Images of death and destruction flood our media as Israel continues its onslaught on the people of Gaza. Every time I turn on my computer the number of dead and wounded has risen and still Netanyahu promises more bombs and more strikes. For an imprisoned community (1.7 million people living in 365km-squared bounded by a wall and the sea) there is no place to run. This is the third time in 6 years that the people of Gaza have had to endure such an attack.
While working with an international aid organization in Jerusalem I was able to visit Gaza several times in the past few years. Through these visits I was able to see a very different Gaza than what is portrayed in Western media. The people I met told a story of pain, suffering, resilience and joy, and taught me important life-lessons.
I met the father of the Al Bashawy family in January, 2014. It had been one month since the December storm had flooded Gaza. He lived in a humble dwelling made of corrugated metal, gyp-rock, and scrap pieces of wood with his son, his son’s wife and children, and other family members. When the flood hit, both sewage and flood waters filled and destroyed his home along with their limited household goods.
The Al Bashawy patriarch is 86. This means he still remembers the war of 1948. Greater still, he remembers life before 1948, before hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were thrown into exile. The father is originally from Jaffa. When he was a teen, he and his father bought and sold horses throughout Palestine; from Jaffa to Jerusalem to Hebron. His eyes sparkled as he remembered those days. As we stood in his house that was suffering from mold and destruction, I asked what he wanted from his future. His answer was clear: to return to his city of Jaffa. Despite 66 years of being denied his homeland, enduring several wars and now a flood, he remained hopeful of his eventual return. This man taught me the importance to continue to live for the dream of justice, even if it has been denied for so long.
In 2013 I visited a children’s center in Khan Younis. There I was greeted by a group of 12- year- old girls that were eager to tell me a story. The girls complained about a teacher in their school. She was abusive, rude, and frequently yelled at the girls. The girls had talked to the adults at the center and instead of the center directly interfering, the staff guided the girls towards a way to solve the problem. The girls had confronted the teacher on previous occasions about her behaviour, however her treatment of the girls had only worsened. So the girls planned a demonstration. Frustrated by the teacher’s abusive behaviour and the power imbalance before them, the girls began chanting anti-dictator slogans in the classroom. The entire classroom became a place for the girls to assert their rights. After the protest the teacher said she would change her ways. The students appreciated the change, however they promised that if she returned to her negative behaviour, they would stage a weekly demonstration in the classroom. These girls taught me the courage to stand up for yourself and others even when facing power imbalance.
This past spring I returned to Khan Younis to assist in a training. After finishing a long day, the trainer and I hopped into a taxi. The driver was grinning as he handed us a bag of fruits. He was so excited that guava had just begun to grow and he had picked them just for us. He then drove throughout Khan Younis, showing us various fruit trees, vegetables, and irrigation systems. At one point he jumped out of the car and pulled up a potato plant to show us. After facing a brutal 7 year blockade, Gaza is lacking many things such as clean water, fuel, and medicine, yet our driver showed us the beauty of what Gaza had to offer. After the extensive tour we tried to pay him, yet he refused payment. All he asked was that the next time we were in Khan Younis we would have the time to meet his family. Our driver taught me the importance that despite the circumstances we face, the oppression and injustice that are out of our control, we can find things in life to celebrate and be proud of.
The first time I went to Gaza I knew very little Arabic. As my translator went to a meeting I was left with Khaled, the director of the host organization. He knew very little English. We sat there drinking coffee, trying to discuss politics and life. A lot of his words flew by my ears without understanding and I am sure he pretended to understand my broken Arabic. However in the moment we sat together we understood each other. We developed a friendship. Over time as my Arabic improved, so did our conversations. There were and still are times when we are completely lost in what the other person is trying to say, but at the end of the day, the underlying message is that we are here for each other in a profound friendship that does not need a language. Khaled taught me the importance of friendship and relationship building, despite the physical barriers placed between us.
In March, 2014 I met the family of Ibrahim Mansur. Ibrahim was the father of 9 children facing difficult economic times. His employment was to pick gravel. The blockade does not allow for building materials into Gaza, so people desperate for income are forced to pick gravel, often close to the buffer zone. Four days before we arrived, he had been picking gravel when the Israeli military shot him in the head. He died instantly in front of his son.
On this same trip I met with a group of fisherman on the coast of Gaza. Mohammad, in his early twenties, was fishing when Israeli gunships had stopped him, told him to undress and swim towards their boat. He followed their orders and upon arriving at their boat was promptly arrested. From there he was taken to Erez detention facility. He was released hours later, still without his clothes. The journalist I was with asked him why he had been arrested. He responded “for living.” Mohammad and Ibrahim taught me that in a system that seeks the complete control and suppression of a population, the act of living is punishable even by death, as a result every breath we take becomes an act of resistance.
One of my dear friends I met in Gaza is Majeda. She is a strong vocal woman working for a local NGO. Day in and day out she sees the impact of the occupation, the siege, and war forced upon her people. She walks with them, she hears them, and she loves them. At the same time she mediates with funders for the center as they ask for another report, indicator, and budget often insensitive to struggles of the people the funders claim to helping. Yet Majeda continues. Speaking at conferences, writing articles, updating her facebook she willingly reopens her wounds of trauma in order to get people to understand what the people in Gaza are forced to endure. She fights not just for herself but for her family, her neighbours and her people. Majeda has taught me the importance of love for humanity and that love means fighting for justice.
Tonight as the bombs drop on a Gaza I think of my friends and the stories of the people that have impacted me. I worry for their safety. While the international community remains silent, I am angry that this is allowed to happen yet again. Yet, I am reminded of the lessons that I have learned in Gaza: to dream of justice, to stand up despite power imbalance, to build relationship, to celebrate what you have, that life is resistance, and the importance of loving humanity. As Rafeef Ziadeh states in her poetry, the people of Gaza taught me life.