International Children’s Day celebration in Jabaliya camp, Gaza Strip.
The youth worker wears a huge smile. He claps, he moves with exaggerated glee, he yells instructions in a sort of ‘Simon says’ way: sit down, stand up, sit, stand, sit…The children are loving it, squealing as they are tricked into sitting when they should stand…
He is energetic, charismatic. And he is from Jabliya. There are sombre layers behind his vibrant joy.
Two clowns turn up and as their slapstick show progresses the smiles broaden, faces of 100 children breaking into lasting grins.
These kids from various areas of central and northern Gaza are celebrating, and being celebrated on, International Chidlren’s Day. They may not understand that day is to honour their right to childhood. They may not understand that notion: that they deserve a childhood, one free of terror, shelling, sonic booms, martyrs, shelling; one full of games, education, parties. Love, they have in abundance, evident in interactions with parents, relatives, neighbours… but tragedy usurps, often.
Many of these kids have lost a parent to Israeli army raids, often particularly severe in northern areas like Jabliya, Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun. Most, according to a child worker at the centre, suffer serious trauma from the various physical and psychological warfares that are waged against Gaza’s civilians. They are old enough to have had a few years of intense, nerve-shattering sonic booms, to have lived through shelling and seen, smelt, and breathed the bloody aftermath. They all suffer under the current draconian siege. Statistics would put 60% of them as malnourished and anemic, due to the siege, the lack of a varied diet rich in protein and vitamins. Especially in the poorer areas, many rely on starches, like bread, as staples, supplemented with olive oil and zataar (wild thyme). Meat is an expensive and out of reach luxury, as many vegetables and fruit have become for those living below the poverty line, 80%, according to UN sources.
The faces of the youth volunteers at the centre evidence the realities they’ve known: they look older than their late teen years, and their smiles, although genuine and deep, wait behind serious masks, come with more prodding. But the smiles do come, and their faces, too, split with grins at the clowns’ antics.
A string of dancers in colourful costumes rush out, stomping and kicking the traditional Dabke, the energized and mesmerizing line dance. Backs straight, heads high, they are confident, proud, dignified, and step-dance an impressive rhythm.
In a country under occupation and an area under siege, people just want to live, celebrate, laugh, and even have parties. Freedom and human rights are on the tongue tips of most people I meet. The freedoms I know back home –right to education, right to move freely (to visit a friend, go to a movie, go across the country or even into a neighbouring one), right to health care, right to farm the land without being shot, right to live in a house and know with 100% certainty it will not be bulldozed or shelled– have been banned, kept outside Gaza’s borders, for a long, long time, heightened under what is internationally-acknowledged as a brutal, savage, illegal siege, a collective punishment.
Knowing these sordid truths is grounding, weighs one down. Yet the encounters with those living under siege are revitalizing. How incredible that the oppressed know and appreciate life and love on a far deeper level than most could ever imagine. That these same people would inspire visitors with their dignity.