This article was originally published in the Hartford Courant, January 16, 2020.
By Bethe Dufresne
Photo: Ghoufran Allababidi, president of the Tree of Life Educational Fund, and her daughter Sena, in Be’er Sheva in Israel during an interfaith Tree of Life journey Allababidi led to the Middle East in March 2019. (Bethe Dufresne/Special to Hartford Magazine)
Last March, Ghoufran Allababidi awoke in the West Bank city of Nablus with a heightened sense of anticipation. Midway through leading a journey to Israel and Occupied Palestine for Connecticut’s Tree of Life Educational Fund, she turned to her 8-year-old daughter, Sena, and asked, “Where are we going today?” Sena smiled like a child headed at long last to Disneyland. “Syria!” she replied.
Sena wasn’t thinking of present-day, ruined Syria, or the Syria where her mother was born and grew up before marrying and moving to Berlin, Connecticut. Their destination was the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during its 1973 war with Syria.
For Allababidi, unable to visit her Syrian homeland since a revolution against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, this was her “only opportunity to stand on Syrian ground.”
The high ground of the Golan is fertile and beautiful, a popular vacation spot for Israelis and foreign tourists. But Allababidi, who became president of Tree of Life and its first Muslim leader in 2017, wasn’t shepherding vacationers.
Founded at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Tree of Life has led annual interfaith trips to the region since 2004 to meet with Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists, and lobby for Palestinian rights upon return.
Itineraries vary, and for Allababidi and Sena, last year’s stop in the Golan Heights was a particularly emotional pilgrimage.
Sena found adventure exploring a deserted, graffiti-laced mosque, where she and others climbed a dark winding stairway to the top of the bullet-pocked minaret. But even she grew pensive later that day, gazing over the towering steel fence, topped with razor wire, erected by Israel along the Syrian border.
Beyond the fence, all that was visible of her ancestral, mystical homeland were vacant, heavily mined fields and military outposts. It sure wasn’t Disneyland.
Allababidi was born in Aleppo in 1977, six years after Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power. Her parents, who worked in sewing industries, were middle class and apolitical, and her childhood living among Sunnis, like herself, Shiites, Christians, Kurds, Armenians and Druze felt “normal” and safe.
Still, she says, “I grew up in a home where we used to say the walls had ears. If you want to talk against the regime, it was a huge thing.”
The youngest of seven children, Allababidi was taught early on, at home and in school, to empathize with Palestinians expelled from or segregated within their homeland. But with travel forbidden between Syria and Israel, it took becoming a U.S. citizen, which she did in 2005, for her to be able to go there.
Allababidi is small in stature, with large, soft eyes and a kind smile. Yet beneath her warm and gentle manner is a passionate activist, as well as an accomplished athlete.
In 1996 Allababidi represented Syria at the Arab Athletics Championship in Cairo, taking third place in track and field. She put off college to pursue athletics.
Then, in 1999, she met her husband, Wail Allababidi, a Syrian-born engineer who was working in the U.S. and visiting home in hope of finding a wife who shared his language and culture. They married in 2000 and moved to Connecticut.
In 2001 the newlywed couple visited family in Syria, returning on Sept. 9. Two days later, everything changed.
Prior to 9/11, “I lived here in a very loving environment,” says Allababidi. “I never felt unwelcome. All of a sudden it was very hard for me to be a Muslim woman here, because people started talking about terrorism and my religion. It was one of the most breaking-heart experiences I had in my life.”
“I used to not wear my hijab,” she says, “but it made me feel better and stronger to put on the head covering. My husband and everybody around me was against it,” fearful it would make her a target. “But I wanted to be myself, to give a message. I didn’t want to be hiding from my identity.”
Wail and Ghoufran have five children. He works for the state Department of Transportation, and she works as an Arabic translator. She teaches Arabic every weekend at the Berlin Mosque, helps Syrian refugees settle in Connecticut, and takes classes at Tunxis Community College in Farmington.
She also runs in the early mornings before her children go to school, as well as to raise money for refugees, for Palestine and, recently, for human rights in Pakistan.
