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

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

Learning to say thank you

Al-Orjwan Shurrab | 24-07-2019

International director's note: I recently issued a writing challenge to our members that included a series of "prompts"; each writer was allowed to choose their own. Orjwan chose this one: You are on an arduous, 5-mile walk and discover a large photograph at each mile-marker. You immediately realize that the photos are portraits of important people from your past. As you continue to walk, you offer a thanks to each person, highlighting how they’ve impacted you. Write these expressions of gratitude.​

When I was young, I would only attach words of appreciation to beautiful things and positive people in my life. But as I grow older and wiser, I realize everyone deserves a thanks if I look inward enough, even those who hurt me. 

I don't know why it is hard for me to remember my childhood with my eyes open. I think I’m afraid of recalling it once again. Don’t we all feel safer in the face of fear with our eyes closed? 

I give in and close my eyes. I see myself walking in a desert. No colors except the monotonous hue of sand. I see the first photograph, marking the first mile marker. It's a large, black-and-white portrait, in which a wizened face with heavily lidded eyes, weighed down with wrinkled folds, stares at me. I dare not wander closer. I’m not afraid; I just don't want to feel anything. 

This portrait doesn't resemble any of the other photographs of my father, but I know it is him. Before, when I imagined seeing him again, looking into his eyes, I pictured myself shouting at and blaming him. Passing by with just a few words would never be enough. 

But I was wrong. It’s enough to just say "thank you." I thank him for shaping me into who I am now. I thank him for making me strong and independent, fragile but unbreakable. He stole my childhood dreams, imprisoning me in my own home, keeping me from seeing my own mother, preventing me from pursuing a university degree. But meanwhile, an endless energy swelled inside, and when I escaped, I studied nonstop and completed two majors in four years only. And I’ll be thrilled to earn my master’s degree someday. 

I just say, "thank you!" and move on. 

I feel as if something very heavy has just fallen away, making my body lighter. I feel calm and safe. When I look back, I no longer see the first portrait. It disappears with a glance. 

Art by Malak Mattar

A smaller picture comes next. It's of a woman, a brown scarf surrounding a thin, dark face with sharp eyes. She is my Arabic language teacher at elementary school. I was only 9 when she hit me because I wrote the Arabic comma from the left to right when it should be right to the left. I was a hard-working student with many talents, including drawing, painting, writing and public speaking. I had read Ghassan Kanfani's complete collection by the time I was 10. I spent all of my childhood in the library of my home, with its seeming thousands of books. 

Her words cut me. I was the only one who got a full mark on the Arabic exam. She knew I was talented, but she hit me heavily. I didn't understand why. And I don't want to know why. 

I have learned, however, not to wait for others to appreciate my efforts. I don't need someone to say I'm good or I'm doing well. I'm the only one who needs to be satisfied with my work. No one else matters as long as I'm doing my best. 

That instructor deserves a thank you for teaching me that I'm not responsible for other's attitudes. They are completely responsible for their own behaviors. 

"Thank you!" I say. And she fades. 

Walking through your memories can be exhausting. 

The next photo is of a young lady, a friend I have known for five years. A friend who is no longer a friend. Her name is Sally. She was the best, or at least I thought she was. She was the best when I was able to give. But when I needed her to give, she was too busy. There have been only few times in my life when I asked someone for personal support, and that was one of them. It was the last time. My father was just starting to threaten to steal us away from my mother at the time, and she wasn’t doing well. I stayed home for about two weeks. I called her and asked her to bring me the notes from class. She only said, "I can’t." 

I was shocked. She had spent all day with me in my house. We ate, laughed, slept and went out together. But when I really needed her, she was nowhere to be found.


Thank you! You taught me how to solve my problems alone. I learned to question all assumptions. It learned not to wait for someone to give me what I need. When I give now, I expect nothing in return. I give because I feel the happiness of giving. 

I can open my eyes wide now. I want to see the rest of the way on my walk with my eyes wide open! 

The next portrait is of my mother, with her big smile. She is looking at me as if her eyes are calling for me to come closer.

"Thanks, Mama!"


I have to thank you for being a great role model, a mother, a friend and a teacher. Thank you for helping me become the same kind of person. Thank you for giving me your pleasant looks, attitude, passion and smile! I know these words are nothing compared to all that you gave me and what you sacrificed.

I move on. 

The last portrait paints a big smile on my face. I cannot see his black hair and bright eyes without smiling. I can easily smile when remembering him even if I'm crying. He is the one to be thanked for teaching me how to find happiness in every single detail. With him, I have found love and a home that is my own—safe and secure.

"Thanks, Mohammed!" 

Thank you for making me strong, for supporting me, for always being by my side. You have colored my dreams in bright hues, and this time they won’t be stolen. 

Posted: July 23, 2019

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