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.

Gaza, you will always be in my heart

gaza10.jpgWe 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.

gaza11.jpgAbout two weeks into our stay, the IDF hit an innocent family on the beach, all of whom died except the daughter, Huda Ghaliya. I was instantly terrified, but once again this was only the beginning.

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.

gaza12.jpgAs 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.

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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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Trip out of Gaza City

I heard about an organization called Cooperazione Internazionale Sud Sud (CISS) that recently started working in Gaza. CISS is an Italian non-governmental organization that is officially recognized by the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs as an organization qualified to promote and carry out projects of cooperation in developing countries.

In Gaza, CISS partners with Sharek Youth Forum and Gaza Mental Health Programme. CISS does work similar to that of the Assri Center in Jabalia Camp, except they have a more direct approach in dealing with the psychological problems of the children of Gaza. This definitely caught my attention because I was interested in seeing what approaches were taken in treating the children. After hearing about CISS, all that was going through my head was “where do I sign up?”

gaza8.jpgAfter making some phone calls, Mariam and I were offered an interview with Valeria Moro, the CISS Representative for Palestine. We both were very excited and made our way to the Abu Ghalion tower near the Gaza Port for our interview. At the end of the interview we had already planned with Ms. Moro to go on a tour of CISS’ Beit Lahia Center. If we liked what we saw, we could make an official schedule.

Tour Day

After getting ready for our tour day, Mariam and I waited in front of our apartment tower waiting for a taxi. Even though it was only 8:30 a.m., I could tell it was going to be a hot day. I tried to forget the heat – I am from Texas – and think about the kids I was going to meet. We made our way to the CISS office in the Abu Ghalion Tower, where we met up with Yousef Hamdoneh, a CISS representative who was going to take us to the CISS Beit Lahia Center. Beit Lahia is a city north of Jabalia and is about a 20-minute ride from Gaza City, which to me isn’t a lot considering you need at least a 10-minute ride to get anywhere in Richardson. However, according to Gaza’s standards, a 20-minute ride is pretty far.

As we made our way out of Gaza City and into Beit Lahia, I began to notice the signs of war I initially was expecting to see in Gaza City. Apparently, since Beit Lahia is so close to the Israeli border, during the 2008-09 Gaza War they had been invaded by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). So the homes in Beit Lahia were most prone to damage by guns and tanks. The homes were filled with holes, which began to worry me. Most places I had been in Gaza had minimal signs of damage, and yet the children were still greatly affected. I could only imagine the problems the children of Beit Lahia had.

Zainab4.png Finally, Mariam and I reached the center, which was not immune to the attacks of the IDF tanks. Our tour began with a short meeting with the psychologist who works at this center, Dr. Abdelhamid Kinari. Dr. Kinari gave us a brief background about what goes on at the center and gave us an idea of what happens on a typical day there. Dr. Kinari then led us to a room to witness for ourselves a treatment session.

We walked into a session for a group of 14- to 17-year-old boys. We did not get as warm of a welcome from those boys as we did from the young children of the Assri. I assume that was more or less because these individuals are teenagers rather than kids. It was time for their psychodrama session where they were to tell stories about things that happened to them during the war. Then as a group they were to pick one story and act it out.

gaza9.jpgThis exercise was meant to help them accept the past, but also forget it once they were done. The only problem was none of the teenagers wanted to say a memory. After about two minutes of silence, Dr. Kinari leaned over to Mariam and I and said, “They must be shy. Don’t worry, soon they will open up.”

For that reason, Mariam wanted the teenagers to feel like we were their friends rather than invaders of their personal session and volunteered to say her memory of the first time hearing an F-16 breaking the sound barrier in 2006 when we last visited Gaza. Once they realized that we also understood to some degree the fear they lived through, considering how in Richardson you rarely ever hear an ambulance, let alone an F-16, they began opening up.

One boy spoke about the day his family got a notice in the middle of the night from the IDF that their house would be attacked in five minutes. Five minutes was all the time they had to evacuate the 40 family members who were taking refuge in his home. Another boy spoke about how he saw an apache bomb hit his cousin in the bathroom of their school.

As the teenagers one by one began to open up, everyone began to feel like family, and I am now looking forward to all our future meetings.

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120 kids and a field trip

After about a week of exploring the activities the Assri Center had to offer, it was time for the kids to have a fun break. A summer camp tradition in Gaza is to go on a field trip. I remember when I was in school we went on field trips to a maximum of two places: one main attraction and usually a place to eat. Apparently, “everything’s bigger” in Gaza. This field trip was to consist of FIVE stops! It’s only fair to mention we were warned that this was going to be a tiring trip, but I was up for it.

gaza2.jpgA couple of days before the trip I was collecting the field trip fees from the children. The fee was five shekels, which come out between $1 and $1.50. Some kids were ready with their 5 shekel coins, while others, not so much.