Allababidi’s parents died before the Syrian revolution began in 2011. “I’m sad,” she says, “but glad they missed” the massive casualties and near total devastation in their city.
When protests against Bashar al-Assad led to a murderous crackdown, Aleppo was in the cross-hairs. Allababidi says many relatives and friends died in the fighting or in Assad’s prisons, or have simply disappeared.
“I won’t cry in this interview,” she says, “but I don’t stop myself from crying in front of my children.”
Two of Allababidi’s siblings have escaped to Sweden, another to Denmark. Three remain in Aleppo, including a brother who found life as a refugee in Turkey so hard that he went back. “I came to America by choice,” says Allababidi, which makes all the difference.
Allababidi says there is a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be forced out of one’s native land. “Every refugee has the dream,” she says, “that they will go back and live in their country, and if they can’t, that their children will go back and do something to seek justice.”
Allababidi is preparing to lead Tree of Life’s journey to Palestine in March along with Dr. Reza Mansour, president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, and the Rev. Steven Jungheit of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
Applications are now open, with discounts and scholarships available for students. There will be an optional side trip to Turkey.
Allababidi says she felt uneasy only once during last year’s trip, touring the divided West Bank city of Hebron with a member of “Breaking the Silence,” an organization of Israeli Defense Force veterans who document violence against Palestinians.
As the Tree of Life group was harassed and insulted by an aggressive Israeli settler, heavily armed Israeli soldiers stood passively by. When the settler went to retrieve something from his car, Allababidi says she worried it might be a weapon.
The settler returned with a camera and began filming the travelers’ faces, his purpose unclear but unnerving. “I wanted to engage with him,” Allababidi says. But she followed Tree of Life’s code of conduct, which discourages any confrontation.
In 2018, Allababidi was arrested in Jerusalem’s Old City sector along with eight other Muslim Tree of Life travelers after they posed, smiling, for a goodbye photo with a Palestinian flag.
“It was very innocent,” she says. “I saw other people taking pictures with flags and thought it was OK.” Four were let go, but Israeli police detained Allababidi and four others for seven hours without explanation.
An Israeli lawyer retained by Tree of Life told Allababidi that police claimed they were suspected of inciting violence, but “the real purpose was to make us feel unwelcome.” Holding a Palestinian flag is not illegal, and they were released without charges.
With her fingerprints and picture on file, however, Allababidi worried that she might be denied entry to Israel on last year’s journey. Indeed, at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan into Israel, she and Sena and four other women wearing the hijab were pulled aside.
The women were questioned individually for four hours. Meanwhile, the rest of the Tree of Life group could only silently stew as they kept watch over Sena’s American Girl backpack left unclaimed on the baggage carousel.
Sena wasn’t the only child on last year’s journey, titled “Mothers of a New Creation.” An 11-year-old boy from Massachusetts accompanied his mother, and there were several adult mother-daughter pairings.
Tree of Life encourages parents to take children who are sufficiently mature on its journeys. It took time to convince her husband, but Allababidi took their son Sajed on a Tree of Life journey at age 11 in 2017, and son Bilal at age 9 in 2018. Daughters Jena and Seja, triplets with Sena, await their turn.
Allababidi hopes that young Israelis and Palestinians will eventually get to a one-state solution — perhaps, though it seems unlikely, even in her lifetime.
She is less hopeful that she will live to see a free Syria. Assad, with Russia’s aid, has won and is grooming his son for succession. Plus, Allababidi says sadly, the world isn’t that interested in Syria.
The world, however, will always be interested in Jerusalem.
When Allababidi first visited the Old City, with the al-Aqsa Mosque, Wailing Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre so near to each other, she says she didn’t see a symbol of eternal conflict, as many people do.
Instead she saw a symbol that Muslims, Jews and Christians all belong in this place, and it belongs to all of them.
“I appreciate being able to go there,” Allababidi says, and to educate others about not just what she believes, but what she has actually seen.
“This way I am hopeful,” she says, “because the new generations are not lost, really. We are passing that message to our children.”
Bethe Dufresne traveled with Tree of Life to Palestine last year. For information on Tree of Life’s upcoming trip in March, go to tolef.org.