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In Gaza: Dreaming with their feet on the ground

Gaza youth working with AFSC
Gaza youth working with AFSC Photo: Skip Schiel / AFSC

Patricia Sellick, AFSC Regional Director for the Middle East, shares her experience working with AFSC’s Gaza team and the young people with whom they work.  She wrote this on November 18, 2012. - Lucy

My first visit to the AFSC Gaza team, after taking up the position of Regional Director for the Middle East for AFSC, was in 2010. There are three overriding impressions that remain with me: I was visiting a people under siege; I was visiting a people who had just suffered a war; and I was visiting a people who were resilient to the core.

I had been to Gaza before in the late 1980s, and at that time it was an easy journey by shared taxi from Jerusalem or Hebron. But by 2010, the situation had changed for the worse, following the signing of the Oslo Accord and the failure to recognize the 2006 Palestinian elections.

The Gaza population of 1.6 million Palestinians had no freedom of movement; instead, they had to suffer the indignity of asking permission from the Israeli military authorities to exit the Gaza Strip to reach the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. The Egyptian government was also making it very difficult for Gazans to leave.

As an international passport holder working for an international NGO, I had to ask permission to enter Gaza, and after two months’ wait, it was granted.

 Amal Sabawi

Amal Sabawi has led AFSC’s team in Gaza for the past twelve years

To enter Gaza from the Israeli controlled Erez border crossing, you walk through a 0.5 kilometer-long cage. The birds and lizards can pass easily through the wires of the cage, but you cannot.

The only other people I saw on that desolate long walk were a mother pushing a wheelchair and her sick and bandaged child. The child must have been granted an exit permit for a medical emergency. Shocked by the cruelty of the siege where a parent could only get permission to go out when her child was desperately sick, I cried.

Since then I have visited Gaza at least once a month, getting to know the pedestrian traffic of journalists, international NGO workers, and Gazan patients.

During my visits I saw the damage done by Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. It reminded me of photos I had grown up with of blitzed London and devastated Dresden, and of scenes I had witnessed in Afghanistan.

As in other bomb-blasted cities, people had cleaned up, moving the rubble bit by bit. In the case of Gaza, that rubble was also recycled, because the Israeli-imposed siege forbade the import of building material. I was humbled by the extraordinary efforts people had made to make their homes liveable again.

Most of all, I was impressed by the people I met. AFSC’s Gaza team of six staff is courageous and creative. They have been led for the last 12 years by Amal Sabawi, a woman whose name means hope.

The team set aside their differences as Palestinians whose families have always lived in Gaza and Palestinians who came to Gaza as refugees. They are comfortable being associated with the long Quaker history of AFSC service in Gaza and have embraced the universalist values of the Quakers, melding them with their Muslim faith.

They model democracy by debating every decision as a team. They make the most of whatever resource AFSC secures for them. They work long hours despite responsibilities to young children and elderly parents at home. Some run daily risks with family homes in hazardous locations near the Israeli border. All have access only to crowded public transport to get to work. They are all hungry to study and learn, combining work, family, and study.

Nothing about their lives is easy, but they seek out opportunities for celebration and laughter.

I found the same couragGaza youth at popular achievement traininge and creativity among the young people aged 14-25 involved in the AFSC Palestine Youth Program.

The last time I visited in October I went to Beit Hanoun and met with young women who had chosen to find out more about the living conditions of women and girls living in the restricted access zone near the Israeli border. They had gone house-to-house to understand the daily risks being faced by women and girls living with the constant risk of Israeli border fire.

I was struck by the courage of the young women who wanted to find out about the lives of their neighbors who were living in an even less secure environment than they were. Now these same young women and girls are in the areas being pounded by Israeli airstrikes.

Above all, the Gazans I met believed in the future.

The young people of Gaza will tell you that there is a way to end this war, despite the failed efforts of earlier generations and their current leaders. They just need to find it. They have a slogan:  We dream with our feet on the ground.

They are right—Gaza is no natural disaster; the displacement of the refugees, the occupation, and the siege are all the results of human action and inaction.

A better future requires political will. We need to do all that we can to realize these young people’s dreams and end the war, and build a future where all people in the region can live in dignity and free of fear.


About the Author

Patricia Sellick has been serving as the Regional Director for the Middle East for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) since 2009. Her connection with the Middle East began in 1987 when she served as a volunteer with the British Friends agency,  Quaker Peace and Service.