Only about 20 percent of the size of Knox County, the Gaza Strip is the most densely populated land in the world, and is now the scene of a growing humanitarian crisis. 360 square kilometers sweep the Eastern banks of the Mediterranean Sea and shelter roughly 1.5 million people. For decades it has been stricken with violence and poverty.
When reflecting on her past vision of Gaza, junior Bisan Battrawi said, “I used to go to Gaza every week to see my family and I remember how beautiful it was. I remember the sea, the people, but now…well, you can see what Gaza is now,” as she pointed to a picture of rubble. “It used to be a beautiful place, but now it is just a prison.”
Around 5:30 p.m. last Thursday, the Round Room in CFA was overflowing with members of the Knox community, all waiting for Gaza Awareness Night to begin. Before the presentation, one student mentioned that she was “glad for a proactive educational opportunity to engage students and raise awareness.”
All eyes focused on the front of the room as hosts senior Karima Daoudi, senior Mary Lou Villanueva, and Battrawi called for attention. Daoudi said that “the presentation was a spur of the moment idea, put together to raise awareness about the rising humanitarian issues” consuming the Gaza Strip.
Different statistics highlighted the living conditions of Gaza’s citizens, which only got worse after the bombardments: more than one million Gazans are without water, 70 percent of the families live on less than three dollars per day, approximately 500,000 people are entirely cut off from running water, and 75 percent of Gaza’s electricity has been cut off. There is also a growing housing crisis: 45,000 refugees (about 25,000 of them children) have sought protection in 49 U.N. emergency shelters originally designed for 500 people each.
Bringing the violence in the area to light was a key component of the presentation. After the presentation, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman said that violence in general could be categorized as “a mode of defense or a visceral reaction, something instinctual…but the people of Gaza have been conditioned to accept it as normal.”
A series of videos were shown documenting the current situations of several Palestinians that left Gaza for medical or family emergencies, and have not been allowed to return home. There was a six-year-old boy who has not seen his mother for over a year, a mother whose two daughters spent several months alone in Gaza, and a grandson, eagerly packing his toys saying to his mother “I am ready to go to grandma and Gaza.”
The common thread in each message was a wish to be reunited with family.
Daoudi and Battrawi spoke about the organization to which all proceeds and donations would go: the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) “is non-political and non-religious and is one of the largest American non-profits working solely in the Middle East for 40 years” according to its website.
Among its duties are the provisions of education, health, development, and employment programs to “impoverished Palestinian communities in the Middle East.” Upon being asked why ANERA was chosen, Dauodi said that after careful consideration of other organizations such as the UN refugee aid organization, “we chose ANERA because it is a long-standing refugee aid organization that has been in Gaza for 40 years.”
“We were going to give it to the UN at first, but their national headquarters got bombed in Gaza, and the workers got hurt. By donating to ANERA, we have a guarantee that our help will arrive in Gaza as quickly and safely as possible,” said Battrawi.
A discussion following the presentation expressed some of the sentiments and viewpoints regarding the politics, history, and statistics of the conflict.
Villanueva said, “There will be a time and place for this in the future,” emphasizing that “the purpose of the night was to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis and what we can do now.”
Many students said they felt “connected” and now had a better understanding of the ways in which they could help those suffering right now in the Gaza strip. Battrawi said that no one really “understands how much this means to the people of Gaza when they hear that you support them.”
It is a “lifeline for these people when they see a message or hear a voice wanting to connect,” said Schwartzman.
To make a donation or learn more about the conflict in Gaza, visit http://www.anera.org and http://www.btselem.org.