“Do people in other countries think we’re terrorists?”

I admit I’m surprised by the question. The girl is no more than fifteen, sitting quietly among other students her age at a secondary school in Gaza. They’re all members of the school parliament – a student body elected by peers and representing them in discussions with school management.  I’m with a couple of UN staff and we’ve just spent the past 45 minutes asking them about their activities. They set up peer mediation groups for students with disagreements; they coordinate trips to local organizations, including visits to the elderly; they raise funds to help poor students; they provide support to students traumatized by the latest rocket attacks back in November; they help students with their homework; they keep the school clean. They are articulate, enthusiastic, and eager to talk about their accomplishments. They even put on a slideshow partway through.

The school bell rings, signalling the start of the afternoon shift; the students are ready to go, but my UN friends ask them if they have any questions for us. As a young girl speaks, my friend nods and translates into English. “She wants to know if people in other countries think that all Palestinians are terrorists.”
For a split second I’m sixteen again and standing on the stage of my high school auditorium at the end of the Christmas play feeling the suffocating heat of my Santa Claus costume and ready to pull it off when a young mother walks up the stairs holding her young son by the hand and tells me he missed Santa at the mall and could he say to me what he wants for Christmas? I want to say Duh I’m not Santa but spot the sad look in the kid’s eyes and realize that maybe this moment means more to him than me so I play along and give him my best Ho-ho-ho and –
– Looking at the dozens of eyes staring back at me waiting for an answer I want to say No of course not don’t be ridiculous. But that isn’t the truth. All you have to do is travel a few kilometres north of the border and ask that question to people on the street and you’ll find at least a some who swear that every man, woman, boy and girl in Gaza is nothing but a terrorist. I want to say No don’t be silly but that just isn’t so. There are people I’ve met who know about my work for Palestine refugees and when I speak of Palestinians’ suffering the response is always “Yes, but” and I grow tired of it. “Yes, but the Palestinians receive millions in donations and the money goes back to firing rockets into Israel.” “Yes, but there are always two sides to the story. Israelis live in constant fear for their safety.”  “Yes, but they are the ones who put bombs in baby carriages and kill us.”
Girls at a secondary school in Gaza.

I pause a moment before answering the girl. “No,” I say, “not everyone thinks that. My friends and family know a lot about Palestinians and of the suffering that they are going through. They ask me what your lives are like; they ask me how a peaceful solution can ever become a reality. They are genuinely interested in seeing you live a life of dignity, and we all know that the actions and words of those in power – anywhere – are not necessarily a reflection of the hearts and minds of the people who must live by their rules.” Part of my answer is a copout; it’s too easy to rely on what friends and family think because they are sympathetic to Palestinian autonomy and freedom. But I withhold speaking about the more nuanced reality that exists, one in which many people are divided on their (often strong and ill-informed) opinions about Palestinians.

The girls I meet are hopeful in a place that is rotten, broken, smashed, bombed, cracked, patched together, and filled with garbage on the streets. Nearly every street corner has a weather weary poster of a martyr brandishing a machine gun looking very Rambo-epic and ready to die. Turn the corner to walk into a school and you see walls plastered with malformed paintings of SpongeBob, Mickey Mouse and Papa Smurf smiling right at you. The juxtaposition of violence and fear with happiness and a safe learning environment is enough to mess anyone up; that the girls still have hope is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know if my answer means anything to them, but they need to know that their hope has to lead them to a better life.

The Day of the Girl in a bad week

Malala Yousufzai, a fourteen year old girl advocating for girls’ right to education in Pakistan, is still fighting to save her life. She was brutally shot by the Taliban October 9 while in her school bus. The Taliban has shamelessly reiterated its vow to kill her.

A day later, Amanda Todd, a young Canadian girl slightly older than Malala, killed herself after relentless bullying. The video she made as a call for help a month before her death is chilling and utterly painful to watch.

Neither one deserved what happened to her.

By the end of the week, I attended a regional Amnesty International Canada meeting, where one of the guest speakers was Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner in Tehran. As she spoke of her time in prison at the age of sixteen – just slightly older than Malala and Amanda – the room fell silent. Her gentle humour and recounting of memories dancing to the Bee Gees inflected at the start of her story were pushed aside by a deft narrative articulating incomprehension, isolation, and heinous violations. The strength drawn from hundreds of fellow prisoners, listening to their stories of previously normal lives as she stood in line with them waiting to use the toilet, reflected the importance of something so key, so elemental to our ability to persevere in the face of adversity. We need to talk, we need to listen, we need to be heard, and we need to be kind to each other. After Mrs. Nemat spoke I could not help but wonder how Amanda Todd’s choices could have been different if someone listened, or if she hadn’t been bullied in the first place. As for Malala, how different would her fate have been if more people had not supported her in her actions?

Amanda and Malala’s stories never should have spiraled to the tragic events that unfolded this past week. The day after Amanda took her life,
 the world celebrated the first international Day of the Girl. It’s meant to be a movement to “speak out against gender bias and advocate for girls’ rights everywhere.” I’m sure the sad irony of that day following these events is not lost on many who hope for a better, safer future for all girls. The Day of the Girl is needed, from Pakistan to Canada and everywhere else. But a day, of course, is insufficient. I hope there are better days ahead.