One girl stood out to me the most. “Maysaa,” I called and suddenly the smile on her face disappeared. “Auntie, I do not want to go,” Maysaa replied and turned around. I knew that was not the full truth, because I remember hearing how excited she was about the trip. I looked at Zahra, the mentor of the group, and she gave me an “I’ll-tell-you-later” gesture. So I went on with doing my work and collecting the rest of the fees.

At the end of the day, during the meeting, I asked the mentors about Maysaa and the other children who didn’t pay their fees. I could tell it was money that was the problem – not anything else. There I was informed that most of these kids’ parents worked as factory workers in Israel, and after the blockade and closing of the border crossings, they have been out of work. Therefore, they tell their kids they cannot afford it.

What surprised me and brought tears to my eyes was how strong the kids acted and how they never said they didn’t have money. The mentors were expecting this to happen and already had a backup plan. Since the mentors cannot afford to pay for all 120 kids, they see how many kids bring money, and the rest of the fees would be split among the four mentors. Mariam and I knew that adding two more people who could split the cost would be better and more affordable to each of the mentors, so we both decided to join in and pay for those who could not afford the trip. After all, a smile from a child having fun is worth every penny.

Finally it was the day of the trip. As we arrived at the Assri Center, there was a different mood in the air. The little street (which is the size of a sidewalk in Dallas) was engulfed with little kids. Some were in groups planning what they were going to do. Others were with their parents who were stuffing falafel sandwiches into their bags. “Make sure you eat and feed you siblings,” they would say.

We made our way upstairs and found the rest of the kids waiting in lines. Everyone was extremely excited. As I saw the mentors trying to get everyone to be quiet for only a minute so they can tell them the rules, it hit me. This is going to be a long day. One hundred and twenty excited kids, four mentors, three buses, two volunteers, one long day.

gaza1.jpgAs we finally got everyone settled and into the buses we headed to our first stop: The Commonwealth Gaza War Cemetery, often referred to as the British War Cemetery. This is a cemetery made in honor of the fallen soldiers of the First World War. I was glad to know that the kids of Gaza were not placed in a box and were encouraged to learn about the outside world.

gaza3.jpgNext, we went to our second educational stop before the fun began: the Pasha’s Palace Museum. When we got to the Museum, Mariam and I went to a nearby market with one of the mentors in order to buy the kids some snacks. My sister and I chose to do this for many reasons, but mainly we remember as kids how going on field trips meant stocking up on our favorite snacks. Most of the kids at the Assri do not have the luxury of walking into the supermarket and picking all they want. So we both wanted to give the kids a little something that may brighten their day.

As we walked back to the buses with bags of chips and boxes of mango juice, you could see the kids’ faces instantly light up. We put the snacks on one of the buses, and I caught up with my group inside the Palace. Inside, the Museum was small but contained a few interesting artifacts ranging from old coins to pottery. It was to my surprise that Gaza even had a museum, so no matter what it had to offer, it was better than nothing.

Zainab.jpg The next stop was the local park, which may have been one of the only parks in Gaza. This is where the fun began. Here the groups sang, played, and laughed. The kids were so happy to the point we had people crowd around us as we sang. The rest of the day consisted of two more stops: Sinbad the “amusement park” (which is the equivalent of a carnival) and Andalus, a pool located on the beach. The Andalus was no doubt the most anticipated stop for the kids. They were thrilled to know they would get to cool off in the pool after a long day in the sun.

At the end of the day, exhaustion was an understatement. All I remember was getting home and sitting on the couch. Next thing you know, I woke up at 4 a.m.

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First day of volunteering

As we walked into the small door leading to the stairwell, I could hear the chanting and laughter of the children, which reminded me of how important this volunteer opportunity was to me. These children come to the Assri Center for relief. To them it is an outlet and one of the few places they can go without being reminded of the situations they live in. Here they can be children.

pic1.jpgAs I take the last of the 40 steps to enter the floor of the center, I am already attacked by 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds holding out their hands in order to shake mine. For a minute I feel like a celebrity. “Salam,” “Marhaba,” “Hello,” “Are you really from America?” was all I was hearing. At that point, I was close to overwhelmed until Zahra, one of the mentors at the Assri, came to my rescue. “Go to your groups; you will get to meet Zainab and Mariam more in a little,” Zahra said. I mouthed “shukran” and we made our way to the office where my sister and I saw the rest of the mentors.

As I wrote earlier, the Assri’s main purpose is to give children an outlet, and they do this through art, dance, music and folklore. There are four “corners” at the Assri. During the two-week summer camp, the kids get to experience each corner for the first week and get to choose which corner interests them the most in the second week. The corners are as follows: Drama/acting with Abdullah, poetry with Samy, singing/music with Aaed, and art and crafts with Zahra.

