The small Palestinian village of Al-Aqaba, home to 300 inhabitants, lies atop a rocky ridge in northern West Bank. Its large, striking minaret punctures an otherwise earth-bound, rugged geography, and the Jordan Valley fans out to the east like a desert mirage. Waves of brown, orange, and red blur into one another—a striking view from the three-tiered scaffolding that precariously hugged the wall of the village’s most prominent building in the spring of 2015. Up and down the rickety structure for the better part of a week, Philadelphia-based artist Lily Yeh gave most of her attention to the aqua-colored expanse in front of her and the task of painting a mural on the twenty-five-foot wall.

Yeh is no stranger to this process, frequently choosing walls as her canvas. Her brightly painted murals enliven otherwise bleak environs all over the globe today. Under the auspices of her organization, Barefoot Artists, Yeh travels to impoverished or traumatized communities and brings art as a means of healing and transformation. Part visual art, part community building, bonding, and mobilizing, it is a process she describes as a living social sculpture. Yeh passionately believes in the power of communities to embrace their suffering and transcend it through creativity and beauty, a sort of alchemical transformation that can diffuse the heavy weight of living under oppression, persecution, or war.

Art Under Occupation

By now, after four visits to the Palestinian territories, Yeh is familiar with the humanitarian impacts of the ongoing Occupation and conflict in the region. In 2011, she led a community-based art project at the Balata Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Nablus—the largest refugee camp in the West Bank and considered to be one of the most densely populated places on earth with 23,000 residents living within one-quarter square kilometer. In 2014, the mayor of Al-Aqaba invited Yeh to paint a small mural near the school’s classrooms. The village itself lies within the Area C designation of the West Bank, where Israel retains nearly exclusive control. It sits squarely within a military firing zone.

Yeh, inspired by the village’s commitment to thrive under challenging circumstances, returned the following year to take on a project with a much larger scale. Now, a large tree of life (one of Yeh’s favorite images) is the first thing one sees upon arriving at Al-Aqaba. Olive branches reach skyward through shades of blue and green and are surrounded by bright flowers, doves, and stars. Between its branches are traditional symbols of Palestinian heritage, the national flag and the kaffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress or scarf. “The pain of oppression is a huge mental wall,” Yeh says, acknowledging the multiple manifestations of walls, “but where we dare to imagine and thrive, there we have a freedom and a joy nobody can control. How do we create joy? Through creating beauty.”

To the north and west of Al-Aqaba, another type of wall stretches over the arid terrain of the West Bank landscape. Consisting of concrete, razor wire, ditches, watch towers, and electronic surveillance systems, this 400-mile, disputed barrier has been given many names: security barrier, separation fence, antiterrorism fence, and apartheid wall are among them. The construction of the barrier began in 2002, and if the project continues as planned, the barrier will be four times the length and, in some places, twice the height of the Berlin Wall (ranging from sixteen to twenty-six feet tall).

Walls Ancient and Modern

I traveled with Yeh to Palestine in 2015 along with four other volunteers from Barefoot Artists. Our first encounter with the barrier was in Bethlehem, near the crossing terminal to Jerusalem—one of thirty-two checkpoints that currently exist along the barrier’s course. (Restrictions on Palestinians crossing through checkpoints vary but generally require ID cards and/or crossing permits.) Graffiti art and a series of plaques with quotes from local Palestinians decorate the lower reaches of the wall—splashes of color that pepper an otherwise gray, foreboding structure.

On the Palestinian side, art and language are often used to convey political messages and give voice to experiences of oppression and occupation that otherwise might not be heard. “Do you want …” one plaque begins, “do you want freedom of speech? Do you want freedom of movement? Do you want justice?” The questions seem to have tumbled out of the writer, Hisham. “Do you want peace? Do you want to experience other cultures? Do you want humanity? I do. Since I could think, live, and breathe I think of my freedom. I want to live, like most people in the world.”

Humans have built walls to enclose, separate, and protect individuals, tribes, and nations for millennia—the walls of Jericho, Hadrian’s Wall, or the Great Wall of China may come to mind. Yet there are ramifications to walls. After the fall of the Berlin Wall over a quarter-century ago, many of us might have imagined that we were entering a time in human history when the use of large-scale barriers—to defend borders, occupy lands, or divide people—was no longer conceivable, let alone acceptable. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the number of barriers separating countries, territories, and communities has dramatically increased worldwide; estimates indicate that over 6,000 miles of varying types of separation barriers have been established in little more than a decade to prevent, limit, or monitor people’s movement.

We seem to be in a collective state of uncertainty as to whether walls (of the megaproject variety) actually curtail or fuel the violence, religious extremism, and despair that, more and more, appear to define our reality. In their Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant write that walls (literal and figurative) can be understood as interruptions of intercommunication. Psychologically, walls make some feel secure, but their protection also stifles and imprisons. From this perspective, continually opting for segregation may be an instinctual, knee-jerk response that feeds a stance of intolerance and, in fact, threatens the survival of our species. If we are to disrupt the age-old story of separation, we as individuals must acknowledge our own mental and emotional constructs that act as dividers and recognize when they serve and when they hinder our capacity to be present in this world with an open heart.

