By Basman Derawi
We Are Not Numbers
Do you love Gaza?
Or do you hate Gaza?
When I applied for my job as a physiotherapist, one of my interviewers asked me to “talk about Gaza in English.” I replied, “Give me a few seconds to think.” He nodded. I closed my eyes for a moment and said, “Gaza is a city on the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the Gaza Strip, at the southern end of Palestine. People here are very friendly. Gaza was occupied by Israel in 1967, and withdrew its settlers in 2005. But it still controls, or tries to control, almost every aspect of our lives.”
As I walked home after finishing my interview, I thought of what I said about Gaza, the only place I have ever known, where my childhood memories were born and my family and friends live. Why don’t I love this place?
I hate waking up scared, in the middle of the night, to the sound of bombs. I feel pain in my chest just remembering my friend Haytham saying, “I want to travel to Algeria after I finish my internship.” He too was a physiotherapist. But I lost him, when he was just 25 years old, during the last Israeli offensive in 2014. They called him a terrorist, but he was young, kind and full of dreams. He died when a missile hit the market next to his house, not because he threw a rocket!
Whenever I remember the last time I saw him, my wound opens again. Two days before his death, his brother was killed in another Israeli attack. I hugged him as he cried. I didn’t think it would be our last farewell. I hate that to most people, he has become just one number among many—one among more than 2,000 Palestinians killed that summer.
Another friend recently told me in a soft, pained voice, “I am thinking of leaving Gaza if I don’t find a job before the end of the year.” More than half of people old enough to legally work can’t find paid employment in Gaza. Although I am fortunate to have a job, my thoughts are similar. Most jobs here don’t pay enough to cover all of the responsibilities of life.
My other colleague, Ashraf, is 45 and started working as a physiotherapist at Gaza’s Ministry of Health in 2008. Last year, his daughter finished her high school exams, called the tawjihi, and he was very proud. As I congratulated him, however, I noticed he seemed distracted. I asked if everything was okay. Ashraf replied, “I’m wondering how I’ll pay the costs of my daughter’s university education.”
He borrowed money, since his salary could not cover his expenses. He walked between his house and office to save the cost of taxi rides. Ashraf’s daughter now studies English education at the Islamic University of Gaza as Ashraf counts the days until she graduates.
Ashraf’s daughter is just one of four children, two sons and two daughters. Next year, his other daughter, now in high school, will enter university. His mother, who is paralyzed, also lives with his family.
“It’s more bitter than coffee,” Ashraf says of his situation, making fun of himself like many Palestinians do. But he also says, “It’s not bad for a 45-year-old guy. At least I have a job. I know my salary is too low to cover my expenses, but here in Gaza, you’re lucky to find any work before you die.”
Another friend, Mohammed, had started preparing for his wedding a few weeks before the Israeli offensive began in 2014, But after he rented and and was midway through furnishing an apartment, the landlord asked him to vacate it for a relative displaced from Shujaya by the July 20 massacre.
So Mohammed moved his new furniture to another apartment in Al-Zafer Tower. On August 23, an Israeli attack turned the 14-story tower to rubble.
“I was shocked,” he said later. “I hadn’t imagined the whole building could be destroyed.”
Nearly two years later, Mohammed is a father, but it took him a lot of hard work to replace what he lost.
And then there is 28-year-old Assad, who worked as a janitor when we first met. Later I learned he had studied biology. But because his father died when he was 17, he must take any job he can find.
“I’m sick and tired of this work,” he often says. “All I want is to work in my field, or travel somewhere I can find more respect and a better future. I love this place, but I can’t handle it anymore.”
Today he works as a cook in a small restaurant, making snacks and fast food. The last time I saw him, he said, “This isn’t what I want, but at least I don’t have to wait three or four months to get a little money.” (Assad’s janitor work was for a cleaning company that contracted with the Ministry of Health—and that means only sporadic payment, due to the dispute between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian authority in the West Bank.)
It breaks my heart when I hear people who live in trailers because their homes were destroyed by Israeli bombings, talking on the radio: “Help! It’s an oven inside.” “There’s water everywhere! We can’t live here.”
Gaza has few jobs and no clear future except poverty. I understand why some risk dangerous sea voyages to escape, while others commit suicide. We are all human and humans have breaking points. I just don’t know what mine is yet.
– See more at: wearenotnumbers.org