Jet lagged, body clock off, so I guess I'll write!!
Our WA Physicians Health Delegation arrived in Gaza yesterday. We are 9 in total with varied backgrounds. Our group leader--a nurse specializing in end of life issues, a cardiologist, 2 neurosurgeons, 2 general surgeons with trauma specialization, a psychologist who specializes in trauma care, a yoga teacher who will lead trainings in stress reduction and relaxation, and me, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. The nature of what we will do here is varied and will unfold.
A brief delay yesterday and a moment of dropped hopes as we unloaded our 30 BIG bags off the mini-bus to be told by the soldier at Erez Crossing that the border was closed due to some rocket fire the day before. Our leader produced the stack of documents with our approval from Israeli authorities and, after what seemed like a long phone conversation with some higher ups and a lot of waiting, wondering what plan B was, we were cleared to enter Gaza.
The rest of the walk through the surreal landscape of Erez was uneventful. Actually, easier than in my memory of the last trip. There were new "shopping carts" on which to load the baggage( for the first half of the walk, ONLY, we were told through a speaker. Bags can go not farther than the Israeli end of the border crossing structure--no cooperation on shopping cart exchanges apparently. Anyway, our fears and earlier conversations of wondering about how we would ever manage to get those huge and heavy bags through the kilometer or so of corridors and fenced in walkways was easier than we dared to imagine. Somewhat fire brigade style, we snaked our way through. A disembodied voice responded to our request at one turnstile and opened a door so we did not have to feed the bags through the about 1 foot wide turnstile one bag at a time, but rather pushed the cart straight through the opened metal door.
Once at the Palestinian end of the building and long crosswalk, I wish I had a photo (and I bet Gerri does, on her blog) of our luggage heaved precariously, but magnificently, sky-high, by the porter on the Gaza stretch of the crossing. His rickety cart, powered by an even more rickety motor-cycle took our heavy bags the last stretch. Gerri and Ralph got to ride "shot-gun" on the motor cycle! Gerri just for the ride and Ralph standing on a small stand on the back to hold onto bags to keep them from flying off. We were skeptical, but also assured by the notion that this too is samoud--the Palestinian "will" that, of course, the bags were fine. He was right--no glitches! (Except that the porter showed me that the motorcycle chain had bent bent from all the weight--well maybe or maybe it had been like that for years and he just keeps the bike patched together--it's his livelihood!)
What we did hear from our Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) hosts who awaited us on the Gaza side was that the border did close, pretty much only allowing some UN groups, a Norwegian NGO group and a few others (us) to cross, then shutting down. Only a few of the Palestinians waiting to cross into Israel for medical care were able to pass--the rest sent home for (probably) another day. Alaa, from GCMHP told me about a women with cancer who she had been talking with while waiting for us, obviously very ill and uncomfortable, denied entry to cross and sent home. And so goes the Erez Crossing. The cameras, lack of ANY amenities or attention to decor or comfort for those traversing this "no-man's land", the prohibition to photograph as you are reminded you are in a security zone. No ease to the place. Only the disembodied voices who occasionally answer to give instructions when you push a call button on a little box on the wall, and mostly the trickle of humanitarian cases let through (aka--ill human beings) reminds of who is in control and of the fact that Gaza is a sealed place. I recall an article that I saw a few years ago of a reporter describing the passage through this huge prison-like structure of gray metal, chained caged corridors, electronic monitors at ever step and cameras in every corner, this stark place as "going through the rabbit hole". And through it we went.
Ned wrote about the other sharp contrast of Israel on one side, with the landscaped roadways, flowering median strips. Once you enter the Gaza side it is harsh--poor, garbage, rubble, barren leading to crowded. Skeleton buildings barely standing after the bombs hit. But, that's only a part of the story.
Our hosts at GCMHP were so warm. Greeting old and new friends. Hugs, a few moist eyes. Lots of-- "Thank you SO much for coming", "Thank you and we felt your prayers and your caring over this summer that was beyond all past recollections of horror." "Your caring and that of friends like all of you make us be able to swallow". "Thank you for being the friends of Gaza". We told them of the protests and the gatherings of others like all of you who too are with us here.
The short drive to Gaza City where we are staying took us past quite a few bombed buildings. Alaa sitting in our car, told of her relatives homes being bombed, the garden of her home having been hit, and on and on. "Why her garden?" we asked. Shrugs of "Who knows, why was anything a target?" No reason.
And, again the contrast of Gaza. That life pours forth. Our arrival coincided with the time of day when the school shifts changed at mid-day. There is only enough space for children to attend 1/2 day of school, so there is a morning and an afternoon shift. All the way through high school, the day has been shortened to 4 hours per student. Anyway, the many groups of children walking, playing making their way to or from school in their uniforms--laughing, the camaraderie of friends on their familiar daily routine, gave the whole scene another dimension of the reality of life--it goes on and takes on its sense of that daily routine. But we all wondered what was beneath the surface of what these children have endured and continue to endure. Who has a home and who doesn't, who lost loved ones and who was spared that direct assault? The Chair of the GCMHP Board gave us the welcoming speech at a reception at GCMHP soon after we settled into the hotel. He said, "Life and death are mixed up for us in Gaza now. Our children all go to school and talk about 'so and so sat here at this desk last year and now s/he is not here.'"
The contrasts hit immediately. Surrounded by the silent rubble of bombed out buildings, the overhead sound of aircraft, the reality that it isn't any better after yet another cease-fire--that well over 90% of the nurses who graduate from the nursing schools each year will be unable to find work (huge need, no money), that even those who are working often do not recieve a paycheck due to the very broken economy and lack of any revenue streams. Etc., etc. (you'll hear more of these statistics in the days to come). I met with a nurse with the nursing syndicate and the supervisor of a pediatric hospital in Gaza City. Both are working full time an rarely get paid. "How do you support your families?" I asked. "Here in Gaza we all help out, if one family member is paid, he or she supports everyone else."
And here we sit--talking with our colleagues--neurologists, vascular surgeons (that's the profession of the GCMHP Board chair--a lovely man, probably in his 60s who challenged one of our group [a non-doctor] to observe his surgery later that day as they joked about the wisdom of the elderly practitioner, but how steady are the hands?!" We heard later that the surgeries went just fine!) There is resilience to the hilt. There is the feeling that I remember from past trips of wanting to benefit from whatever we can offer as far as how we do things in health care to really better their professions--medical, mental health and nursing. Education and learning are highly regarded. Hospitality, warmth, the quick ability to joke and laugh at things we very soon we have in common--our human frailties and that wink that a joke or a pun or a snafu is understood as a part of our collective human experience. Again--if only those who make US policy, or every Israeli citizen could see the humanity, the events of this summer would never NEVER be able to happen.
Our host at GCMHP welcomed us. He did not shy away from how totally devastating and horrific this summer was and that the ongoing siege is strangling Gaza--of how totally difficult life is. The shadow of the recent event is about one sentence into every conversation. As the distinguished vascular surgeon/poet doctor said in his greeting speech, "We manufacture sadness in Gaza." It is there on the faces not too far beneath the smiles and jokes and the asking of "What do you need to be comfortable here--you are in our home and you are welcome!"