Back in the office, Mariam and I chose which corner to volunteer with. I was first to pick and chose arts and crafts with Zahra. This decision was made simply because I was interested to see how children, specifically the children of Gaza, expressed themselves through their artwork. On the other hand, Mariam chose drama with Abdullah because she enjoys acting and helping children release what may be bothering them through acting.

Once the decisions were made, Mariam and I walked into the main hall where Aaed was leading the morning assembly. During the assembly, the children dance, sing, and basically become energized. One thing caught my attention the most, which was the children singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in Arabic. This was so much fun to listen to and brought back my own childhood memories of singing the same song over and over in kindergarten. After about 10 minutes of fun and games, everyone was asked to go to their assigned corners.

pic2.jpgIn arts and crafts with Zahra, all the children got to know each other a little more through a game called “Who are you?” This game basically consisted of a child throwing a ball into the air to start. Whoever caught the ball was to introduce himself or herself to the group. After everyone finished introducing themselves, each child began to work on the art activity of the day. Today the art activity was called “Cut and Paste,” which consisted of cutting out your drawings and pasting them on a separate piece of construction paper. After everyone finished their work, the masterpieces where collected and saved for the upcoming exhibit in which the children’s family members are invited to see the progress and artwork of their child.

All in all, today was a great day! I saw children smile, laugh, and enjoy themselves, something I wouldn’t give up for the world.

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Introduction to the Union of Health Work Committees

Gaza3.png It has been almost a week since I have arrived in Gaza, and I soon learned that electricity is a luxury. Basically, Gaza has been split up into different areas with electricity distributed between them. I have been to Gaza a couple of times before, but this time around it is a bit different. There have been a lot of things I have had to get used to, from lack of electricity to limited Internet connectivity to experiencing a bit of a culture shock.

On a lighter note, today I finally had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Yusuf Owadalla, the head of the Union of Health Work Committees. UHWC is a nongovernmental grass-roots organization that provides comprehensive health services through a developmental community and social framework to all sectors of the Palestinian people, especially the marginalized ones (women and children). They have partnered with international organizations such as UNICEF, UNRWA and YMCA.

At the end of the meeting with Dr. Owadalla, I went on a tour with one of the members of UHWC to their facility in Jabalia Camp (a Palestinian refugee camp north of Gaza City) called Assri Center Summer Camp. This facility serves underprivileged children in the refugee camp and works to help them overcome and accept psychological problems caused by previous wars through art, dance, film, and folklore.

At the Assri Center, I was introduced to the children I would be helping and spending every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday with. At the end of my tour, I was ready to volunteer and eager to learn from the children attending the Assri Center Summer Camp.

Can’t wait to start volunteering on Saturday!

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In Gaza, at last

Due to the closing of the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and Gaza, I was forced to delay my flight for about a month. This delay had a domino effect on my plans.

To begin, my flight to Egypt should have taken two days, but instead took five. My original ticket had been booked with connecting flights from Dallas to London and from London to Egypt. Since I delayed my trip in the height of vacation fever, I was no longer able to find connecting flights and was forced to stay four days in London.

Except that was not the end of it. In order to get to Gaza, one needs to drive about 5 hours from Cairo to Rafah, Egypt. Once at Rafah, it takes about 3 hours to go through all the immigration procedures. Mind you, if I was in Dallas a 3-hour flight would get me to Montreal, Canada, or a 3-hour drive would get me to Austin.

With that said, the Rafah Border Crossing was not going to open until Thursday, June 17. Since I arrived in Egypt on June 12, my plans were again delayed, and my two sisters and I spent about a week in Egypt.

Despite my delay in plans, Thursday, June 17, eventually rolled along, and most of my anxiety had been released. At 4 am my two sisters and I loaded our belongings into a taxi and began our journey across Egypt.

I soon learned our five-hour drive across the desert of Egypt was going to be in a taxi without air-conditioning! The only solution to keeping my mind off the blazing rays of sunlight crashing through the car windows was to try to sleep through the drive. Unfortunately, I was so excited to finally reach Gaza that sleep was improbable.

Gaza1.png Finally at 9:45 am, we reached the Egyptian side of the Rafah Border Crossing. The immigration process with the Egyptians took until 12:15 pm, which was when my two sisters and I boarded a bus to cross the border that was no more than half the length of a football field. This bus ride, that should have taken no more than 5 minutes, took 45 minutes.

Gaza2.png All in all, at about 2 pm, we were done with both sides of immigration, and I officially arrived in Gaza. I never would have imagined that in the 21st century it would take 12 days to get to a desired destination. I must say this was the beginning of my understanding of the suffering of the civilians living in Gaza.

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