Our mission to Gaza was at the invitation of UNWRA, the United Nations Works and Relief agency in Palestine. They were wonderful hosts and life for Gazans would be worse if they were not there to help. They employ 10,000 people in Gaza, (mostly teachers) and the UN schools (221 in total) are critically important to child development and education.
We had the good fortune to be in Gaza when the “Summer Games” were on. The IOC might learn a thing or two from UNRWA, and their excellent organization. 225,000 children (aged 7-15) attend the summer games each year in 22+ camps, mostly on the beach. The whole idea is to have fun. Many of these kids are traumatized and don’t get to experience a normal life. So for the 3rd year UNWRA has organized the games, and kids attend a two-week session. They paint (an important emotional therapy), they learn games, and swim, and do small lessons. The kids we saw were having an awesome time and it was good to hear laughter louder than the waves. Some of the kids had not been to the beach before, even though it is so close. Fifty percent of the population in Gaza is 15 years and under and so the needs of children and youth are paramount.
Earlier in the morning we had visited one of the few remaining tent camps where families are still living after their homes were destroyed. A family invited us into their tent and it was blistering hot, but “home” to 8 people. I exchanged a few words with the father and he said so many people tell us it will change, but it doesn’t. There was no anger in his voice – just an expression of an inescapable (and inexplicable) fact. The ban on construction materials means that new homes, clinics, and schools cannot be built, even though UNWRA has budgets for them. $93 Million worth of construction by UNWRA has been suspended because of the blockade. The Deputy Director says the highest priority is to lift the blockade and open the borders. Everywhere we go people use the “normal” to describe what they want. I realize it’s a word we don’t use a lot in North America, as we worry about defining normal, and excluding differences. But normal to these Gazans means, basic necessities and feeling “normal”, like your life counts.
Even though my head is pounding with facts and realities, it is the words of Dr. Sarraj, a renowned Palestinian Psychiatrist who quietly presses the key point: the occupation of 60 years, and the successive generational impact on both Palestinian and Israeli society. He talks about guilt, unresolved trauma, the violence of war on children, and the loss of their fathers as providers and protectors. He is a wise man and you feel the weight of his analysis in your heart not your head. He is a passionate defender of Palestinians and their struggle for justice and it is remarkable he has not left, but continues to use his professional skills to help people. We sat in his garden and it was an oasis in the midst of chaos. When we heard gunfire he chuckled and said it was warning shots at sea.
White Phosphorous. The doctors at the hospital didn’t know at first why the burns they saw were different during the bombing last December/January. It is an illegal chemical weapon and it was used by Israel on civilians. Dr. Moussa has photos from his hospital and they are not pleasant to look at. But seeing is knowing, and knowing, means taking action to ensure there are investigations that bring to account, breaches of international law.
The workers at UNWRA are really dedicated, hard working people and one of the things we must do as Canadians, is ensure that our own government supports their work, and provides an adequate budgetary commitment for UNWRA’s ongoing work. This too we will follow up.
Next: the “underground” border crossings