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Breathing Through the Siege of Gaza

posted on: Mar 25, 2020

Breathing Through the Siege of Gaza
Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

By: Ned Rosch/Arab America Contributing Writer

The following article was written by the author just two weeks ago as the current coronavirus pandemic was striking the world and just this week entered Gaza.

As part of a Physicians for Social Responsibility delegation that recently returned from Gaza, I was honored to guide mental health practitioners, high school students, clients at a women’s center, and refugee camp residents through trauma-informed stress reduction workshops.

Their stories offered me an unforgettable glimpse into what it’s like when beautiful people, clinging desperately to some kind of hope, do their best to try to live, raise children, and find meaning in a situation where that increasingly seems, at least in part, impossible.

Ahmed pretty choked up, expressed, “When I think about my children, the situation they are growing up in, and what the future holds for them, I sometimes wish my wife and I hadn’t had children – not because I don’t love them, but because I love them so much.”

Omar said that after the sounds of recent bombings, his four-year-old son, in a quivering voice, asked, “Would it be possible to go back into your belly, Mommy?”

Mohammed’s nine-year-old daughter a couple of months ago thoughtfully remarked, “Grandma and Grandpa were lucky. Because they’re dead, they can’t hear the bombings.”

Yousef observed, “All we can do is to do our best, but often, when the bombs are falling, or the daily effects of the suffocating siege become unbearable, that’s just not enough, and then what do we do?”

After a yoga/relaxation class I taught to 20 young women, Nadia, a vivacious 14-year-old who wants to become a doctor to work in solidarity with people at the Great March of Return, told me, “I sleep with a towel over my eyes because if the bombs start falling, I don’t want to see them”. I wiped away tears of sadness for the innocence of childhood she and so many others in Gaza likely never knew. The school psychologist explained, “Although much of the ‘outside’ devastation from the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza has been cleaned up, the devastation that is now in these children’s hearts – largely unseen – runs deep.”

The Director of the Women’s Health Center at the Bureij Refugee Camp, after my yoga session there, suggested that all staff practice yoga daily before work. In a boy’s yoga class, I met Wisam. Injured in his leg from an Israeli bullet at the Great March of Return, Wisam walks with a limp. When his leg heals, he adamantly says he’s going, against his mother’s wishes, back to the Great March. In leading children through a breathing exercise where the goal was to focus on each breath (Because the last breath is gone and the next breath hasn’t come yet, we focus on the one we are now taking…!), the girls’ soccer coach remarked, “That’s life in Gaza! We don’t want to remember the past because it’s traumatizing. We have no idea what the future holds. But we have this moment (this breath!) to try our best to enjoy life. Enjoying life is an act of protest – and an act of love!”

As difficult and unfair as life in Gaza is, many of the people I met are, against all odds, remarkably hopeful, resilient, kind, lovely, and of course, want nothing more than just to live. Ismail, one of our translators, remarked as I was leaving, “It’s like the visitors were told to leave, and now we’re back in the prison.”

How can more than 2 million people, some of whom we met and fell in love with, be literally trapped in an open-air prison, due to the brutal and suffocating Israeli siege, in one of the most densely populated places on earth, described by the U.N. as unfit for human habitation?

How long until we finally throw Zionism into the dustbin of history, as we did with its cousin, the apartheid system of South Africa?

How long until American Jews see that we, who are descendants and relatives of those who perished in the Holocaust, need to stand proudly in solidarity with our Palestinian sisters and brothers?

How long until in massive numbers we boldly proclaim our commitment to one democratic state in all of historic Palestine with the right of return for refugees, and equal rights for all?

How long until we tear down the prison walls not just in Palestine, but also in the U.S., and around the world?

How long until we see the “other” as our sister and brother?

The girls’ soccer coach was right. All we really have is this breath, this moment, and using it to work for justice is an act of protest and an act of love! I think of my friends in Gaza, and they and the coach’s words resound in my heart.



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