On a feverishly hot day in August 2009, I walked the streets of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem I'd waited so long to see. That day, I met families and people whose lives touched my own in such overwhelming ways, and whose endearing stories of survival, struggle and pain will continue to resonate with me half a world away.
I remember feeling a multitude of emotions that day, but more so than any others, I remember feeling mortified as I met one family after another who was continuously denied basic medical treatment for diseases like cancer, renal failure, diabetes, physical disabilities, heart problems and so much more. I kept questioning why it was that these people, who are already suffering living in a refugee camp, weren't even allowed the basic human right of seeking proper medical treatment. I left feeling so immensely guilty that day for all that I had and how little I could give to those who didn't. That reprehensible feeling has never subsided. The picture of the older woman sitting in her wheelchair, in awe of the strangers who were so curious about her way of life there in the camp, comes to mind every now and then. That day, I kept thinking to myself, "What exactly would my sympathy and support really do for her? Would my solidarity help her live out the remainder of her life in peace or without pain?"
You don't wake up one morning and expect something as nerve-racking as a diagnosis of cancer. From that moment on, your entire lifestyle changes, and you're faced with the unpleasant, albeit necessary, ordeal of consultations, doctor visits, treatments and exhaustion that comes along with that life-altering news. No one expects or anticipates something like that; I certainly didn't. Three weeks after saying goodbye to Palestine, with the pictures and faces of all those I met at Aida still fresh in my mind, I received a much-needed wake-up call that profoundly changed my life in ways I never could have imagined or expected.
Now, my humble distress will be no more. As I write this, I will drive up to see my doctor, regarding my last treatment of chemotherapy and tests. Like my past commutes, it will be an easy one for me -- one worthy of no complaint. On this trip, I won't be stopped at any checkpoints intentionally imposed to make my trip more difficult or unbearable. I will not be asked for my passport or denied the right to use the highway based on my ethnicity or religion. I will not be forced to walk through metal detectors, nor will I be interrogated or harassed by soldiers in the only place I've come to call home, the United States. I won't be denied medical treatment or deterred from receiving it by any of the aforementioned "preventive" measures. In that hour-long drive, however, I will think about all those in Palestine who are not as fortunate as I am to move about so freely, especially in times of need.
This is not about my struggle. It is first and foremost for and about the countless lives that continue to be deemed so dispensable by the corrupt leaders of this world that they are not even allowed to tell their story. I promised myself that if and when I were to get better and receive the medical treatment I was lucky enough to receive here in the US, I would dedicate the rest of my life to making their stories heard. Palestinian lives, like their Israeli and American counterparts, are not collateral damage or just mere remnants of lives that once were. Palestinians, young and old, are human beings who have been treated as anything but for more than six decades now.
As I sit here in the comfort of my home, without the imprisonment of any illegal, malignant blockade, occupation, or siege, I am once again reminded of the sinister reality that countless people face every day in the Gaza Strip. On 28 April 2010, 19-year-old Latifa Hawr lost her battle with cancer there, bringing the total number of victims of Israel's villainous siege to 369. Latifa suffered from lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes, and passed away suffering, because she was denied the right to travel abroad for treatment while the Gaza border crossings remained sealed off, imprisoning her and 1.5 million others. Gaza's hospitals have been severely affected by the 22-day barbaric onslaught two winters ago. And due to Israel's ongoing catastrophic blockade, many life-saving measures and treatments, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and neurosurgery, to mention only a few, have become available only outside of the ravaged Strip.
Latifa was not the only victim of Israel's unholy terrorism, not by a long shot. She has become yet another statistic, one of many who have suffered and continue to suffer so mercilessly due to Israel's unjust policies. Nineteen-year-old Fidaa Talal Hijjy was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease back in 2007. After receiving treatment at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, where her health quickly deteriorated, she was told she needed a bone-marrow transplant. This procedure, however, is not available in Gaza.
