A loud explosion in the near distance woke us from our sleep in the very early hours of the morning. A bomb had gone off on the border, a mere drive from where we were staying. This time, the flash from the explosion seemed much larger and louder than usual. We rushed downstairs from our room to check everyone was OK.
We rushed downstairs, because we didn’t know what else to do.
I quietly read my prayers, under my breath so not to alarm the others. I was managing this team; I couldn’t show them that I was scared, too. I noticed one of the ladies from my team huddled on the floor as she took cover underneath a thin mattress.
“This is what you should do to protect yourself from a falling building”, she said, “to help survive earthquakes and… other disasters”, she said.
“This is normal”, they said.
I messaged my Palestinian friend who was working with us; a mother of three little children, she lived next door to her elderly parents. I asked about her and her family, wondering, but not asking, if we had anything to worry about this time.
“I heard explosions close by, are you ok?” or “There seems to be an exchange of gunfire, I hope the kids aren’t scared?” I’d ask every other evening.
“We are fine” she reassured me, “I was hoping you wouldn’t hear it in your sleep. Please don’t worry, this is normal.”
This normal nightmare has haunted Palestinians in the Gaza-strip for generations.
Only two days into our trip and we had quickly learnt that in Gaza, it is normal for the AC and fan to shut down when you need it the most, because the electricity is cut for most part of the day. It is normal to have drones staring down at you, threatening your privacy and peace. It is normal to hear explosions and gunfire blaring into the dark of the night. It is normal for local hospitals to run out of some of the most vital medicines due to blockades.
It is normal, if you are living in Gaza, though, it is not normal at all.
Gaza taught me – life.
In 2012, a group of us British and South African volunteers travelled to Gaza via Egypt, to host a project called Games To Gaza 2012. This two-week long Summer Camp was inspired by the London Olympic games, and was a chance for us to give our time and attention to the children of Gaza whilst letting them explore various fun English workshops focused on sports, arts, poetry and games.
The Palestinian children and volunteers we worked with had an absolutely wonderful time throughout the summer camp. We arrived in Gaza with plenty of fun donations along with an abundance of love from supporters in the UK and in fact, all over the world.
However, what I gained from working with these children and adults, and from living in Gaza itself, easily surpassed what I could ever offer them in return. Courage, faith, resilience, love and strength, just to name a few. Gaza taught me – life.
Roaming the streets freely as and when we liked was on the top of most of our ‘wishlists’ before we arrived. However, with our best interest and security in mind, we were never allowed to openly explore the dusty stone alleyways of Gaza on our own. This wasn’t like a normal holiday and we weren’t here as tourists. As a group of relatively young Western volunteers made up of teachers, trainers and youth workers, it’s fair to say we were somewhat of a burden on our hosts – who (due to political tensions and the nature of a warzone), were constantly worried about any one of us wandering off and being kidnapped.
We were welcomed into Gaza with truly admirable Palestinian hospitality and an abundance of fresh falafel and sweet marmiyah (sage) tea on a daily. Despite busy work schedules and security risks, our hosts at the Ministry of Education went out of their way to arrange trips to the beach just in time to catch Gaza’s breathtaking, famous sunset – views that would force us to forget the trauma we may have witnessed that day, even for a while. Other evenings would be spent walking through traditional souks; rows of aromatic spices in canvas sacks lined the entrance of stores. With no electricity, most shops were powered by noisy generators, while other nights would be lit by string lights and lanterns. Business as usual.
Would it ever be possible to feel safe and secure in Gaza?
I remember hosting several meetings and workshops in the UK for my volunteers prior to traveling out to Gaza. It was a chance for us to get to know each other and discuss logistics. Games To Gaza was the first of its kind; we had never facilitated a project like this abroad, certainly not in a warzone. We would assess the risks involved, remaining cautious yet determined.
One of my team members, a social worker experienced in working with the vulnerable, was quite concerned about the situation and innocently asked if we would have any security.
“Will you ask the Palestinians hosting us, if they can offer us any security – that may help us feel a bit more comfortable?”
Security from whom? I remember questioning him to myself.
I remember feeling a strong sense of second-hand embarrassment. Am I really going to ask Palestinians in Gaza, to provide me with a guarantee of security?
Much to my surprise, I felt more secure under the care and protection of the Palestinians in Gaza than I could ever have imagined. It was their genuine love and appreciation that protected me. It was their courage and resilience that gave me the strength to sleep through the explosions and get up the next day to carry on, business as usual. It was their forbearance that helped me ignore the fans stopping when the electricity was cut, despite the sweltering heat. It was the smiles of the children who laughed and joked as they counted the drones above them; that strengthened my trust in God and fortified my faith.
It was their gratitude to small blessings that reminded me to appreciate life.
During some of our arts and crafts sessions, we asked the children to construct a picture-tower built solely from ambitions and goals. “What would you like to be when you grow up” we’d ask. Future doctors, engineers, footballers and much more would all babble with excitement as they scribbled down their dreams, listing their titles and sharing exactly how they envisioned their future.
“A doctor, so when sick people come into the hospital after an explosion, I can make them better”, “An engineer, so I can build planes and save my people”, “A teacher so more children can go to school”.
With butterflies painted on their faces and handmade beaded-chains adorning their necks and wrists from their previous workshops, these children amazed me with their selflessness and drive. They may have been born and raised in an open-air prison, they may be blocked in by land, air and sea, yet there was no caging their soaring dreams and generosity. It’s always those that have less, who end up giving more.
To this day, what I find most commendable is that the children had dreams of staying in Gaza and helping their community.
They dreamt of clearing their streets of rubble and rubbish and rebuilding collapsed buildings, erecting beautiful bright designs. They yearned to grow up quickly, so that they could help make Gaza their own, making it a better place for their family and friends. Many of us have problems not even a fraction of the size, yet we would give almost anything to escape our situation and run away from our nightmares. Yet many of these children wanted to stay, they wanted to take responsibility and be a part of helping their city survive.
And here is another thing that will stick with me for the rest of my life: Gaza and its people don’t just survive. They live.
With all their strength, courage and resilience, they are teaching the rest of us what it means to get up and carry on, despite our struggles. Gaza teaches the rest of the world what it means to appreciate each blessing, despite the complications. Gaza reminds us, that no matter what, nobody can imprison our dreams and faith.
Thank you Gaza, for teaching me life.