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

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

Hope can come from unlikely people

Khaled Al-Ostath | 23-09-2015

I volunteer in the summer, and this year I was lucky to obtain a position facilitating an English conversation course for engineers at a language center in Gaza. I met many people, but the one who made the strongest impression on me was a young man named Ahmed. Just 25 years old, tall, with black hair and high cheekbones, he always wore the same outfit: black shirt, white trousers and black shoes.

painting of boy in wheelchair amidst Gaza rubble
Photo from Handicap International

And one other thing: Ahmed was dependent on a wheelchair. Nonetheless, he had a positive energy and determination that were absolutely contagious. At this time, I had just been discharged from the hospital. I was still feeling poorly and I did not have much energy, so I was a little immune to his positivity.

But I was curious about him, so I asked him many questions about his life, his major and his disability.

"I was in a car accident that amputated my legs,” Ahmed said. “Now I cannot move around without the wheelchair.

I also found out Ahmed had received a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Cambridge in the UK, but when he finished rehab at Al-Shifa Hospital, the blockade on Gaza prevented him from traveling, so he lost his scholarship. Yet he believed none of these setbacks would prevent him from achieving his dreams. He told me, “It did not ruin my life; it just changed my life circumstances. I am happy to be here with you right now, with so many opportunities in front of me.”

His positivity blew me away. We could all use a bit more of his optimism. We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned so we can make the best of the life that’s waiting for us. “You have to accept that things don’t go your way sometimes; remember this,” Ahmed said. 

Draw your future

On the third day of the course, I introduced an icebreaker activity called Draw Your Life Future. The main objective of the activity is for the students to give a short speech about their plans and dreams, without feeling shy or nervous. After I explained the details, I gave the students 10 minutes to write down what they wanted to say in front of their classmates.

When the students made their speeches, most of them were pessimistic about how the Israeli blockade was limiting their futures. For example, one of the students said he was sure nothing would work out, that he would not find work when he graduated in a few months and the closed crossings would force him to stay in the hell of Gaza.

The one exception to this pessimism came from Ahmed. "I hope to be lucky enough to obtain another scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge,” Ahmed told us. After that he said he plans to move to America to study for his PhD, then become a lecturer. He talked about all these plans without dwelling on the fact that he won't walk again.

The quotation, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” is attributed to the American journalist and cartoonist Allen Saunders. Ahmed started his speech with these words.

He went on to say that while life changes you, it doesn’t have to “reduce” you, even though sometimes you will feel that life isn’t worth living here in Gaza because of our dire political and social situation. Ahmed made eye contact with all the students, and his voice was strong and firm. It was almost as if he were standing in the United Nations delivering his speech. As Ahmed talked, all the other students were completely silent, focusing intently on his words.

He continued, “I know we are suffering in this miserable situation, but we have to fight against all these circumstances to achieve what we want; it’s the only way to survive in this land.” He told us it is our own thinking that often holds us back more than anything else, but there’s no reason to imprison ourselves.  “Don’t think outside the box,” he advised. “Think like there is no box. Don’t limit yourself or your dreams. Even if you face obstacles, don’t give up. The discontent and frustration you feel is entirely your own creation; you can overcome that.”

He added, “You are stronger than your sadness." Then he commanded us to say it out loud: “I will be stronger than my sadness."

Initially, most of the students refused to repeat the phrase. "It's just empty dreams you are talking about," one student muttered. “Nothing good will happen here,” complained another. A third said, “I see no progress in our lives.”

But Ahmed persevered. “What is the best time for figuring out who you are and what you really want out of life?  Right after the reality of a big disappointment. It sometimes takes a little heartbreak to shake us awake and help us see that we are far more capable and worth much more than we might think. Good luck comes to those who create it, to those who face their obstacles and overcome them,to those who think positively about the future and believe that their dreams will come true.

“Life will inevitably surprise you again… in some unimaginable way,” he concluded. “So at the very least, don’t assume you’re stuck with the way things are right now. You aren’t. Life changes every single moment, and so can you."

Ahmed must have finally persuaded the other students, because when he finished, the response was overwhelming. They erupted into hugs, clapping and smiles. And he had me convinced, too, that I must have a little faith in the universe and its plan for all of us.

What now?

On the last day of the course, I sat with Ahmed for about an hour and asked him many more questions about his life after being paralyzed. He said it is Allah’s will for him to be paralyzed. I asked him how he dealt with this disability. Ahmed said, "It was very harsh in the beginning, but I did not give up and now I don’t want to look back at all.”

Then he suddenly said, “Let's forget this story. I want to tell you something about why I am optimistic.” Ahmed smiled and told me this anecdote:

“When I was in elementary school, my parents told me it did not matter what I did when I grew up, so long as it would make me happy. A few years later, I was in a class where the teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of them said they wanted to be doctors, but when she got to me I told her I wanted to be happy. She said I was missing the whole point of the question. I told her she was missing the whole point of life. She was wrong when she told me I didn’t understand. What do we all want to be when we grow up? Happy… that is all. Find what makes you happy and do it until you die.”

After he told me this story, he had to leave for home. I thought this would be my last conversation with this ambitious person, so I decided to share with him some of my own thoughts. On the first day when I met Ahmed, he quoted the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "We love life if we find a way to it." I love this quote too; it literally makes me reach for the moon. So I said to Ahmed, “When things are hard and you feel down, take a few deep breaths and look for the silver lining – the small glimmers of hope.”

Then we shook hands and wished each other a bright future.

I'm saddened by just how little hope many of the people here in Gaza have; how little they believe that things will turn out well for them or that other people will help them. When I'm with a pessimist, it's very draining; it takes an awful lot of energy to maintain a positive perspective and to continue to believe that good things can happen at any time.

Since I met Ahmed, his optimism has helped me overcome some of my own negative feelings. I continue to be astonished that a person who has lost so much can think in such a positive way. Although I am still often depressed, his encouraging speech has changed my view of life.

As for Ahmed, he left Gaza for the UK a month ago to pursue his dreams. 

Mentor: Cathy Baker
Posted September 23, 2015


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