Zainab in Gaza

In summer 2010, Zainab, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry in Dedman College, is traveling to Gaza in the Palestinian Territories to volunteer at medical facilities.

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A worthwhile endeavor

It is 4 a.m. Electricity still isn’t back. It’s about 90 degrees and the humidity is insane. I can feel the sweat bullets trickling down my back one by one. I have got to get up and get ready to go to Jabalia Camp in four hours. But with the electricity like this, I cannot see that happening. I need sleep.

All I can think about is Texas. Why did I come to Gaza? I could have been at home where I could sleep in my bed whenever I wanted, and it would be cold. It could be 107 degrees outside, but I would not feel it. Just as I finished that thought, I saw a light begin to flicker and the fridge begin to make a sound.

“It’s BACK!” I jumped. My sister and I had not slept the whole night because it was too hot. All the AC units in our loft were instantaneously turned on and put on 18 degrees Celsius. I got back into my bed, covered myself, and fell right asleep.

“Zainab! GET UP! We are going to be late!” I hear Mariam yelling. “If you want your clothes ironed, you better get up in the next 10 minutes. The electricity is going to be gone by 8!” I covered my head with the pillow and wanted to yell, “Ironing my clothes has become a luxury! Why am I here?”

At about 8:15 a.m. we leave our loft and head for Jabalia Camp. All I can think about on my way to the Assri Center is how hard it is for the people of Gaza to live in a city in which one pays the electricity bill, yet it comes to him or her in shifts. I have only been in Gaza for two weeks and already I’m “suffering.”

I walk into the Assri not as jolly as usual. I look sleep deprived, because I am. It is already around 94 degrees outside and will only get hotter and more humid, which is the worst part. I try to put on a happy face, but it just doesn’t come out right. I can officially cross acting off my list of talents. As the day goes on, Zahra and I work with the kids – their smiles make me smile – but Zahra can tell I am not normal. We sit down during our 45-minute break and I rant about last night. She hears me out then begins to speak and tries to make me feel better. What comes next I least expect.

Zahra, a woman who never shows pain or unhappiness – my mentor and the children’s mentor – begins to open up to me about her life. Zahra, the smiling Zahra, is the youngest of five brothers and two sisters. Both of her parents have been diagnosed with cancer, but she has not been able to find a way to inform them. She still lives at home, not because she’s forced to, but because she wants to care for her parents. None of her siblings provides any financial aid to her parents or to their brother who lives and studies medicine in Libya.

Zahra spends all day working at the Assri Center to make money to live and take care of her parents and brother. As if that wasn’t enough, she has been dealing with the electricity issue for about a year and half. With the sudden shock of hearing what really was hidden under Zahra’s smile, I felt ashamed of my thoughts and behavior about something as simple as electricity.

Zahra points to a boy, “You see him, Waleed? He isn’t originally from Jabalia camp. In fact, his father has a Ph.D. in civil engineering.” During the Gaza War in 2008-2009, Waleed’s house was occupied by the IDF. The entire family, including extended family, lived in one room for two weeks. Bathroom breaks were only once a day, and all they ate was bread and olive oil. One day, Waleed’s oldest sister needed to use the bathroom badly, but it was not time for her bathroom break.

When her father explained to the soldier the situation, the soldier granted them permission, under one condition: They were not going to eat for the day. At this point tears were rolling down my cheeks. Zahra hands me a tissue. “See Zainab, you don’t have it too bad. A couple of weeks and you will be back in Texas. We on the other hand, have nowhere to go.”

I cannot believe I complained. I cannot believe I was even the slightest bit annoyed. How could I complain when I help bring smiles to the kids of the Assri? The few hours I give out of my day so the kids can forget years out of their life are completely worth it. I am here to help these children be children, and if it means no Internet, AC, or ironing my clothes, then so be it.

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