In 2013 I traveled to Gaza with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility to work at Al Shifa — Gaza’s main hospital. While I intellectually understood the bloodstained history and political imbroglios Palestinians and Israelis were inextricably enmeshed in, nothing prepared me for what I experienced crossing the border into Gaza, and then spending time there.
I wrote this piece for my family and close friends back home. As Gaza is today yet again pummeled mercilessly and civilian casualties are rising, I remembered what I had written and wanted to share the human face of the people inside this open air prison called Gaza.
“Where are you from?”
“Am’rika”, I reply.
“Welcome, welcome.” Time and time again, the same warm, hospitable message.
My stay in Gaza started at the Hamas-controlled border with a surreal sight. Members of Islamic Jihad were welcoming a prisoner back home to Gaza after he’d spent 27 years in an Israeli jail. Men in full balaclavas with Kalashnikovs, shots fired in the air in happiness, family members and journalists.
We hadn’t expected to meet such a fervent welcoming committee.
In the countryside, the peace sign is constantly flashed when we drive by. Yet Gaza is anything but peaceful. Torn to its core by continuous wars, the last one in 2012, Gaza is a place on edge, where people talk about their frustration with the government as well as with their neighbor Israel.
The ever present dust and destruction permeate my daily life, it exhausts me. Everywhere my eyes track, I see iron rods sticking out of concrete rubble, dirt and garbage everywhere, plastic bags flying, chaos — it’s inescapable, pervasive. Nothing is green. Graffiti covers almost every wall at every corner of the streets — it’s truly an art form intrinsic to Gaza. The same message is on every wall: a plea for peace and the right to their land.
It is exhausting and depressing here. To my eyes unused to war, the devastation and destruction is so intense, the bombings could have happened yesterday. Yet to the ones who know, Gaza is purportedly doing some rebuilding. But many things have sadly just stayed the same here, or even gotten worse, paralyzed by systemic inefficiencies, political rifts and economic blockade.
With its 1.7 million inhabitants (most of them refugees) squeezed in less than 360 square kilometers, Gaza is one of the most overcrowded places on earth. It’s been blockaded by Israel since 2007, when Hamas took power. The Israeli Defense Forces control its perimeter by air, sea and land.
Gazans experience hardships very few can imagine: unable to leave, they remain in an open-air prison that boasts over 34% unemployment and with 80% of the population on some form of aid. Compounding this situation are a fledgling infrastructure, severe electricity shortages, massive water issues, a struggling municipal service and a state of constant economic squeeze – and you may understand a little better why peace is a difficult concept here.
Yet, against this backdrop of people exhausted and struggling to survive, their resilience and kindness always take over.
The cacophony of horns, generators or street vendors selling their goods to the passers-by signal that life still goes on in Gaza. Driving is mayhem, with cars weaving in whichever direction, honking their horn incessantly, asking whether you need a ride.
I am the rare foreigner here — most likely the only woman in this sea of humanity who does not wear a veil over my head. Walking in the streets in the old souk, I am undoubtedly noticed; the young men want a picture with me. “Welcome, welcome.” I am their window to the outside.
Every day, I have been touched by their gestures of generosity: the pita baker at the street corner invites me to make pita in his oven, and then gives me bread. My falafel hangout feeds me more falafels than I can digest – and the owner wants to marry me.
Our staff at the hospital brought plates of fresh humus and olives for breakfast. They have kindly taught me Arabic words, enough that I can get my “café au lait” in the afternoon. I have been served more coffees and teas than I could dream of.
At work in the hospital, they have taught me how much they can do with so little. They always readily share everything they have — and with a smile.
Even if deprived of their dignity, Gazans can’t help but have hope. It is their only option. And they know that all too well.
Today was my last day at Al Shifa hospital. It was a day of optimism. I witnessed two babies being born — two human beings who know nothing about war and conflict.
As a new generation is born, each and every one of us, no matter our beliefs, owe them the right to a future as bright as ours. It is their right as human beings.
Want to see more of Karin’s photo from Gaza? Click here.