Since March of this year hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza have participated in the Great March of Return, united by their shared hope of achieving freedom. Freedom to experience the world outside of the 25-by-6-mile strip of land in which they are imprisoned, freedom to seek educational and career opportunities which Gaza lacks, freedom to access life-saving medical care, and freedom to return at last to the land which was stolen from them. It is within this context that thousands of unarmed protesters - a large portion being children - in Gaza have been killed or permanently disabled at the hands of the Israeli military.
At a time when it seems that much of the world has forsaken the people of Gaza as they struggle to survive in hell-like conditions, we must do everything we can to share the stories of the incredible individuals who live this struggle - the Palestinian struggle - on a daily basis. Their stories may be the only hope we have to resuscitate the world’s compassion, and to show the humanity too often obscured by casualty tolls and political soundbites.
So please, if you will, take a moment to read the story of one of these individuals: Abdelrahman, my brother from Gaza. His experiences must be shared.
"I am his brother Ateya, and I cannot forget his words when he said to me: ‘Bro, when will I walk on my feet again? The summer vacation has finished, and I did not go to the sea and swim like last year.’
In early August, I wrote and shared the story of a soccer player from Gaza who was shot by an Israeli sniper during the Great March of Return. I posted his story on Facebook, and it was shared and re-posted by many people in Gaza. One week later, I received a Facebook message from another young man from Gaza, Ateya Al-Qadi, who had read the story. He explained his and his brother’s situation in a detailed message, and asked if I would be willing to write about his brother to share his story with the world:
“I am his brother Ateya, and I cannot forget his words when he said to me: ‘Bro, when will I walk on my feet again? The summer vacation has finished, and I did not go to the sea and swim like last year.’
It is something painful when you hear these words from your little brother.
I hope that you will rewrite this story and to publish it on your account. This will show the world the deeds of the Israeli occupation, and it will help Abdelrahman by supporting him to get through these hard times so that he will be a good, happy person in the future. “
In his message, Ateya explained to me that his younger brother, who was 16-years-old at the time, was shot by an Israeli sniper while attending the Great March of Return in May. Abdelrahman survived, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. After the hospitals in Gaza could not provide the medical care he needed, Abdelrahman and Ateya were given the rare permission to leave Gaza and enter Egypt to seek medical attention. They spent a month in Egypt visiting hospitals, but each time Abdelrahman was refused admission, as the hospitals cited that his injury could not be treated by any surgery. Finally, after more than a month without medical care, the brothers were invited to travel to Turkey through a non-profit organization to be treated at a hospital in Istanbul. Their journey was difficult-beyond-belief, and is explained in greater detail in the original message from Ateya, which can be found here: part-1-my-brothers-story.html.
By incredible chance, in mid-August I took a vacation to Istanbul, and reached out to Ateya, hoping to meet in person. Just days after my arrival in Turkey, I was able to spend time with the brothers when they invited me to spend the day with them.
Istanbul, August 2018:
When I first arrived, Ateya and Abdelrahman welcomed me to their hospital room with a plate of sweets and fresh orange juice, and we chatted for a while around Abdelrahman’s hospital bed. They shared more details with me about the past few months since Abdelrahman was shot, and even about that horrific day itself. He had finished final exams of his junior year of high school just the day before, on May 13th, and went swimming with his friends that afternoon - not knowing that it may be the last time he would ever swim. Abdelrahman shifted his torso in bed to show me his scars from where the bullet grazed his right arm and went through his chest - missing his heart by mere inches. He also shared a vivid recollection from the moment before he was shot: he was standing, facing away from where the snipers were lined up on the border, and in a split-second he jerked his upper-body to the side to look behind him - right as the sniper fired at his chest. Abdelrahman doesn’t know why he turned around right then, but when the doctors examined his wounds later on, they said that if he hadn’t looked back the bullet would have pierced his heart, ending his young life.
The three of us spent that day exploring Istanbul with Abdelrahman’s new automatic wheelchair, which had been generously given to him by a Turkish non-profit. After physical therapy and lunch in the hospital room (KFC take-out), we took the local bus to the ferry port, where we set off to cross the Strait of Marmara to reach the other side of the city. It was Abdelrahman’s first time on the ferry, and he loved the feeling of the cool breeze, and the water splashing up from the sea. We sat at a cafe for a while, took in the view of the city from the nearby bridge, then parted ways for the evening as the brothers took the ferry back towards the hospital. I had given Abdelrahman my camera for the day, since he mentioned having loved taking photos back in Gaza. When I looked through my SD card that night, in addition to finding some hilarious candids and tens of photos of seagulls, there were many stunning photos of people, buildings and objects, all taken from Abdelrahman’s perspective.
