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CORRECTION: January 10, 2011

This article incorrectly said the Palestine-Israel issue will be discussed Sunday at a general meeting of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center. The session at the center is sponsored by the North Coast Coalition for Palestine Support.

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It took some time for Therese Mughannam-Walrath to discover what she is, fundamentally, and longer for her to declare it.

The co-owner of a print shop between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, naturalized American, lifelong Catholic, wife and mother of two sons in their mid-20s learned as a child not to go around broadcasting that she is Palestinian.

She was born in 1947, a crucial year, to a family that had lived for centuries in the Christian city of Ramallah, just nine miles from Jerusalem. Mughannam-Walrath has no childhood memories of Ramallah because later in '47 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine to allow the creation of the nation of Israel.

The vote triggered bloodshed and violent disruption that persuaded her parents and hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians to flee. Mughannam-Walrath said it's clear to her that as her parents left their ancestral homeland in 1948, they expected to return once conditions calmed.

"That's a presumption for every single Palestinian," said the passionate, gracious woman of 63. For 10 years her family lived in Jordan, where she came to perceive glances and tones of voice that conveyed that she and her people were not welcome there.

"Nobody likes refugees," she said.

She recalls as a kid in Jordan feeling that she was being tolerated in a place she didn't belong.

She was 10 when, in 1957, an uncle living in California sponsored her family to emigrate. She spent the rest of her childhood in San Francisco, where she learned to speak English and to answer the question, "Where are you from?"

"In those days, you couldn't say you were Palestinian," she said. She found she could avoid an off-put response by telling people she was from the Holy Land. "People liked me when I said that."

She attended Catholic schools in San Francisco and turned 20 in 1967, the year of the war in which Israel annexed the rest of what had been Palestine. In her early 20s she came to Santa Rosa intending to join the Ursuline sisters and become a teacher. Deciding after nearly three years that the path was not for her, she joined the Our Lady of the Redwoods monastery in southern Humboldt County and commenced training to become a monk.

"My world just opened up there, as a human being and a Christian," she recalled.

"That's where I discovered I'm Palestinian," she said. Through four years of study and introspection at the monastery, she contemplated what happened to the Palestinian people since 1947 and asked herself, "What am I supposed to do about it?"

She began to speak up, asking Americans to challenge some deeply ingrained presumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's a source of frustration for her to find that people commonly believe it's an ancient enmity with no possible solution.

"That's a fallacy," she said. "They haven't been fighting forever. It's about land, it's been happening since 1947."

Mughannam-Walrath came to Santa Rosa in 1987 with her husband, David, and they bought Ajalon printing. For the past two decades she has spoken about Palestine, often at Sonoma State University, at Santa Rosa Junior College, high schools and churches, and she's organized dialogue and advocacy groups.

She asks that Americans challenge assumptions that to support a demand that Israel give back a portion of what was Palestine is anti-Semitic or dishonors Holocaust victims that led the United Nations to create a state for the Jewish people.

Mughannam-Walrath said her quest for justice and a restored homeland for the Palestinians is not anti-Jewish.

"I believe we're all children of the same God," she said. "Hey, my father's name is Abraham!"

She said Israel would be more secure if it would resolve the Palestinian question, although she does not see that happening without the U.S. pressing its ally to end Israeli settlements in the territories, give back a portion of seized Palestinian land and deal meaningfully with the refugee issue.

The Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County, which Mughannam-Walrath joined in the early 1990s, recently honored her work by awarding her its annual Peacemaker Award. She said people interested in looking into the Palestine issue or assisting in the search for solutions can attend the general meeting of the peace center on Santa Rosa's Sebastopol Avenue at 1 p.m. Sunday, or a fundraiser for the North Coast Coalition for Palestine Support from 3 to 6 p.m., Feb. 13, at the Glaser Center in downtown Santa Rosa.

Mughannam-Walrath has returned to the former Palestine five times and she's preparing to go back in February for an international conference in Bethlehem by Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots movement by Palestinian Christians.

"It's a witness trip, basically," she said.

She finds meaning in her peace work and has hope that she'll live to see a resolution to the conflict that was born the same year as she.

"There's injustice all over the world. It's not just Palestine," she said. "But you have to focus somewhere."

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.