In Nablus

These thoughts remained with me as I traveled to the West Bank, where, in addition to the project in Al-Aqaba, the team was invited to paint a mural and facilitate a community art project in the old city of Nablus. The heart of Nablus has a cultural legacy of 5,000 years; buildings show evidence of architecture from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras, though today the ancient, large, dry-stone walls are combined with modern cement and cinder blocks—a superficial reminder of the neighborhood’s long history of political resistance and the devastation, as well as the ensuing repair, that incurred during and after the Second Intifada. Posters line the walls of its labyrinthine alleyways with pictures of men, mostly young, who died as suicide bombers or were jailed or killed during the conflict.

Majdi Shella, a native of Nablus and the local coordinator for the Barefoot Artist team, is a veteran of the resistance movement. His history with the movement includes several long periods of imprisonment during the 1980s, in the notorious Al-Fara’a Prison. Shella continues to be a political organizer, but over the years he has honed his efforts toward cultivating a strong civil society as part of a cultural resistance movement. To him, sociocultural programs and activities are critical tools in their struggle, which, as Shella explains, is really the struggle “to live, not to die; to choose life over apathy; to build open hearts and minds; to become more accepting of the other.”

With approval from the Old City neighborhood council, Shella organized Yeh, her team, and local youth to paint old, rusted metal doors of the shops and homes surrounding the square. Over the course of several days, energizing primary colors began to jump out of the muted earth tones. Echoes of “Mama Lily, Mama Lily” bounced off the stones and bricks of the old city—an enthusiasm that reverberated from wall to wall as children besieged Yeh with their desire to participate, get her approval, or share in the delight of their accomplishment. For Yeh, this is where community-building occurs: creating new patterns of action that allow for an immediacy of experience in transformation. Drawing on ideas and images that arise out of the children’s art or participation (often simple geometric shapes, folk art, or images from their everyday life), she helps transform them into public art as a way to foster a positive sense of dignity and recognition.

This seems especially important in Nablus, where the old city square is often bedecked with teenage boys or twenty-something men who appear as if they are left with no option but to look cool in their idleness. One such man is Misho, never too far from his motorbike and, more often than not, riding around the square, popping wheelies. For two days he maintained a stance of indifference while watching the creative chaos that was exploding around him. By the third day, however, Yeh somehow managed to lure him in and, with a paintbrush in hand, Misho was soon leading the Mama Lily chorus. “Everybody was smiling at the end of the day,” reflects Yeh. “That is the transformation of that wall.”

Reversing the Effects of Trauma

Yeh and Shella share a belief in the potential of the individual to alter self-defeating identifications or destructive behavioral patterning that can arise from the psychological impacts of trauma. The opportunity that Yeh and the Barefoot Artists bring, from Shella’s perspective, is exactly what youth, in particular, need and respond to — an exciting, liberating way to defy their own, parental, or societal expectations, and to just be kids again. “What if these kids asked for violins or paintbrushes as gifts instead of plastic toy guns?” he muses. Shella also understands that under international law, an oppressed people have the right to resist, including armed struggle. “But the hardest way to resist” he asserts, “is to build the consciousness and humanity of the people. The conflict will never end until we live together.”

Today, a mural acknowledging the history of Palestinian resistance towers high above the bold sections of orange, green, red, blue, and yellow that dot the square. At the base of the mural reads the caption, in English and in Arabic, “To resist is to exist.” For many Palestinians, the act of breathing, eating, going to school, and trying to maintain a normalcy of life is a fundamental form of resistance. Perhaps now, so too is the act of creating beauty.

We all embody, in some form or another, perceptions of the Other. We’ve all experienced times when the wall grew too high and compromised our vision for a future based on justice, harmony, and mutual respect. We might even agree, in our most honest moments, with sentiments Yeh expressed at a Bioneers conference years ago, in reference to her work with genocide survivors in Rwanda: “Genocide is happening now in everybody’s heart. If we have greed, are caught up in our ego-hood, and if we poison our air, we poison our human relationships.” In Palestine, I began to see that it is possible to cultivate a creative intelligence that no longer denies the imperative of our interdependence; that chooses to tear down the outdated walls of our interior and exterior landscapes, the apartheid walls of our own making — how we each do this will surely be unique to the contours of our individual lives.

Yeh’s response is to run straight into humanity’s suffering — the broken, dark, and devastating places that demand intense vulnerability yet hold the greatest potential for transformation and wholeness. “Here there is no separation. It is for another but, even more, it is for my soul.” Thirteen years since the founding of Barefoot Artists and now in her seventies, Yeh is still a force to be reckoned with. She climbs up and down scaffoldings as if her energy were boundless; her laughter is infectious, and her praise of any creative contribution feels genuine. What is most notable, perhaps, is the way her exuberance and passion excludes no one. It wraps itself around all in her presence until there is a collective experience of the possibilities that appear when we dare to imagine.