One day my husband came back from the Gaza Strip, where he often travels for his humanitarian work, and handed me a book titled “Where the road leads, an Australian woman’s journey of love and determination”. He told me that it had been written by an amazing woman, whom he had had the chance to meet in Khan Younis, a town in the southern part of the Gaza Strip where Jean Calder, in the frame of her work for the Palestinian Red Crescent, has set up a wonderful centre to help the disabled population of the Gaza strip.
I can hardly find the words to describe the feelings that her book provoked in me. Following her amazing path from Lebanon, where Jean moved from Australia in the eighties to work with disabled refugee children, through Cairo and then to the Gaza strip, filled me with a mixture of joy, for realizing what marvelous human beings exist, and pain at reading all the injustice and suffering Jean witnessed when choosing to stand besides the children she was helping. When the war broke out in Lebanon in 1982 Jean decided to stay and risked her own life to bring what comfort and help she could. It was in Lebanon that Jean met three children whose destinies were to get strongly interlaced with hers – Hamoudi, Dalal and Badr, three disabled Palestinian refugees, orphans and “children of PRCS”, would become her family, and follow her – amidst logistical difficulties and bureaucratic nightmares – in Egypt, where Jean worked for twelve years, and then to Palestine.
When I finished her inspirational and touching book, I only had one wish: to meet this woman in person, to meet her children and see with my own eyes the incredible achievements of her work and how her commitment and never faltering motivation has contributed to improve the lives of hundreds of disabled children and their families. Unfortunately the current situation prevents me from going to the Gaza Strip, and Jean does not want to go outside of it for fear of seeing her re-entry denied – a situation she has gone through too many times and that fills her, her children and the people who work with her with a fully understandable amount of stress.
I reached Jean on Skype some days ago, and I was delighted to have a long conversation with her and to exchange a few words with her children. I hope you will enjoy reading her words and I passionately invite you to buy and read her book. Thank you Jean for your time, for being such a source of inspiration, and simply for being with the neediest.
We are lucky you have electricity tonight!
Indeed we are. Often electricity goes off at around six at night and we manage with candles. If we have electricity in the evening, it means that it was cut during the morning and afternoon. But then we have the drones of the zanana (Israeli pilotless plains). They really scramble the TV picture and sound – so if there is electricity and the opportunity to watch TV, at least some of the time can be lost. We also sometimes have war planes overhead, though it’s not clear to me for what – maybe to bomb the tunnels???
Actually I do not really know the reason for the problem with electricity. Some say that the power plant that the Israelis bombed has been repaired but the problem relates to the shortage of fuel which then needs to be rationed. Whatever the reason, the frequent and lengthy power cuts cause many problems and inconvenience. Many people have generators, but they are noisy, and smelly.
Since we are at it, how is the general situation in the Gaza Strip, how do people live?
One always keeps hoping, but everything goes in circle and does not seem to be getting anywhere. We had a recent visit from a humanitarian worker who came to evaluate a project, and she told me she felt an incredible feeling of no future, a feeling of tightness in the people. There are many shortages in supplies but there are also many items that are brought through the tunnels. Some of the restrictions placed on goods coming through normally make very little sense. Papers, pens and other items for the children’s camps last summer were not permitted to enter as the Israeli authorities stated they were ‘not essential items’. Some of the shortages in the health sector can create dangerous situations for people. Travel out of the Gaza Strip, including travel to the West Bank (which is just another part of the country Palestine) depends on receiving a permit from the Israeli authorities. It seems more requests are denied than those approved, which places great restriction on the movement of the people. Some travel is possible through the southern border into Egypt, but this border seems to be closed more often than open, and again there are restrictions. Of course travel out to Egypt does not solve the problem of going to the West Bank. And things have actually changed recently. Whereas before the network of friends was always alert and as soon as something went on you could count on immediate spreading of news, I now have the feeling that people are indifferent – they hear an explosion and they don’t react: one more explosion, so what? People are losing hope. They can’t get out; they are confined, both in this land and in a situation that seems to have no future.
Talking about going out, how is the situation for you? I know from your book that since moving to the Gaza strip your mobility has been a source of constant stress. Has anything changed recently, or are you still on a tourist visa, despite your having worked in the area for more than ten years?
