The three punishing Israeli attacks on Gaza (2009, 2011, 2014) have had a serious impact on Gaza and its children. Hundreds killed, thousands more injured, whole neighbourhoods demolished, and tens of thousands suffering from the post-traumatic stress of seeing death and destruction around them.
But is Gaza finished? Are Gaza’s children ready to give up? Not from what I could see during a four day visit last month. See my report.
Instead of hopelessness, I found hopefulness. Instead of ignorance about the “outside world”, I found curiosity. Instead of a preoccupation with religion, I found a focus on finding a way to solve their predicament.
Does that mean that Gazan children are just the same as Canadian children? Well, no. They have been through pain that we would find hard to imagine. But despite that, youthful optimism bounces forward around every corner.
My main objective in visiting Gaza was to check in on vocational training programs operated by the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) in Gaza, a partner of the United Church of Canada. These programs are designed to give practical training to adolescent boys and girls many of whom come from families that have been shattered by repeated Israeli bombing. Unfortunately, there are many more applicants than the funding permits. “If we had more funding”, notes NECC’s Executive Director Dr. Issa Tarazi, “we could easily take in twice as many students.”
In addition to talking to people at the NECC vocational training centres, I also visited other educational institutions, including the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), The University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS), and the American International School.
Over 4 days of formal meetings and private conversations, I was astounded to see just how eager and enthusiastic Gazan students are about learning, and how hopeful that things would improve in the future.
All the students I talked to were extremely frustrated by they call an unfair blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel. One young grad student told me that he had been awarded a scholarship to study in Spain, only to find that Israel would not allow him to go to Jordan to get his Spanish visa. So he had to put his dreams for future education on hold.
But after 4 days of talking to Gazan young people, I came away with a rather different overall impression than I had expected. They want the world to hear their voices, to understand their stories. They understand that they have been alternately ignored or demonized by the western media, and aim to overcome that through intelligent use of social media. They are learning English, French and other languages, and looking to make contact with the outside world.
One interesting student-run project is called “We are not Numbers”, which has some European funding. It was created to allow Palestinian youths from Gaza (and now also from refugee camps in Lebanon) to reach out to the outside world. One of the students who has shared his dramatic personal story of tragic loss is Ahmed Alnaouq, whom I met in a café in Gaza City.
Another project is called “Gaza writes back”, which has now published a book of compelling short stories written by young people about loss, drama and love and companionship.
I met Refaat Alareer, a lecturer of English Literature and creative writing at the Islamic University of Gaza and the editor of Gaza Writes Back in a coffee house near the university. He told me that he thinks that telling stories is both cathartic for the writer and also a way to allow outsiders to appreciate Gazan youth in a way they have not been able to before.
But Gazan youths are not only focused on getting their story “out”. They are also keenly interested in better understanding the outside world and have a number of projects aimed at helping them better understand the world in which they live.
One these projects is called the Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS). CDPS has a well stocked library and organizes web-based seminars through which they hear presentations from people around the world including the USA and Europe. (A recent seminar was held with Norman Finkelstein).
Canadian Palestinian human rights activists sometimes tend to view Gazans only as victims. Which of course they are. Most of them are refugees from what is now Israel. They cannot return to Israel because they are not Jewish. If they were Jewish, of course, Israel would not only welcome them back, but give them automatic citizenship and even a “resettling allowance”.
But Gazans are not just victims. They are also actors. They are looking for a way to pry open the bars of their Israeli-imposed prison. We should help them.