• Carolyn Canham in Jerusalem for UNRWA. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Carolyn Canham is from Canberra and has spent the past three years working as a volunteer and then in communications with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency supporting Palestinian refugees.
By
Carolyn Canham

24 Aug 2016 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2016 - 11:24 AM

“Next time you come to Gaza, if the situation is better, insha'Allah, I’ll take you to my friend’s farm where you can pick strawberries off the bush and drink tea from the fire.”

So said Mohammad, a driver with the United Nations Agency that supports Palestine refugees, UNRWA*.

The invitation followed my request to stop at a street vendor selling Gaza strawberries, which are famed in the region for their sweetness. 

During another car ride in Gaza, with another UNRWA driver, I was encouraged to return for longer so he could take me to see a war cemetery with the graves of Australian servicemen from World War I, plus an ancient Turkish bath house, Byzantine ruins and other historical delights.

Something that has struck me most during my few fleeting visits to Gaza – a tiny densely-populated coastal enclave with a Hamas government and almost 2 million people who have lived under blockade since 2007 – is that it should be a beautiful place.

The kind, warm, generous people cut against the grain of how they are sometimes portrayed in the media.

There is a sunny Mediterranean climate and beaches.  A rainbow of bougainvillea, jacarandas and flame trees. And those famous strawberries.

Instead, it is barely holding itself together after decades – generations – of political failure have condemned its residents to eking out a life in what has been called the world’s largest open air prison; amidst the ruins from three conflicts in eight  years. (Please note that this is not denying the condemnable firing of rockets by armed groups in Gaza that endanger Israeli civilians).

 

In many ways Gaza is still a beautiful place.

The warmth and welcome its people show to the few outsiders fortunate to visit is a powerful case study of the resilience of the human spirit. But no one should be forced to be a case study, or to show that type of resilience.

This warmth has been a recurrent theme during three years living and working with UNRWA in the occupied Palestinian territory and Jordan. This is particularly during the toughest times, and among the people who have the least.

I have lived in the old city of Jerusalem for nearly two years.

When I told people I was moving there, they expressed concern about the danger; a concern that I met with mild amusement. While outsiders pictured a war zone, my brief visits as a tourist had left me with the impression of a religious Disneyland.

The reality I found was a combination of the two.

On main thoroughfares, the ancient stone streets are lined with shopkeepers selling colourful Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian souvenirs.

Elderly ladies in traditional Palestinian dress selling local produce make a pretty sight, but they travel hours each day via Israeli checkpoints from farms in the West Bank, and sit through blistering summers and icy winters to sell their produce. 

And many streets are watched over by soldiers shouldering huge guns.

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Sometimes the tension is not immediately obvious, but rather something that slowly builds, unnoticed, until you leave the city and it feels as if a physical weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

But again, the worst of times bring some of the sweetest moments.

A spike in violence last October brought the city to a practical closure, with many Palestinians banned from entering. During those dark days, people were scared and tense. But a shopkeeper – one of the few whose store remained open – would give you your milk for free. Little gestures of warmth, solidarity and community.

In neighbouring Jordan, hospitality is equally legendary, and again strongest amongst those who have the least.

Here, Palestine refugees face different challenges than those surviving the occupation across the border.

One man I met had been a refugee six times. Six times. Now aged in his 70s, he was a child when his family fled from Palestine to Jordan during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Subsequent decades saw his family flee and start anew in countries including Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria. Today’s Syria crisis has made the family refugees once more. Intelligent, kind, ambitious people are homeless once more.

Working in communications in the humanitarian sector, I sometimes feel ashamed asking people to share their traumatic stories. But almost every time, people want their stories told.

I met the man with the six stories of displacement and his wife just three times. On the final time, they gifted me with an old hand-woven Palestinian dress.

They, who had nothing, gave me not just their story, but this dress. I, who have everything, had nothing of meaning that I could give in return. Except to listen to their story, and not forget.

Palestinians have been refugees for nearly 70 years, and the world should not forget.

*UNRWA is a United Nations Agency that provides assistance to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. The services include education of half-a-million children, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

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