Our PSR health delegation arrived in Gaza early yesterday afternoon. Feeling pretty much totally exhausted from travel and from the enormity of the situation, I am just now getting to try and summarize some of the events and feelings from the last 24+ hours.
Crossing into Gaza through the Erez crossing. This is the Israeli controlled northern entry into Gaza. Thinking about Erez in your mind, you should pretty much imagine the opposite of the word "welcoming". This is the only crossing for people from Israel to Gaza. (There is one overloaded and insufficient crossing from Israel to Gaza in the south for trucks to bring in a very limited amount supplies.) Erez was once a busy passage with many day- laborers going back and forth from Gaza to Israel to work. Then came the Israeli blockade on Gaza and nobody is allowed to cross. Now it is truly a barren, empty and forbidding place. From the Israeli side, only aid workers from the UN,NGOs, or occasionally groups like ours w/ hard to come by visas pass. Going the other way, from Gaza- out are occasionally business people, but mostly the VERY ill who are fortunate to get permission for medical care in Israel or in Jerusalem.
Approaching Erez, from the distance you see the large building where the process starts. That fortress of a building looks like an airplane hanger or a prison. Actually the process doesn't start there. It starts in the parking lot some distance away from the building. There you get dropped off, unload your luggage, which in our case, was about 20 suitcases full of heavy supplies. There is a little guard house where you must present your papers, and once cleared, a metal gate opens and you can pass through and walk the final distance to the building. There begins the shuffle of luggage onto some broken down, rusted grocery store like carts and THEN you proceed to the airline hanger building. Once inside you wait in the entry hall as one by one you can approach a small enclosed area to talk to the passport agent who is behind a glass window. There are, of course, the scattering of soldiers standing around w/ big guns slung over their shoulders. Really, the total effect is one of total abandonment of place. You feel like you are at some outpost that has been neglected, forgotten (except to be fortified in every human and electronic way possible), and really not at all cared about. Our group has the approval of the Israeli authorities as a humanitarian health delegation, so passing through was not a concern.
And as you wind your way through the maze of a hallway with chain-linked fencing surrounding you, the landscape is dry dirt--totally barren except for rolls of barbed-wire scattered around and the occasional turrets for machine guns and surveillance. At one point, as you turn the corner into a "blind" hallway, you have to talk to some remote security agent to get a door to open.
Like there is really any confusion about where you might be headed, every once in a while there is a small sign saying "Gaza" on the wall with an arrow pointing the way that the hallway goes (there is ONLY one way to go) ". It's kind of silly because by the time you've gotten this far, it should be pretty clear that Gaza is your intention and that the single hallway leads you there. But I guess the sign is a gesture of assistance--it feels like the only gesture of assistance offered.
Gaza is harsh. Roxanne, (a member of our group, a landscape designer, here to explore the development of a community project to build a therapeutic healing garden in Gaza) commented that it is not only the people who are traumatized by this situation, but it also the land and the environment. That is so true. Step across the Erez border and one is confronted with harshness. It is truly hard to describe the environment. Piles of garbage all over. Today, as an afternoon wind blew up, the garbage took flight--pieces of plastic and paper in the air. Bombed out buildings interspersed with the old and often neglected ones. Store-fronts closed us, lines of cars and old trucks--whatever people drive lined up to get fuel. (Fuel, by the way, happens to be leaded gasoline). Graffiti is all over. Some just plain ugly, some quite powerful, mostly political, and some even beautiful street art.
But yet, what would not be fair is to start this too overwhelmingly pointing out one side of a picture of contrasts. It doesn't feel fair to go on and on in the descriptions of a place abandoned, poor and broken. I have to talk about the human spirit that one sees the second you start to talk to all the people we have met in Gaza. There is a resiliency that is indescribable. The spirit of the people of Gaza shines. Despite the hardships, not 5 minutes of a meeting goes by before we were brought a tray of coffee or tea, and in one place a plate of dates. And at a school today, at the end of our meeting the home economics classes presented us w/ platters of cookies and cakes they had just baked.
Today on the first full day, I think I will just share some impressions instead of in-depth details.
At every turn, one sees the resiliency of the people of Gaza. Life is so totally hard and there is such ongoing trauma and injustice. The political situation really feels hopeless. And yet, the people of Gaza do not seem to let it stop the determination to learn, to be excellent health care providers, nurses, teachers, social service workers, etc. The level of education and ingenuity is unmatched and is totally inspiring.
We are welcomed and greeted so warmly by everyone. Seeing the people from our last trip here felt like meeting up again w/ old friends. For me the months in between visits have been a pretty steady last 6 months. For the people of Gaza, it has meant sustaining another series of bombings. We were told of the bombs that hit so close to their homes that everything shook. The re-kindling of the fears and nightmares from the war that we all refer to "Cast Lead". They ask, "Why does it get called that, it was war." Days of no electricity or water. Raining sad days of winter cold. And yet there is laughter and hope. One friend who was an interpreter on the last trip got married. She was beaming to tell me about how happy she is. It is an amazing testimony to the strength of the human spirit.
Driving back from a UN clinic that we visited today, the lanes ahead of us in our direction were blocked-- lined up w/ stopped cars. What did our driver do? He, without missing a beat, drove over the central median island and continued driving in our direction in the right lane of the opposing traffic (it was a busy street)--tooting the horn every few seconds and flashing his lights. Cars swerved, but it felt pretty safe. Mostly it felt that he was showing his defiance. By the way, why were the cars stopped in both lanes for 2-3 blocks? We saw as we got to the source of the stoppage that they were lined up waiting for gas. And so goes the lines for fuel.
And one more thing--and I do hope someone from Israeli security or AIPAC is reading this. What do you think the Gazans are doing 1 kilometer south of the Israeli border in Beit Hanoun Refugee Camp--in that land (which happens to be their land) and where the Israelis are so sure that terrorists are breeding like bunnies? Well, let me tell you. They have decorated a white cement wall w/ all kinds of beautiful graffiti and messaging about ways to stay healthy--exercise more, eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies; if you are diabetic, take care of your feet.
And go inside the clinic next to that cement wall and you learn that they are working on their new model for providing family centered care in their health center--a concept we call a "medical home", figuring out how to decrease the stigma of mental health care and incorporating mental health into primary care visits. In short, they are moving ahead with very state of the art, fabulous and innovative health care.
And... Beit Hanoun has seen some of the heaviest Israeli shellings and bombings on a regular basis. They have high levels of mental health issues among their children from the trauma of war--bedwetting, nightmares, aggression and school failure. There are a disproportionate number of orthopedic injuries in that area due to proximity to the Israeli border and the vulnerability that brings.
We heard the school counselors talk about the 2000 students they care for to support their hopes and successes. THAT IS WHAT IS HAPPENING IN BEIT HANOUN.
The counselors end their days of caring for the children at their clinics and go home to their own grief and ongoing trauma that is bought by our dollars.
Another brilliant comment by Roxanne is that we need to send a bunch of photo journalists into Gaza to document this story. The pictures of what you would see are worth a thousand or maybe 1.7 million words.