ALAMEDA -- Kira Azzam, born in the United States, has relatives in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. But the true ancestral homeland of Azzam and her extended family is Palestine.

Azzam's elders were among the first forced to flee their homeland around the time the modern state of Israel was established in 1948.

"My grandfather was from Jerusalem," said Azzam, the community developer for the Buena Vista Community Institute, the community development arm of Alameda's Buena Vista United Methodist Church. "Growing up, my family told us we were Arab. I really didn't learn I was Palestinian until my parents thought I was old enough to know."

Today, problems still exist for Palestinians living in their homeland. Wadi Foquin, a small Palestinian agricultural village that has existed for centuries, serves as a case in point.

Located on the West Bank of the Jordan River near Bethlehem, Wadi Foquin (estimated population 1,200) has gained a reputation for its organic farming that produces high-quality fruits and vegetables. However, almost 94 percent of the village's land is under full Israeli control. And annexation of land, runoffs of construction debris and raw sewage from the encroaching -- and what many call illegal -- Orthodox Jewish settlement of Betar Illit threaten the entire village.


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Some from the international community, including the Friends of Wadi Foquin, have stepped in to help. In addition to her duties with the Buena Vista Community Institute, Azzam also serves on the staff of Friends of Wadi Foquin, an association of East Bay Methodist Churches that includes the Buena Vista United Methodist Church, headed by the Rev. Michael Yoshii.

"What I could do about this (situation) brought me to where I am now," Azzam said.

Two months ago, Yoshii and others in the group went to Washington, D.C., to address government officials about the urgent situation in Wadi Foquin. This month, Yoshii and company travel again to the nation's capital as a kind of follow-up on earlier discussions.

Ultimately, the Friends of Wadi Foquin hope to set up a hearing with the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas Lantos Human Rights Commission.

"We put in our request to the Lantos Commission last time (the Friends of Wadi Foquin traveled to Washington); now we'll go back and talk some more with the people we've already met," Yoshii said. "Like anything, it takes time."

Yoshii and those traveling with him will depart the Bay Area late Monday and arrive in Washington, D.C., early the next morning. They will return Jan. 18.

Yoshii realizes his group faces a tough task.

"We have such stereotyped views of Palestinians in the United States that we don't see them as humans," Yoshii said. "We see them as 'the others.' "

Yoshii, who is Japanese American and serves a church with deep roots in that community, draws parallels between present-day Palestinians and his own ancestors.

"As Japanese Americans, we went through that," he said. "We sometimes still go through that."

Since returning from their previous trip to Washington, D.C., in November, the Friends of Wadi Foquin have looked to generate grass-roots support through an online petition. They already have gained support from a number of sources, including that of the progressive Jewish website, Mondoweiss.

"There are Jewish people here who abhor what is happening," Yoshii said.

Wadi Foquin itself has a reputation as a peaceful village that has gotten along well with its neighbors, most especially the Israeli community of Tzur Hadassah to the west. But with random checkpoints impeding movement, the annexation of land, the construction of separation walls, the continuing expansion of Betar Illit (from 10,000 to 40,000 people since its 1984 founding), and the contamination of remaining land, many wonder how long Wadi Foquin will be able to survive.

Will the current residents of Wadi Foquin ultimately have to evacuate their land in the manner of other Palestinians through the decades?

Though the villagers have people like the Friends of Wadi Foquin in their corner, the question remains unanswered.

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