In one of my last Gaza days I went to visit the Union of Health Work Committee‘s Al Assria Cultural Centre . I’d meant to get there ages ago, on request of Sheffield Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, who have been supporting various projects Al Assria have run for years now, but the Israeli attacks had gotten in the way.
I first met the SPSC folks when I went to give a talk about the FreeGaza project. Instead of saying “taking boats to Gaza? you guys are crazy!” they were very enthusiastic and supportive; fundraiser H said she would direct her skills into finding us some money, and their chairman Musheir Al Farra immediately said he wanted to travel with us. He was born in Gaza, and his sister Dr Mona Al Farra still lived there, taking part in the work of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and the Union of Health Work Committee, providing a strong link for the SPSC to support Gaza projects directly. Only the year before, brother and sister had both waited outside the Gaza’s border for permission to enter to see their mother before she died – permission that never came.
Musheir and I both made it into Gaza by sea in the end. Dr Mona however is stuck outside now, because Israel did not allow her 16 year old daughter back into Gaza after a family visit, and Dr Mona went out to look after her near family in the UK so she didn’t miss any more school.
Inside, Al Assria is a place full of children and bright colours. Murals commemorate the Right of Return of Palestinians to their villages that are now within Israeli borders, a concept supported by the UN. The key is a common symbol in these pictures because so many people have passed down the door keys from their homes to their children.
Many people who hold onto this dream of return think the most practical future for their region is a one-state solution with equal rights for Palestinans and Israelis, and surprisingly, a recent report from America’s Central Intelligence Agency suggests this might actually happen.
The Sheffield PSC folks have recently provided funding to buy the technical equipment for a children’s cinema, and when I went to check that out I also got to hear an energetic girl’s choir.
They were practising a new song, which was about being a child in Gaza – learning about rockets, and attacks, and danger, but wanting to learn school lessons and games and fun, like any child anywhere. The chorus said they wanted to be children of life, not children of death.
In the next room, a group of 7-8 year olds were in an activities workshop, which offers things like painting and dancing.
I then visited the library…
…and chatted with some of the kids learning English.
Since the Dec/Jan Israeli attacks, the Al Assria Centre has interacted with over 5000 children, both at the Centre in Jabalia, and in their local areas, including Beit Lahia, Azbet Abd Rabbo, Beit Hanoun, the El Fakhoora School (bombed with white phosphorous – Human Rights Watch have a good report on white phosphorous use) and other northern Gaza areas.
They have long term links with four UNWRA schools as well as Gaza college, and in partnership with these have provided folk dance and craft classes, library and sports activities, a Youth Forum, and workshops on human rights for children, as well as wider community events days. Here’s a picture of my friend A, a young dad himself whose family lives in Jabalia camp, assisting on an activities day.
Al Assyria director S, who has adopted his brother’s small son after his brother was killed during the January attacks, told me that a recent project has involved partnering up with Italian psyschologists to give training to Al Assria youth workers, via Skype, so they can provide psychological support for Gaza children traumatised by the attacks. “And so we can be ready to care for our children during and after future attacks” says S quietly.
I am now in France, and have spent the last few days with my former FreeGaza colleagues who continue to work on bringing more boats to Gaza in early June. On the second day I was there, they received the crushing news that the Dignity, the boat that made the last successful journey to Gaza in December before the Israeli attacks, and then had been repaired after being rammed by Israeli gunboats when she tried to reach Gaza during the January attacks, had sunk that morning, apparently after storm damage during the night. The story is not entirely clear and it’s hard to be sure what really happened. Luckily for Irish sailor D, who was onboard, the lifeboat worked.
I will always be grateful to D, because the night before the original FreeGaza sailing from Cyprus, when my sanity was hanging by a thread after 2 years of FG work, he succeeded in persuading me to spend the entire night dancing in a strange silver-decored Cyprus bar. We arrived back to the port just in time to sail. Without his intervention I might have drowned myself from sheer project fatigue, and missed the whole thing!
If you want to help D get his hands on another boat to sail to Gaza in June, which he deserves as much as Gaza deserves another boat to arrive, then go visit the FreeGaza website. D and his lovely wife J are both planning to stay in Gaza when they get there, to assist the Palestine Sailing Federation in teaching young Gazans to sail, something the Kabariti family are directly involved in. FreeGaza will be bringing the training dinghies as part of their cargo! J has begun her own blog, IrishinGaza.
The Israeli army is trying something new on the Gaza farmers – setting the crops on fire. I don’t know if our earlier lush harvests of parsley, spinach, and beans would have burnt. But the current harvests of wheat and rye… they do. And yesterday they shot a farmer in her 30s, Randa Abdullah Shallouf, as she worked.