says on the phone.
Loath to invite more scrutiny from inquisitive press, but anxious to tap new donors and potential sympathizers, Foundation leaders earlier this year turned their attention to the maimed children Sosebee was bringing from the Middle East.
According to Sosebee, it was the Holy Land Foundation leaders who contacted him several months ago with the suggestion of a joint fund-raising effort.
Abubakr had read an article in an Arabic newspaper about a badly burned child--Amar Emeera--and the medical aid that PCRF provided the boy, according to Sosebee. Although the two organizations had known of each other's existence for several years, Sosebee says, Emeera's gripping, sympathetic tale prompted the Foundation leaders to initiate contact.
The deal the Holy Land Foundation leaders proposed to Sosebee was straightforward: If Sosebee would bring Emeera and other war-wounded children to Dallas, Holy Land Foundation would handle all scheduling and turn out prospective donors. The two nonprofit groups would split the take--with Holy Land Foundation getting 60 percent and PCRF pocketing the remaining 40 percent.
Fearful that his maimed children might be exploited, Sosebee laid down some guidelines, he says. "I looked over the schedule," Sosebee says, "to see that there wasn't anything that makes Amar [Emeera] feel that he is a piece of meat. We did put a halt to some things that we thought might be too much." Sosebee barred the Holy Land Foundation leaders, for instance, from using photographs showing how Emeera looked before his face was obliterated by the fire. "We didn't want Emeera to see a picture of the way he will never look again," Sosebee says. The PCRF founder did allow the picture of Emeera's burned visage to be printed on banquet tickets.
Holy Land Foundation leaders wanted the stories of Emeera and the three other children who made the trip to elicit sympathy for Palestinian causes from new quarters.
They should consider their efforts a success. Certainly, Emeera and his traveling companions helped mobilize support for the Holy Land Foundation's beneficiaries for the first time in Dallas' African-American community.
When they visited St. Luke, for example, the children were joined by Thomas Muhammad, vice president of the Dallas Muslim Council and a columnist for the Minority Opportunity News, who serves as a link between the Foundation and the Dallas African-American community.
Muhammad, who was unable to find time to grant an extended interview for this story, says in a brief conversation that the alliance between African-Americans and Palestinians makes absolute sense. As a Muslim, Muhammad says, he can identify with Palestinian causes. As an African-American, he is poised to help the Palestinians build support within the strongest elements of that community--the churches.
More striking are the attitudes of both African-American church leaders and Holy Land Foundation leaders who now contend--perhaps as a result of Muhammad's handiwork--that they share common interests. Among other things, both groups sometimes feel mistreated by the mainstream media.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, who heads the congregation at New Hope Baptist, and also is president of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, credits Muhammad with linking the two sides. "There is the beginning of an awareness in the African-American community about the Middle East, especially from the Palestinian perspective," Harkins says.
The African-American community will not necessarily become a deep-pocket source of funds for Holy Land Foundation, however. Harkins concedes that his congregation has a full plate already, helping out African-American causes in this country.
But the Holy Land Foundation leaders can begin to count on some money from the African-American community and even more rhetorical support. Harkins says that since he became more aware of the Middle East, he has sermonized about parallels between the occupied territories and South Africa.
The children's tour provided an opportunity for his church to hear pleas for support of a Palestinian cause, unfiltered by the media and stripped of political rhetoric, Harkins says. "The issue of children receiving medical attention would hopefully transcend politics," Harkins says.
Harkins does concede that he "looked closely" at the allegations published about Holy Land Foundation before he agreed to support the tour and allow the children to visit his church. "You have to keep in mind that, for years to come in the Middle East, there are going to always be two sides to the stories."
The newfound ties between Holy Land Foundation and African-American supporters go both ways. The Holy Land Foundation leaders have embraced--at least rhetorically--the fight against domestic bigotry. Says Abubakr: "We are going to put an end to racism in this town."
They have begun to back those sentiments with cash. Holy Land Foundation donated a scholarship worth more than $1,500 to the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Black Communicators this past year. That contribution, in turn, helped the children's fund-raising tour win endorsements from KKDA-radio talk-show host Cheryl Smith, a former assistant to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Price also endorsed the tour.
Cooped up in a hotel off North Central Expressway on an unbearably hot summer Sunday evening, the four Palestinian children have their attention glued to a television set. Never mind that the youngsters, ranging in age from 10 to 15 years, primarily speak Arabic and can only understand a fraction of what Peter Jennings is reporting on ABC's evening news. Stretched out on the edges of the two double beds, they gaze at the screen stupefied, like youngsters throughout the world do when a television is near.
The kids are waiting to go downstairs for the banquet which will cap their Dallas fund-raising swing. Their final local appearance will be in front of some 600 people who have gathered for the $19-a-plate dinner.
"You want to hear the story?" Hassan Mardini asks an interviewer who begins to inquire about his wounds. He clearly relishes a chance to practice his stilted English, much of it acquired while he has been in the United States for surgeries.
Mardini, like the other children, has repeated so often the details of his tragedy that there is a surprising roteness when he tells the tale. He had gone to the mountains to have a picnic with his parents, he says. Another friend came along and asked Mardini to go bird-hunting with him. The friend told Mardini to run after a bird that had fallen. That's when Mardini stepped on the mine.
