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Behind the Headlines: from Afula to Oklahoma City; Teens Share Pain – and Healing

Standing at the site of the demolished Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building here, Raz Oren sensed an all-too-familiar quality in the air.

“The feeling of death and quiet,” he said. “It’s here.”

Two years ago, a Hamas terrorist detonated a car full of explosives at a bus stop in the northern Israeli town of Afula. The bomb blast killed eight and set Oren on fire.

He was 13 at the time.

Oren and four of his classmates and friends who were injured in the Afula bombing came to Oklahoma City last week to share stories of survival with those coping with the traumatic effects of the bombing that hit this city nearly one year ago.

A sixth teen-ager on the trip, 14-year-old Sivan Horesh, survived the bombing of the No. 5 bus on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street on Oct. 19, 1994.

The Anti-Defamation League arranged the visit, called Peers in Healing, to give the Israeli youths a chance to share their experiences as victims of terrorism with children, teenagers and parents in Oklahoma City who are also working toward recovery and reconciliation.

During a week that served as a testament to the resiliency of youth and the healing powers of shared pain and hope, the Israelis spent much of their time visiting schools in and around Oklahoma City.

At Edmond Memorial High School north of the city, where shock waves ran through the halls when the bomb exploded April 19, 1995, students listened intently as the Israeli youths told their stories and answered questions.

“Every time a bombing happens, it happens all over for us again,” Horesh said, adding, “We came to say no to violence, no to the killing and yes to peace.”

The message resonated with 16-year-old Erin Israel of Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

Impressed with the Israelis’ courage and spirit, she said the people of Oklahoma City could learn from the way the Israeli teen-agers had coped with trauma.

“They’ve stopped mourning and they’ve started healing,” she said. “I think we need to get out of that phase in Oklahoma because people are sad, but we also need to heal.”

As the Israelis moved from classroom to classroom, they drew a following of admirers. At times it was not clear who was trying to help whom.

“I’m hearing from the Israeli kids that they want to help heal people here,” said Patti Harrold, a social studies teacher whose classes hosted the Israelis. “But I see our kids wanting to help them.”

Ultimately, the talk turned away from bombs as the teens discovered that they were linked by more whimsical similarities. They found they shared interests in music, Corvettes and the opposite sex.

“I pictured people from the Middle East differently, especially from Israel,” said Andres Cantu, 17. “But after hearing them talk and talking with them, I realized they’re a lot like us.”

Even the language barrier could not prevent the teen-agers from getting down to a basic understanding.

One Jewish student here, trying to impress Cadoori Rahamim with her limited Hebrew, approached him and cooed the Hebrew word for “handsome” in his ear.

Flashing a smug smile, Rahamim reciprocated with: “Ah, beautiful,” which, when strung together with “I love you,” all but rounds out his English vocabulary.

“They’ve lost their childhood, and yet Cadoori will sit there and laugh with them and joke and want to dance for us and make passes at girls,” said Harrold, whose sister-in-law died in the Oklahoma City bombing.

“There is still the child in them,” she added, “but whenever they start to talk about things, you can just see their faces and see that they have to move to a different level, to that different person in them.”

The bombing in the northern Israeli town of Afula — as remote a target, in many ways, as Oklahoma City — forever changed the lives of Oren, Rahamim and their classmates Tal Peretz, Meital Yona and Shlomi Eliyahu, all 15 years old.

Two years later, the physical scars remain visible.

Most of them suffered bad burns that still require pressure bandages. They are plagued by persistent nightmares, and many of them need medication to help them sleep.

Although they continue to carry deep psychological scars, their trip to the United States — the first for each of them — appeared to have provided a measure of catharsis and healing.

“By speaking and expressing myself, it helped me remove some of the weight off my chest,” said Peretz, who spent a month and a half in the hospital after the Afula bombing and awaits two more operations.

Peretz ran from the scene of the explosion, his eyes and hair on fire. With third-degree burns over 45 percent of his body, he was brought to the hospital in Afula, where his mother Tamar, an attending nurse, did not recognize him.

Tamar Peretz, who accompanied the Israelis to Oklahoma City, said the trip had helped her son mature and make strides toward greater independence.

During their visit, the Israelis spent time with local Jewish youths, had dinner at the governor’s mansion and enjoyed some local color with a horseback ride through a park.

But a candlelight memorial service at the small, open-air Heartland Chapel across from the bomb site proved the most difficult part of the trip.

As Horesh stared at the barren land and ruined buildings through a fence lined with crosses, stuffed animals, photographs and notes, she flashed back to that horrible day on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street.

It all came back, she said, in a dizzying flood of black and white images – – the explosion, the smell of blood, the burning bodies.

Horesh had missed her bus for school that morning, so she jumped on the No. 5 bus and sat down near the front.

She was wearing her good luck charm around her neck that day, and as her fingers played with it, the charm broke free and flew to the back of the bus. Horesh retrieved it there and sat down.

“That’s what saved my life,” she said.

Horesh emerged from the wreckage uninjured, while all those at the front of the bus died in the explosion.

A year and a half later in Oklahoma City, she said she was puzzled when a reporter asked her why she thought that she survived.

“I didn’t know how to answer,” she said. “I don’t know why I stayed alive and why other people didn’t. I’m not the one who can answer it. Only God.”

She paused, then added, “Some people say perhaps someday maybe I will do something important with my life.”

Judging by the earnest, admiring faces Horesh encountered here, in the heartland of America, that day has already arrived.

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