Areej Kassab | 11-05-2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is frightening and tragic. But to move on with our lives we have to find the silver lining amidst the darkness—something we Palestinians have learned and relearned many times. I’ve come to see the “lockdown” as that hidden blessing. It is forcing us to take a break from our usual lives—to spend time with our loved ones, think deeply about what we are doing with our lives, try new ways to achieve our goals. In other words, have a little faith.
An example of the latter is my experience with INJAZ Al-Arab and its first virtual regional innovation “camp.” The mission of INJAZ—a member of the global Junior Achievement network—is to “bridge the gap between education and the requirements of the labor market through hands-on, relevant training and mentoring via volunteer business leaders and entrepreneurs.” I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into its program, but instead of the big, in-person meeting to which we had looked forward, we gathered virtually for three days.
Those three days consisted of many challenges, starting with a game to get to know each other and our cultures—for example, flashing onto the screen the words each of us use to say hello to someone we know well. Then we were divided into 24 teams, each with 15 members. My team focused on solutions to improve education—specifically e-learning.
All of my team members immediately started talking about the problems they face now that online classes are required. For example, Mohammad from Yemen shared how poor people in his country can't afford to buy the necessary phones or laptops. And then there is the matter of the WiFi connection. That’s also a big deal here in Gaza. My university created a digital platform on which we can continue our studies this semester, since we can’t attend in person. But so many students use it at the same time that it crashed, making us angry and frustrated and forcing us to use social media instead. Personally, I think universities should only pass or fail students this semester, rather than give them marks. This is our first time learning in a new way and no one should be penalized for it.
Going ‘virtual’ with We Are Not Numbers
The other fun experience I’ve by going ‘virtual’ rather than in person is when We Are Not Numbers, which I consider my second family, gathered for what we call a “circle” via Zoom. As my fellow writer Riwaa says, "See you soon! No, see you Zoom.” We started talking about our first WANN meeting and how belonging has changed our lives. For me, the best part has been getting to know other writers, who have become like my second family.
But one of my favorite virtual experiences with WANN was meeting American students in a human rights class at Yale University, with which we paired. My “teammate” was Brenda, and I raised her awareness about Gaza by sharing our stories. She too has become a member of my extended family and even weeks after the project, we still talk. Recently, we shared experiences with quarantine and how to manage to have fun during the ordeal. She also is taking online courses and we swapped ‘horror’ stories.
Brenda also told me about her granduncle, who died from COVID-19. Her words touched my heart and made the pandemic very real to me.
Isolated even from family
While learning to live with self-isolation, the biggest challenge I faced was when my cousins returned to Gaza from Saudi Arabia after performing the Umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims). Normally, I would have visited them immediately, but our government ordered them to stay in isolation for 20 days. (Saudi Arabia has reported nearly 40,000 infections so far, and 1,912 deaths.) Finally, I was allowed to visit. But it wasn’t the same. The strange thing with us Arabs is our greeting procedure, which is quite long; we shake hands and give each other long kisses and hugs. But I refused to do this.
My cousin gave me a strange look, but my mother came to my defense, saying, "It's good for both of you not to hug each other." After that, I decided not to go out for any reason.
Escape to the sea
But it’s going on for long and we don't know when it will end. So, to get some fresh air, my mother said, “Let’s have a good time. How about going to the sea?” I decided to break this self-isolation and go out with my sisters and my mom. My little sisters started jumping with excitement. We went there in my uncle's car, playing music and singing. When we reached the beach, we saw the blue, endless expanse, and our souls returned to our bodies.
My three little sisters ran to the sea and, of course, I can't see that view and stand still either. I ran too and I was the first one to encourage all my sisters to follow me and start swimming. This is a famous place called Al Ain in our city; it has a unique, greenish color from the underwater plants. “This is where the mermaids live," my mom said with a big smile.
Toward the end of the day, I found my classmate Asmaa there too, with her family. They had come for the same reason: All of us felt bored in quarantine. Finally, the sun set. It’s the most stunning time for me, when the sun hugs the earth like a mom hugs a son who wants to sleep.
During the pandemic, the blessed month of Ramadan also started. In this holy month, Muslims around the world fast. This holiday is different in many ways because we are still under lockdown. The mosques are closed, and so something feels lacking. Still, we find ways.
We gathered our own “congregation” at home and I was the imam! United, we shared a duaa' (prayer) together. Saying "amen" with only my family members' voices, then discussing the verses of the Holy Quran, strengthened our relations in a rather glorious manner. I recognized how fortunate I am to be surrounded by a family whose main goal is to live to Allah's satisfaction.
This crisis will end and all of us will return to our normal lives. I am looking forward to my graduation and hugging my relatives again. But I also will treasure my virtual experiences and the way we made them real.
Posted: May 10, 2020
Mentor: Kiran Butt