He was carried from the mountain and driven to the hospital. His father later told him, Mardini says, that the Israelis planted the mine, although it is virtually impossible to know that for sure. The mountains east of Beirut are dotted with mines buried by warring factions throughout the years.
Last year, Sosebee sent Mardini to Los Angeles, where the child received an artificial leg. Sosebee says he never has trouble finding doctors, not infrequently Jewish ones, and hospitals willing to volunteer their services to help the children he brings to this country. "If a kid's hurt, there are always doctors who want to help," Sosebee says.
It is more difficult, Sosebee says, to find host families for the children, because the commitment is sometimes long and invariably intensive. For example, Nizar El-Barky, the triple amputee from Gaza who is now 15 years old, is visiting the United States for the third time.
Before receiving Sosebee's help, El-Barky was provided rudimentary artificial limbs available in the occupied territories, allowing him to walk only an hour or two each day. He missed school so often that he did not learn to read and write.
But after living with a host family in Los Angeles for longer than a year, El-Barky now gets around all the time by himself. He must return to the United States every other year for repairs and adjustment to his artificial limbs. Although doctors in the occupied territories can handle patchwork attempts to keep the three devices in working condition, U.S. doctors have the skills and equipment to properly overhaul them properly.
The badly burned Emeera may ultimately spend more time in the United States than any of the other wounded Palestinian children.
His injuries are some of the most severe for which Sosebee has ever sought help. For the past four months, Emeera has lived in San Diego, where he can be treated by a plastic surgeon who has volunteered to rebuild the boy's ears, face, and upper body. The surgeon has already repaired Emeera's eyelids so the boy can sleep with his eyes closed.
The surgeon has released skin so Emeera can move his neck, and detached the boy's right thumb from where it was fused to his wrist. The doctor has also worked on Emeera's bottom lip so the boy no longer drools, and has begun constructing ears where there were none. Soon, Sosebee expects to move Emeera to Ohio, where PCRF has lined up a plastic surgeon who specializes in hands.
"We were eating supper in the kitchen," Emeera, who speaks through a translator, says about the night of the blast. His father was working in Israel at the time. His sisters had just left the kitchen when the blaze began. His mother, who was also burned, rescued him from the flames first, recalls Emeera, who was 5 years old at the time. Then she went back--too late, it turned out--for his brothers, Emeera says.
Strangely, the young boy offers details of the fire's destruction to physical property, which seems irrelevant to an outsider, given his injuries. "When I returned to my house," he says, "the kitchen had been completely destroyed. The rest of the house was scorched black. My family had to have it repainted."
Later, Sosebee and his wife, who have traveled extensively with Emeera, tell of the depths of the child's devastated life after the fire. The boy, teased and ostracized in the West Bank, can no longer attend school there. "I don't want him to have to talk about it again," Sosebee's wife says. "The children all made fun of him, and chased him at school."
Only in the past four months, with a host family in San Diego, has Emeera begun learning to read and write. Asked what he likes in the United States best, he cites school first. He also liked going to Sea World in San Diego, he says, but he was concerned about the cost.
Sosebee's wife overhears this comment during the hotel-room interview. "What are you worried about Amar?" she teases. "You didn't have to pay for anything."
The scene at the Clarion Hotel resembles controlled chaos. The central lobby has been designated as the place for adult banquetgoers to drop off their children, so the kids can be baby-sat during dinner. In a sunken area about the size of a large living room, children scale couches, pull at the plants, and shriek with glee.
It appears that Holy Land Foundation planners have assigned only two women the task of supervising some 30 kids, and those odds favor the kids and mayhem. "When are we going to get food--the kids are starved?" one woman finally asks a Holy Land Foundation administrator who is working the door of the banquet.
On tables near the entrance to the banquet room, Holy Land Foundation has displayed its promotional materials, including pictures of orphans in the occupied territories who receive aid from the organization.
Select souvenirs are for sale, including pictures of the gold-domed mosque in Jerusalem where a Jewish zealot massacred numerous Palestinians while they prayed. There are also khaffiyas--headdresses like the one Yasir Arafat always dons--and 5-inch wooden statues of what the rest of the world recognizes as the state of Israel, with an Arabic message written in blood red.
"The public is invited but the media isn't," explains a young man in a suit and tie who identifies himself as the Holy Land Foundation's public-relations specialist but refuses to give his name. The young man blocks the door to the dining room, threatening to call security, when an Observer reporter tries to enter the banquet with a purchased ticket.
The rest of the crowd moves inside the banquet room. Abubakr, Sosebee, and Harkins each speak, but the main attraction is the children, and they are trotted out before the crowd.
The children do not speak themselves, Sosebee later recounts. Rather, they stand by as their horrible stories are laid out before the crowd. Envelopes are passed, and Abubakr reads out the names of those who have donated money.
It is a good night's take to round out the weekend of events.
The fund raisers have collected $64,000 in pledges. Of course, $6,000 in expenses comes off the top. And Holy Land Foundation has exclusive rights to the T-shirt sales, which account for about $10,000 of the total. That means the pot is down to $48,000 before Sosebee's PCRF gets its 40 percent cut.
Sosebee gets $19,200 for his kids.
Holy Land Foundation gets $28,800 for setting up the show.
And the day which began at St. Luke ends for the children in their bedrooms at the Clarion. They finally get some sleep.
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