Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

As strong as war, as soft as peace

Reem Alhirthani | 26-06-2021

woman and sky

Ansam loved the color sky blue, which is appropriate because it represents loyalty, wisdom, confidence and faith. She embodied all of those things.

It is also appropriate that the night was dark and bleak when her father, our Uncle Yasser, came to spend the night with us to distract himself from his concerns. He was worried about Ansam, who was undergoing cancer treatment in the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. His wife Asmaa was with their daughter but had not responded to his calls all night. Finally, Asmaa made a pale-faced video call to assure him that they were fine and Ansam was sleeping.

The next morning, we woke to shocking news that she had died. Though we were expecting the worst, we had had held onto a spark of hope that Ansam would recover, because we were not ready to let her go.

Her mother, so strong and patient, returned to Gaza with her daughter’s body. She had no one to share her pain or console her on this trip. Yasser and Ansam’s husband took possession of her corpse, and Asmaa was quarantined because they found she had been infected by the coronavirus.

Later we realized that Ansam had died the previous night. In her usual anxiety about breaking bad news, Asmaa had delayed telling her husband until morning, hoping to give him one more night’s rest.

The moments following this were the hardest for Uncle Yasser. In keeping with the virus protection measures, he had to bury his daughter with only four people for company and without even seeing her face one last time. It was a hard day for everyone who knew Ansam. We compulsively started to share all the good memories she had left behind. She was a kind and beautiful visitor in this world, and we would never see her again.

Always lively and with a touch of class

Ansam was full of life and joy before she had cancer, and afterward, too. She had a musical voice, perfect for singing at weddings and parties, and one of her favourite activities was dancing. She really knew how to liven up a party! Like a violin, she could be moody at times, but she always had a touch of class.

Even on her bad days she used to wear a big smile and her most colorful clothes. I remember our last time together when my aunts, my mother, Ansam and I went on a picnic by the sea. She turned up looking gorgeous. She was talented at making her own eye-catching bracelets and necklaces, adding simple touches that defined her personality and complemented her clothes. I still reminisce about the amount of laughter that day. Sitting side by side on swings, we soared above our troubles as we laughed at the simplest things and made a trillion plans.

two women in a cafe
Ansam (left) shares a happy moment with the author.

She was a great friend and like an older sister to me. She used to tell me all her secrets, and when her husband-to-be came to ask for her hand, I was the first to know.

She also taught me some sweet dessert recipes we used to make together. For Ansam, cooking was an art form, and she introduced me to the art of shakshuka. I could tell she was surprised I didn’t know of shakshuka, a spicy egg dish popular with Palestinians, but my mother never cooked it. The one Ansam used to make was special because she would separate the eggs and the tomatoes, with each on half, without mixing them. Now, whenever I make shakshuka I remember Ansam. My family calls it “Ansam’s shakshuka” and it’s my job to prepare it.

With her characteristic stamina, Ansam made all of us believe that she would recover.  Indeed she did. I remember the first time she recovered, we held a huge party for her. We were confident and jubilant! Yet cancer did not leave her alone, and our happiness didn’t last. They discovered the cancerous cells had returned and spread. Ansam still had the determination to vanquish it like she had before. We did not expect her to fight with the same energy, but she surprised us and fought with even more resolve.

Fierce and brave

On one occasion Ansam needed very important and dangerous surgery in Jerusalem. She travelled alone because her parents were not allowed to leave Gaza due to the strict border restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank. To leave the Gaza Strip for even a child’s treatment, one must obtain a permit from Israeli authorities. This process can take up to several months, and even then some patients are unsuccessful in securing travel for health care.

No one knew that she was going there for surgery, thinking only that she was going for a review. She endured seven long hours in the operating room to remove the cancer cells in her arm. When her father discovered this, he blamed himself for letting her leave alone. He called her immediately after the surgery and the first thing she assured him was, “Father, don’t worry. Your daughter is as strong as war.” He completed the well-known expression murmuring, “and as soft as peace.”

Whenever Ansam used to go to Jerusalem for her treatment, she would find an opportunity to visit archaeological sites to know more about the capital she had always dreamt of visiting. Every time she returned to Gaza, she would bring memorable gifts for her sisters and family.

Pursuing one last dream

In her last days, her health worsened and the cancer reached her brain. The doctors had advised her that when she reached this stage it was best to stop the treatment. Despite this, she still insisted on travelling to Jerusalem to continue her regimen. Her parents submitted to her will, knowing that their daughter’s dream was to end her days in Jerusalem.

Ansam’s journey through cancer could have been easier if there was proper treatment for cancer in Gaza, or if Gaza’s hospitals were not hampered by chronic shortages of medicine and medical equipment. She was then denied the simplest requirements of a cancer patient by the difficulties of travelling from Gaza to the West Bank with all the Israeli checkpoints and rules put in place to make life more difficult for the Gazans. Yet, she fought bravely to the end. Ansam was the ideal of the resilient Palestinian woman, never surrendering no matter what. She died strong, and in her own way, won the battle.

 

 

Posted: June 27, 2021

Mentor: Bridget Smith


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