A Letter to My Sons: a little bit of happiness

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’ve been in Gaza for three days now. This morning I travelled to the area of Middle Gaza to meet with teachers who were teaching human rights to children your age. What they had to say was really encouraging. Most of them did not know about human rights before, some openly said that they were afraid to teach human rights.  Why teach human rights, some asked, when our rights are being violated? What difference would it make?

A lot of the teachers said there was a difference among the children they taught. The children learned to respect each other, learned to respect their teachers, made sure the school was clean, became more confident at expressing themselves to teachers when something was bothering them, and plenty of other things. They also learned that they had duties as well. For example, a child has a right to be protected from violence, but if one child sees another one being bullied in the schoolyard, they have a duty – or a responsibility – to inform the teacher of what’s happening.
A lonely sight
In the end, if you teach children about human rights, they care more for each other. And it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in, which country you call home, the colour of your skin, where you live, whether you’re a girl or a boy, how rich your parents are, or anything else that defines you that should make you care more or less for someone else. If I were to ask you what’s most important in life, you’d probably say love or happiness or family and friends.

In a place like Gaza, the poverty is so astounding that it’s hard for me to find the happiness. It’s hard to see beyond the fields filled with garbage, the unfinished or torn-down buildings, the broken cars, the dead trees, the empty stores or the pathetic wooden stands by the side of the road with merchants selling a smattering of fruits. Nothing is new, everything is worn or dirty or broken or cracked. Everything I see is faded and blurry through the shaded bulletproof window of the vehicle I’m in. There was an infant playing alone in a pile of sand in front of an unfinished building; in an instant I felt a tremendous sadness at how lonely and pitiful that little girl’s life is now, and wondered what hope she would have in the future.
Yes we are having fun.
Later on, as I walked to a mosque with my friends, I came across a group of young boys who were sliding down large sheets of metal shaped like a cut pipe used to pour concrete. Not exactly a slide like the ones you play on back home. But they were happy. They smiled as I walked by and they repeated, over and over again, “Hello! How are you? What is your name? Hello? How are you? What is your name?” I don’t think they really cared what the answers were. But they smiled as they crawled up and down their makeshift slide, and I was relieved that I’d found a little bit of happiness.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.


A Letter to My Sons: This Is Gaza

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’m in a place called Gaza now, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in a hotel room that has far too much red in it for my tastes. Red curtains, red blanket, red carpet. The beach outside is filled with young children splashing in the water and playing on the beach, the occasional parent sitting or standing nearby. It’s beautiful, and it’s full of garbage.

It’s difficult to explain to you why things are like this. Gaza and another place nearby called the West Bank form what people call the Palestinian territories. Palestinians claim these territories as their land. There has been a struggle – a very long struggle – to fight for this land with the Israelis.

Before coming here, a friend of mine told me that the difference between Israel and Gaza would be incredible. It was. Driving along the road in Israel, I was surrounded by a lush landscape of trees and farmland as far as the eye could see. People drove around in nice cars. The houses they lived in, at least the ones I could see from the highway, were beautiful. Then everything changed. There were no more cars, no more people, no more houses, the road got smaller and bumpy, the grass disappeared, all we could see was dirt, and then we came across some signs to slow down. At that point I saw a huge wall with barbed wire on top. The wall seemed as though it went on forever. We had to stop at a checkpoint, give our passports to three different people (all of whom were quite friendly), and pass by a few men with guns slung over their shoulders. The gates of the wall opened slowly – very slowly. And more than one gate was opened in order to finally get through to Gaza.

The difference in the landscape was immediate. Old rusted vehicles darted the landscape, goats chewed on garbage, and there were plenty of people, mostly young men and even some children your age, who were idling around, not doing much. The buildings were old and worn down, the donkeys looked equally worn, as did the cars and their drivers. We had to get into bulletproof vehicles to drive to the office. But don’t worry: I asked someone with me if anything bad had ever happened to her in the two years she’d been here, and she said no.

I met a lot of nice people today who are working hard to include human rights in schools. Here in Gaza, children your age learn about human rights – they even have one classroom period per week to discuss the subject. In many ways, what is being done here is a lot more advanced than in other countries around the world. This despite living conditions that are horrible. As I came back to the hotel this evening, I drove by three young boys who were foraging through garbage by the side of the road. When I stop to think of you doing something like that, my heart aches. We often talk of “human dignity” when speaking of human rights, and it was really hard to see it in their eyes. If you saw what I did today, I know you would be scared. I know you would cry. I know you would ask how people could live like this. I know you would ask what we could do to help. I wish I knew the answers. All I can say is that deliberate ignorance of the harsh lives of others will not make their lives better, but knowing about their lives moves us towards greater empathy for their sorrow. Hopefully that’s what pushes us to help, and to me that’s what makes us human.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.


Empathy: Life lessons from Boy 2

There was a wine and cheese donor recognition a few days ago, hosted by the organization I work for, Equitas. I went there with my son, Boy 2. He was invited because he’d donated most of his birthday money to a fund for our program participants in Haiti who’d suffered from the devastating earthquake back in January. as usual, he managed to be both humble and attention-seeking, working the crowd at the right moments.

We left the place just after 7 that night and made our way to the train station. About a ten-minute walk, walking first through the streets of Old Montreal, then onto the larger boulevards of the downtown core. My son walked with his head craned the whole time, amazed and unused to the newness of the city; we live in the suburbs, and I’ve only been downtown with my children a few times. 

At one point we stopped at a street corner, waiting for the signal to cross (at a minimum I feel I have to set a good example in front of the kid). Across the street, a homeless man, one I’ve seen many times before, crusted, layered in heaps of filthy coats, a grocery cart by his side. He was fishing through a garbage bin. found nothing, crossed the street to the bin next to us. My son had been talking incessantly the whole time we were walking (he typically is mute only during sleep). As his eyes fixes upon the homeless man, he grew silent, turned red in the face, pushed his body close to mine, then whispered something inaudible to me. I bent down and asked him to repeat what he’d said, and he asked me what that man was doing. I told him he was looking for food. Tears formed in my son’s eyes.

“Why does he have to look for food?” followed by “Why doesn’t anyone help him?” The rawness of my son’s empathy left me wondering what to give as an answer. I can’t remember what I answered, but whatever I said, I’m sure it wasn’t good enough (for me nor for my son). The signal to walk appeared and we walked away. My son remained quiet until we approached the train station.

I mentioned what happened to a friend of mine the day after, and he said that, as adults, we’ve been conditioned to seeing men like that around the city so much that we don’t pay any attention to them. Or perhaps we do, but we consciously avoid them. Either way, I need to be reminded more often by people like my son who react more immediately, more strongly, more emotionally, and with more kindness to others whose lives are a far cry from what anyone would consider as living in human dignity.