The Gaza I want to remember

A young boy was killed in Gaza the day before my scheduled trip to Gaza City last week. That morning as I packed my luggage from my hotel in Jordan I saw the news ticker on CNN announcing his death and selfishly thought of the escalating tensions that would likely make my trip more dangerous – or at least more unexpected – than previously planned.

A couple of hours after arriving in Gaza City Friday November 9, my friend asks me if I want to go out for dinner. “It’s just a few minutes walk,” he says. During my last trip in June 2011, I was strictly forbidden to leave the UN compound or the hotel without hopping into a bulletproof Land Cruiser. He senses my hesitation at his offer.

“If you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll just head back and stay here at the hotel,” he assures me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and we’re off.

We exit the hotel. My friend quietly says to me, “You see, the hotel is protected. On your left and your right. Those are Hamas officers both in uniform and in plainclothes.” He points to four men on the left and one on the right. “We’re protected.” Sure. In the hotel.

Walking through the streets of Gaza I think, This isn’t so bad. There are few people on the main street, all men and boys. They sit idly and talk to each other in front of dirty shops filled with second-rate Egyptian goods smuggled through tunnels. Every other street corner has a Hamas officer sitting on a half-broken chair.  There are large, rusted garbage bins every so often filled with rot. By the looks of them their contents are likely burned on the spot rather than collected. Looking at the filth swirling around the streets you could tell that people are used to throwing their trash out anywhere, anytime.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that I felt safe. After a wonderful dinner we return back to the hotel and hear preparations under way for a wedding. The festivities were so loud it was impossible to get any sleep until well past midnight. “This is the only way hotels stay in business,” my friend tells me at breakfast the next morning. “There are no tourists so they rely on weddings.” There was another wedding the next night.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that people did what they could to live in dignity despite their living conditions. The water’s undrinkable, the food if you can find enough to eat isn’t healthy, you don’t know when you’ll have electricity and when you won’t, you can’t find the medicine you need if you get sick, you can’t get a job, you can’t take care of your family, you can’t even go for a walk on the beach because it’s full of garbage and shit and broken boats and ripped tires and everything else you want to get rid of but there’s nowhere to put any of it so you just live with it every day.

It’s impossible to fully understand the depravity of people living in conditions that are deliberately meant to dehumanize them. I feel sorrow, empathy, anger, but I will never know what it’s really like to live like that all the time. I’m passing through, a two-day temporary glimpse into a world that shouldn’t exist.

I question, as I often have, the impact of my work under such circumstances. My job this time around was to present to and get feedback from primary school teachers on a toolkit I developed for teaching human rights. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing innovative, it’s just common sense. The toolkit builds a lot on international human rights practices to introduce children to human rights. All I’ve done was to package it by contextualizing the toolkit for Palestinian teachers. I’ve focused the toolkit on specific human rights themes that Palestinian teachers told me were important: children’s participation, respect, building links with the community, and learning about equality, among others.

When I walk into the workshop room on Saturday November 10, I’m greeted by smiles from everyone. Within a few minutes our discussion leads us straight to asking ourselves what human rights are.

“Human rights are the basic things that all of us have, like the right to education, the right to live in a nice house, and the right to be healthy,” says a young woman.

“It means we respect each other,” adds the woman next to her.

Both of them speak as though these are truths. They aren’t naïve, they are hopeful. In their place I don’t know how I could possibly share their enthusiasm. I’d find it hard to fake a smile in front of students and tell them everyone has the right to live in security. When a student plays football in the field under the threat of bombs ripping his body to shreds, I think it would be easy for a student to say to a teacher, “We are never safe.”

Teachers in Gaza learning about human rights.

As the two women speak, the other participants nod and join in with similar things to say. It’s the kind of environment where I feel, as a facilitator, revitalized by the energy, thoughtfulness, and professionalism of educators who work in arguably one of the most dangerous environments around. They never admit that human rights are only what other people have; they speak of rights as entitlements everyone must have.

One in the afternoon on Sunday and the workshop is already over. Our scheduled departure for 1:30 is delayed due to mortar and rocket fire at the border. By 2:15 we’re told by security to get in a vehicle and leave the UN compound.  The first rains of the season quickly flood all the streets and bring traffic to a standstill. A normally fifteen-minute ride to the border is delayed the moment the compound gates close behind us. After half an hour wading through water at least a quarter meter thick, the driver receives the call from security to turn back because of new border attacks. We stop, wait in silence on a side street, then get another call told to forge ahead. The mortar and rockets stopped, at least for the moment. Our surroundings change as we near the border: a barren and pitted landscape even more desolate than the misery of the city looks like the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Half a dozen young boys play football by the side of the road next to a couple of pathetic shacks surrounded by garbage. I try to reassure myself that things can’t be that bad if they’re out playing.

Things weren’t bad, at least for the few minutes required to cross between borders. The situation was labeled as “calm but tense” by one UN official and that sums up the attitude most people had up to that point. But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what an easy target I was as we left the safety of a bulletproof vehicle and made our way in a Turkish government-donated golf cart down the kilometer-long concrete passageway leading up to the Israeli wall. I was not eager for my fate to be ignominiously sealed while riding in a golf cart in a war zone.

Leaving Gaza, I knew the situation would deteriorate, and do so quickly. I leave with an overpowering sense of abandonment. The teachers I met will still teach, and I wonder if what children learn about human rights will give them any greater sense of comfort amidst the violence that imbues their lives.

The Gaza I want to keep in my memory is that of teachers eager to learn and teach about human rights; I want to remember walking freely through the streets, even if only for a few minutes; I want to remember the unrelenting music, laughter and screams of joy at the weddings I heard from my hotel room; I want to remember the handshakes, the smiles, and the kindness of friends and strangers alike; I want to remember the young man at the hotel reception saying, “See you next time,” with a genuine smile. I know the reality is anything but this at the moment. Like the teachers who spoke at the workshop, I’m not naïve, I’m hopeful. There must be better days ahead.

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.