On 20 August 2009, Fidaa's doctors referred her to Tel HaShomer Hospital in Israel, where she was given an appointment for a transplant on 23 September 2009. The date of her appointment arrived, but the Israeli authorities had not responded to her application for a travel permit, and she ended up losing the appointment. After another grueling process, she was secured a new appointment for 20 October 2009, and again applied for a permit to travel through the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. Once again, no response was heard from the Israeli authorities. While her health continued to deteriorate, she was given yet another appointment at Shneider Hospital in Israel for 9 November 2009. The silence from Israel was deafening. Fidaa lost her battle with cancer on 11 November 2009. Israel, ever so graciously, approved her request on 12 November 2009, three days after her scheduled appointment and one day after her death.
According to a January 2010 report conducted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), many patients like Latifa and Fidaa are denied exit permits or their applications are delayed. Many have missed their appointments, others died while waiting for referrals.
The OCHA report states: "1,103 applications for permits for patients to cross Erez were submitted to the Israeli Authorities in December 2009. Twenty-one percent had their applications denied or delayed as a result of which they missed their hospital appointments and had to restart their referral process."
According to the World Health Organization in the West Bank and Gaza, 15 of Gaza's 27 hospitals were destroyed during Israel's malevolent assault, and the lack of building materials allowed in has affected the essential health facilities there. Primary care facilities and hospitals have not been fully rebuilt due to the blockade, further exacerbating an already deplorable situation.
So, I sit here thinking about the lives of Latifa and Fidaa -- two women not much younger than myself who lost their lives before they really began. I think about the others whose names and stories I don't know and may never know, and I can't help but feel hideously entitled compared to them, as if my life here were regarded with so much more value than theirs. I can't help but view my struggle as being so minute compared to theirs, and I can't escape that overwhelming sense of guilt I feel for not being able to do more. I cannot and will never be able to fathom why I am able to receive the medicines and treatments necessary to help me with such ease, while those suffering, like Latifa, Fidaa, and countless others imprisoned in Gaza, were not even given the simple chance of fighting for their lives. Do they not feel joy, fear, and pain the same way that you or I would? I ask those who are reading this, those of you familiar and those of you who may not be so familiar with Palestinian struggle, to take a moment to reflect and imagine how you would feel if you were in their shoes.
All political jargon and minutiae aside, I ask you to just think about their situation from an humanitarian point of view. Can you begin to imagine what it would it feel like to just wait to die from a treatable illness? How would you react, if you were to have the grim thought of losing your battle at any moment due to unjust, bureaucratic measures, always in the back of your mind? For so many in Gaza, receiving a diagnosis of cancer, heart problems, or any other serious medical emergency is essentially a death sentence inflicted upon them by "the only democracy in the Middle East." Perhaps those who continue to believe that Israel is indeed such a "democracy" can help me answer a question that has been gnawing at my conscience for years now: why are the lives of those suffering over there, under occupation and in silence, not deemed as valuable as our lives over here?
At times, I find myself unable to fully digest all that's happened in such a short amount of time. I left there a person who took a lot for granted, someone who complained about so much in life quite unwarrantedly. Today, I sit here writing to you as a completely changed person.
My last image from Aida, forever embedded in my memory, may be of a simple pastime in Palestine, but it is one that speaks volumes in terms of embodying the resilient and innovative spirit of the Palestinian people. A group of young boys flew kites in the afternoon breeze -- some were colorful, some were plain, some were in the shape of animals or superheroes, and some were ingeniously made out of old garbage bags tied to string. That zeal and zest for life are what continue to amaze me about the Palestinian people, particularly those living under siege and occupation in Palestine. Despite all the pain, suffering, and hardships thrown their way on a daily basis, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, they continue to manage to find a way to make the very best of their situation, never pitying themselves or asking for charity.
Today, I write to you as a survivor. I am one of the lucky ones, and I will never forget that. I am a Palestinian who was not denied rights because I don't live under siege or occupation.
So, to any and all facing struggles, here and abroad, I'd just like to remind you to never give up, nor to ever be bullied into silence. I, for one, will not and cannot remain silent when so much injustice continues to take place before my eyes. That is why I write today. My silence would make me complicit in war crimes, and I simply refuse to be a culprit. To anyone out there suffering and struggling, keep your head up high and remember: do not fear the winds of adversity; a kite rises against the wind rather than with it.
Dina Elmuti is a graduate student in the Masters in Social Work program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
(This article is from BOL ASIA/Naked Punch Asia issue 04, Summer 2010).