I realized instantly that day that Abdelrahman is the kind of boy who, after one interaction, you can’t help but love as if he’s your own brother or son. He has one of the brightest, most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen; a smile that bares no hint of the immense pain and trauma that has been ever-present in his young life. He is kindhearted, charismatic, determined, has a hilarious sense of humor, and is, quite frankly, adorable. I witnessed firsthand his popularity in the physical therapy department at the hospital in Istanbul: as soon as Abdelrahman walked in for his daily session, the therapists welcomed him with an excitement rarely seen in hospitals - one man playfully threw a lightweight therapy ball at him; several of the women surrounded him, pinching his cheeks and ruffling his hair; and even the other patients smiled and perked up.
Aside from the countless lighthearted moments when Abdelrahman had all of us laughing, there were many moments when I felt deeply moved by Abdelrahman’s actions and overall demeanor. One such instance was on the night of his 17th birthday, which also happened to fall on Eid al-Adha this year - one of the two biggest holidays observed in Islam. Typically Eid is spent with one’s entire extended family, and is celebrated with a huge feast (think Middle-Eastern-style Thanksgiving dinner). This Eid was the brothers’ first away from family, spent in a new country where they knew no one, were living in a hospital room, and were constrained by Abdelrahman’s medical needs. Since I was in Istanbul during Eid/Abdelrahman’s birthday, we all went out for dinner to celebrate at a Yemeni restaurant in one of the largely-Arab neighborhoods in the city. Abdelrahman was excited to be outside of the hospital and eating food similar to that of home, but at the same time it seemed that the past few months of his life had caught up with him. A living situation that one imagines as a temporary setback feels far more permanent when holidays and birthdays come and go - and when home hasn’t gotten any closer. Despite these heavy reflections that Abdelrahman was undoubtedly trying to process, he still managed to smile, for the sake of those around him.
Not long after we took our seats in the patio-seating outside the restaurant, young children - none more than 10 years of age, and most Syrian refugees, as Ateya later explained - began approaching us, asking for money. Though it obviously pains me, after traveling in many places where one doesn’t walk one block without coming across children asking for spare change, I’ve built up an automatic response to these pleas: A quick, “I’m sorry,” accompanied by a look of sincere pity. During our meal, when a young, Syrian girl with no parent in sight came to our table, my response was no different. Abdelrahman smiled at the girl as well, though his expression communicated far more: “I understand and feel your pain, but stay hopeful,” his face seemed to say. He then reached for his wallet, offering her what change he had. The rest of us followed Abdelrahman’s example. If he - a teenage boy with plenty of his own struggles, and coming from a place where more than half of the population themselves are refugees and where the unemployment and poverty rates are nearing 70-80% - has the capacity to help others with what little he has, then what excuse do the rest of us have? That moment revealed so much, not only about Abdelrahman’s character, but about my own ability to give: I can and must offer much more, and nothing should prevent me from giving my time and resources to those who are unable to return to their homes, and who are struggling simply to survive.
After spending this time with Abdelrahman, I left with conflicting feelings: on the one hand, this one boy’s heart, strength, and care for others has given me so much hope for humanity. If a person can live through the kind of nightmare which has stolen so much from Abdelrahman’s young life and which will continue for years to come, yet can still show love towards others, then surely human resilience alone can conquer oppression and hate. On the other hand, however, if an entire force of highly-trained snipers can kill nearly 50 children, and leave more than 3,000 children with serious injuries - many of whom will endure life-long suffering like Abdelrahman - without being held accountable by world leaders or citizens, then what hope is there for the future of humanity, and specifically, for the youth who are forced to grow up in the midst of this brutal violence and oppression? Though change will not come instantaneously or easily, the individual actions we take now do add up. Every time a person reads the story of someone like Abdelrahman, a small piece of dignity is returned to the individual whose life has been shattered by forces of oppression and hate. We must listen, read, and share these stories. We must show Abdelrahman and the thousands of young people much like him that they deserve to live better lives, and they deserve freedom. We must show that their stories are important; and most of all, that we care.