We are nearing the end of our stay in Gaza, and emotions are already running high. Every day at Assri, girls beg me to stay in Gaza because they can’t bear the thought of me leaving. So many friendships and connections have been made. I feel like the Assri has become family, and leaving your family is really hard.
Essentially, I came to volunteer in Gaza for one main reason: to help the children. In 2006, my family and I hadn’t been to Gaza in three years, and it was different because all the Israeli settlements had been removed and Gaza only consisted of Palestinians. At the age of 14, I was excited because for once I didn’t have to run into any IDF soldiers. Little did I know I was still going to run into them, just not face-to-face.
About 8:30 p.m. that day, I heard for the first time an F-16 aircraft breaking the sound barrier. It was noise I soon became adjusted to – as adjusted as anyone could get to a horrifying noise like that. But once again it was only the beginning. Things were calm for a while until a Palestinian militant group kidnapped IDF Soldier Gilad Shalit. The Rafah and Erez Border Crossings were instantly closed, leaving my family and I stuck in Gaza. The main power plant in Gaza was hit, leaving us with no electricity. During the dark nights, we could hear the Apache helicopters and only wonder where it would hit and if we would survive until the next morning.
Saying we were terrified would be an understatement. Coming from a quiet suburb in Texas, where I have never heard a gunshot, and now witnessing explosions and the sound barrier being broken, was a bit of a stretch. Eventually, with the help of the United States Embassy, we were escorted out of Gaza, along with about 100 other American citizens. We had the luxury of escaping, something the people of Gaza didn’t have.
My one-month experience in Gaza in 2006 changed my life. After returning home, every time I heard a plane fly over my house, I would freeze up and get scared. I soon realized how bad the children of Gaza must have it. I tasted the story of their life for only one month, yet was greatly affected. I can only imagine what they deal with on a daily basis. How much of childhood do they really get to experience?
All these thoughts ran through my head frequently, and I knew I wanted to go back to Gaza one day and help these children who have no escape. My goal was even more important to me after the Gaza War in 2008-2009, which lasted 20 days and killed at least 1,100 individuals. I wanted to help the children of Gaza experience a real childhood. What childhood consists of witnessing war after war? Children were always so dear to me, but the children of Gaza have become even dearer.
As I sit here on my last day in Gaza writing about what I feel I have accomplished, I realize things take time to fix. On the big scale, I haven’t caused much impact, but I have served a good deed – no matter how small it may have been.
In my two-month stay, there was no way I could make all the children forget the last 10 years of their lives, but I did help some learn how to begin doing so. With CISS, we emphasized the importance of writing, acting and helping the children speak all their feelings about the wars. Once that was done, they were to make peace with those painful memories and move on. With the Assri, we helped emphasize the importance of art, which helped these children regain their childhood.
I leave Gaza with a quote from a 10-year-old girl at the Assri Center, which rings in the back of my head. She said, “Zainab, in America kids in their young age play, dance, and have fun. Kids in Gaza suffer through wars and horrors. Why? Are the children of the world better than us? Why do we have to be robbed of our childhood?”
Her words will always ring as a reminder that the children of Gaza still need help. The children of Gaza deserve to be kids just as much as any other group of children. I hope one day peaceful solutions will be reached in Palestine, at least for the sake of the children.