The Israeli blockade of Gaza makes it feel as if we are living in a big, locked box, isolated from the rest of the world. Life has become very routine—one big rut. I dream of having new experiences. What is life like outside Gaza? What do people think about us? To what extent are we similar to or different from each other? If I talked to people outside, would they understand me? Or think I am a terrorist?
Until I joined We Are Not Numbers, I didn't know the answers to these questions. For us, in Gaza, considering a trip to America or England or any other foreign country is like thinking about going to the moon without a spaceship. But We Are Not Numbers (WANN) connects us with those in the West. Through the project, Palestinians in Gaza form friendships with Westerners and can educate the world about our daily lives. WANN challenges the occupation without weapons.
Pam Bailey is our team’s queen, the founder of the project. I can't deny that I was afraid the first time I chatted with her; I couldn't sleep well the night before! It was the first time I had spoken with a native English speaker. I had heard about her from the WANN team, and they told me how kind she is, how much she wants the best for us. Pam is full of energy and inspiration. She helps us explore our ideas and dreams and express them in words that bring them alive. “Show, don’t tell!” she teaches us. Now, I voice my deepest wishes without fear or hesitation.
I wrote about one of my ideas for WANN: my desire to create a space for recreation and child care for women in my neighborhood. I haven’t been able to develop such a space due to a lack of funds, but Pam connected me with others who have similar family situations and desires and we are searching for resources. I talk with these women about our shared personal struggles, and exchange thoughts on how to overcome the roadblocks we encounter. For me, this included my fear of interviewing strangers for articles. But Pam saw an ability inside me I didn’t know I had and now I see it too. Talking to people I don’t know allows me to tell their stories, and that helps Gaza. To be a good storyteller, I have learned to step out of my box and be confident in society. I love you, Pam.
WANN’s mentors also are what makes this project special. Professional writers from all over the world (mostly the USA), they work with us one on one to learn how to develop our skills as storytellers. I have a great mentor, Mimi Kirk, who has become a close friend. She teaches me how to be effective in my writing, especially for Western readers, without expecting a reward.
We also work together to translate concepts in Arabic into appropriate English. For example, I wrote that a warrior “feels jealous of his land.” Mimi explained that jealousy is not a particularly positive emotion in English, and that the word “protective” would better convey what I wanted to communicate. Another time, she didn’t understand my use of the word saj, since it’s not found in English. So, I sent her a photo and we found a suitable way to describe it: a metal dish placed on an open fire to bake bread.
Mimi feels an affinity for my culture and is so serious about learning more: I learned that professionally, she is managing director for the Palestinian Policy Network (Al-Shabaka), and is learning Arabic. Her daughter’s name is Lena, an Arabic name; and she likes hummus. We love talking to each other via video and it’s as if we’re sitting together, although we’re in different countries. I love you too, Mimi.
I made another English-speaking friend though WANN: Allison Roberts. Her sister also is a WANN mentor and as a result, she learned about the project, liked one of my essays and struck up a conversation. We are so close now. She has shown me that no matter how many different nationalities there are in the world, we are one soul. During Israel’s last attack on Gaza, I felt Allison’s concern when she asked about me; It comforting to know there are those on the outside who are thinking of us.
We also have many video chats, and through these calls I discovered that America and Gaza have some social challenges in common, such as mothers-in-law who criticize their daughters-in-law. We laughingly agreed that the husband’s role during a conflict seems to be either to add fuel to the fire or escape! Talking with Allison makes my bored times pass quickly. I love you too, Allison.
Joining WANN grew my confidence so much that I searched for a job for the first time. Happily, I found a position teaching English at a school, and I connected my students with my Western, English-speaking friends on Facebook so they could also practice English with native speakers, as well as have the chance (like me) to interact with people outside Gaza. I created a group on Facebook Messenger, and Pam, Mimi and Allison joined with pleasure. We spoke about traditional food with Allison, Eid al-Fitr (a Muslim holiday) with Mimi and writing about one’s childhood with Pam.
Allison once told me that our conversations feel as if I have come to her home and we are sitting and drinking tea together. This lovely thought gives me hope that one day I will leave my Gaza box and visit her for a real tea and a chat. While such an idea may be a dream, dreaming is what keeps us going.