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

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

Gaza—a different kind of growing up

Mohammed Rafik | 13-02-2021

man with children
The author, talking with the next generation of children born into war and siege

Born in war, alive under siege

In Gaza, beneath the dark evening sky, somewhere between the smoky smell of gunshots and the crying children, my mother gave birth to me. It was underneath the light of the moon that I would exit her womb head first, toward the flames of war. If I had then the cognitive awareness of what war was, I might have slipped back into the refuge of a womb. Instead, the only option was, and continues to be, to live through it.

Twenty-two years after that evening, I still live through the rumbling of warplanes and surveillance drones, the routine of sleepless nights and the thumping restless heartbeats. The tragedy of war has imposed itself as my lifelong companion. What’s worse, it has also imposed itself as the companion of hundreds of thousands like me. Somehow, it all feels like a direct attack on my childhood. What were supposed to be normal school days, I recall with memories of rockets falling. The images are mostly blurry, but the fear I felt when I ran from my school in hopes to escape the violent assaults on my city, the legs running directionless, remains vivid.

Since I was young, I have born witness to the unfolding of my family’s dire circumstances. I have lost two aunts and an uncle, one by one, to disease. I thought that we could have been afforded more time, but their sin of being Gazan meant they were not permitted to exit this land to access needed medications and treatment. As Gazans, we are isolated in a debilitating humanitarian crisis that pushes us further into de-development, especially in important sectors like healthcare. More sinisterly, we are also stripped of the ability to seek external resources and support, because medical referrals are tied to the political situation. Depending on political dynamics, one month you have a better opportunity to exit and others you do not. If we’re fortunate, we get ill in the right month.

Likewise we are restricted in our ability to travel in our own land. This is part of the travesty of it all: the fact that we are fighting not only to travel abroad, but also within the fragmented parts of our land, the land that is still being slowly chipped away.

We live under a military-imposed occupation that injects the dictionary of Palestinians generally and Gazans specifically with words unfamiliar to many other contemporary peoples: blockade, isolation, apartheid, bombings of destruction and systemic deprivation.

Being Palestinian is not enough of a reason to have our dreams killed. It is not enough of a reason to keep us separated from the lands we were dispossessed from and the homes whose keys we still hold onto.

The costs compound, and so does our resilience

Within the short span of seven years, I miraculously survived three destructive wars. More than survive, I managed to find love and marry, to carve out my own new family. But these years have also burdened me with the loss of many beloveds and close friends. I have found myself constantly trying to reconcile all the different ways heartbreak can manifest itself.

I think of all the lives that had hopes and dreams beyond the reality of their deaths, and I live for them. We Gazans overcome the effort of our oppressor to turn us into a lifeless population. Each massacre reinforces our unity. We remain rooted in the same belief that sustains our elders, who experienced the first and second and third and ongoing dispossessions. Our land is our identity. Experiencing pains and loss further instills our rootedness. We wake up every morning, faced with a worse version of the same challenges, and we once again start seeking the solutions.

But the truth is, it is so taxing to maintain this kind of perseverance across an entire population. It makes me wonder at all those who took the chance to carve a new future for us, only to be killed. I am in awe at their spirit and also the spirit of their children who were stripped of childhood, orphaned, left with no health sector or education opportunities, isolated, guided only by hopeful dreams and the yearning to be laughing and bickering at the sea just for the sake of laughing and bickering.

child
                                                                                               Photo by Mohamed Zarandah

The very real hope in our romanticism

We shed hope on the darkness of life and reject the option of despair, hopelessness, and paralysis. Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah said passionately, “we wake up every morning to teach the world life, sir.” This is true, even though the odds of waking up is a generally shrinking probability.

We dare tell the days to keep on coming, despite the hardship, the tragic losses, the continued reminders that we are besieged with war as a perpetual reality, save for the short moments of relative calm. And we can do this because there’s also beauty. We have so much to celebrate—our green land of olive and palm trees is the base to which we attach our souls. The olives and olive oil are our identity and lifelihood— the wood of the olive trees is our shelter and warmth and the trees themselves symbolize our affiliation with the lands, which is why the Israeli settlers seek to destroy them.

I am a husband, I am a son, and I am a son of this land, and I find pride in the hardship because it is also a testament to being of a people and a land that pursues freedom. Not the greed of wealth or the power, but freedom. It is not the duration of our struggle that is the challenge, rather, it is how we are able to navigate our lives as we keep moving towards our dreams.

I have not seen these places Haifa, Safad, Yaffa, but I know I belong to them. I continue to hold onto that belonging, like the millions scattered in Gaza and the world. I continue to press toward  the moment when freedom is not just feelings and words, but a lived reality.

Until then, we birth children under the moonlight and rumbling of war.

Posted: February 13, 2021

Mentor: Mariam Barghouti


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