The sound of children’s laughter fills the air at MCC’s partner, The Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) in Khan Younis, Gaza. Children are playing soccer, learning computer skills, playing house, taking part in Dubka dancing, and reading. It is a refreshing contrast after witnessing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Over 1.5 million people live in a strip of land 40 km long (25 miles) and 15 km wide (9 miles)—approximately 4,500 persons per square kilometer (0.6 miles). Walled-in on three sides and the sea lying to the west, Gazans have endured a brutal 5-year blockade and a war that left 1,400 people dead in a matter of three weeks in winter 2008 and 2009. During that same time frame 13 Israelis were killed (four by “friendly fire”), while hundreds of rockets landed in Israel from fighters in Gaza. Gaza is not only a prison, but also a fenced-in community that has been bombarded with tear gas, white phosphorus, and bombs with no safe place to escape or hide. Airstrikes on Gaza are so routine that they are not always reported to the media, while rockets still intermittently land in Israel causing fear in the daily lives of people on both sides of the wall.
The blockade has had a dire effect on the community in Gaza. Electricity outages can last up to 16 hours per day, impacting not only daily life, but also hospitals and health care facilities. The lack of resources makes any kind of development difficult. The damage to infrastructure includes disrupted access to water and sewage treatment plants that are not operational. Over 90 million liters of raw sewage are dumped into the Mediterranean every day, creating health risks for those who wish to swim in the sea and impacting the livelihood of fishermen who already can only access 15% of their waters due to Israeli restrictions.
In a region that is fraught with war, trauma, and injustice, CFTA provides a haven for children, not just to come and play, but also to develop their leadership skills. While touring the center, I join a discussion with a group of 11-year-old girls. They are telling one of the staff members of CFTA, Majeda, how a teacher at their school treats them. They complain of being yelled at, humiliated, and on occasion, even being hit by their teacher. The girls are frustrated. As the list of complaints continues to grow, Majeda provides an attentive ear, and then asks, “So what did you do about it and what will you do next?”
Excitedly, the girls begin to tell me that when they were first frustrated with the teacher, they staged a protest. Using the words from the anti-Mubarak chants in Egypt, the girls staged a demonstration in their classroom. However, following the demonstration, their treatment worsened.
Refusing to give up, the girls decided to plan weekly activities of protest until the teacher improved. Exactly a week after the first demonstration in the classroom, the girls held a dance party in the classroom.
Today, the girls are discussing with the staff at CFTA what their next plan of action will be. They have decided to take part in a letter writing campaign. Together they will draft a letter outlining their collective experience of abusive behaviour at the hands of their teacher. The typed letter will be given to their teacher, expressing their frustration towards her and insisting that the humiliation and abuse needs to stop or they will take their complaints to the administration.
“By teaching and then supporting the girls to stand up for themselves, we are developing activists,” Majeda says as we depart from CFTA.
I am inspired by these girls’ strength, perseverance, and creativity to deal with a problem. Despite the bleak situation in Gaza, I am filled with hope. Even though the future in Gaza and in all of Palestine is uncertain, with programs and children like this, the future is still filled with possibilities, and I yearn to live in a country where these girls will one day be the leaders.