Nothing has changed. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has been trying to obtain a different kind of visa for me, but it is constantly denied, and the reason given for this is that I work for a local organization, not an international one. I do not want to leave the strip unless I have explicit guarantee of being able to get back. In fact, since 2007 I have not been able to get a permit to leave the Gaza Strip except for one very special occasion of the International Congress of the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in November 2009 and which involved months of negotiations to obtain the permit and guarantee re-entry. A couple of months later I applied for a permit to go across to Ramallah for a meeting of PRCS and was denied a permit. It does not make any sense, but is just one of the strange ‘normal’ situations that the people in Gaza have to deal with.
Tell us about your work, about the centre, how is everything going? Do you manage to keep up the work amidst all the difficulties?
My work covers a range of responsibilities as I am a Consultant in Rehabilitation and Training and Dean of the PRCS College of Ability Development. Based in Khan Younis, in the past I used also to travel frequently to the West Bank to follow the work of the Rehabilitation Centres there. The work at the PRCS Centre in Khan Younis is going well in spite of the many difficulties faced. The Rehabilitation Centre is working with over 600 clients.
Within the Rehabilitation Centre there are about 200 children attending the Special Education School, the majority of these children being deaf – others are slow learners or have a physical disability. These children follow the Ministry of Education curriculum and next year, for the first time in the Gaza Strip children who are deaf will be sitting for the Tawajhi, university entrance examination. The College has a four-year degree program in Special Education and Rehabilitation and an active continuing education department, which conducts courses for PRCS employees and the community in general.
Other activities of the centre include an after school children’s club for the neighbourhood children that has a daily attendance of 50 to 100 children and up to 200 during school holidays. The focal point to the activities of the club is the Open Studio which has at base the concepts of expression and creativity opportunities for children, offering a range of art, craft, story telling, puppetry, drama and linking with the other activities, including music, debka dance, library, computer and sports. The Open Studio was introduced by an organization from The Netherlands – HOPE Foundation, Holland – in 1996 and they have continued to be involved in the ongoing developments.
We also have a Sports Department, where I am not directly involved except for my efforts to try to have ongoing programs for women.
Then we have other activities now and then, like what we did for Mother’s Day: the main theatre of the centre was packed with 800 people, between mothers and children, there was a beautiful concert and a puppet show. The atmosphere was full of a lot of creativity and motivation, and this is what really keeps you going.
Tell us about your book…
This was a proposal from an Australian publisher who was concerned about Palestinians and wanted a local writer not directly involved in politics to write about the situation. The idea behind the book is to raise consciousness about what is happening here. It took me a bit longer than a year to write it, and at some points the writing was difficult. For instance, even then there were electricity cuts to deal with, and then when I went to Jordan to renew my visa I was not allowed to come back for four months. I had not brought my laptop with me, since I thought to be back home in a few days. I had left a flash with the backup of my work with Dalal (Jean’s daughter, ed.) who was able to send the drafts to me via email and I somehow managed to continue writing at an Internet cafè.
You have been through a lot since you started your life in the Middle East. What are the hardest moments and the happiest ones you have memory of?
It’s hard to say. Some situations during the war in Lebanon were really tough, and I can say that also leaving the children to renew my visa was always stressful, since I never knew whether I was going back. Actually every time I got back was a very happy moment. But certainly when Dalal and Hamoudi arrived in Cairo to join me from Lebanon was one of the happiest.
I also have a fond memory of a trip the children made to Finland in 1988 within the frame of an intercultural programme, and I went to accompany them. It was just amazing that this was possible, to be out in such a nice context when only recently the children had been in impossible situations and did not have any official documents. Another happy moment was when Dalal was awarded a Ford Foundation Scholarship to go to study for a Master’s Degree at Edinburgh University. (Dalal is Jean’s daughter and she is blind, ed.).
How are your children doing, by the way? Is Dalal still working as an interpreter?
She is Head of the Continuing Education Programme Department at the PRCS College, she also does some teaching and some interpreting from time to time. She maintains contact with the Ford Foundation Alumni and at a recent video-conference with the West Bank group during a visit by an official of the Foundation she was responsible for the instantaneous translation for the Gaza group. Badr is a messenger and general assistant in the College with general tasks. As you know, Hamoudi passed away in September 2008. He always had a chronic chest problem which eventually could not be managed. Given the severity of his disability, we were so very privileged to have had him with us for so many years. Needless to say, we miss him lots.
While we talk it seems like negotiations talks will start again in a few days. Are you optimistic? How do you see the future?
I have seen too much going on but nothing has ever changed for the better. What can I say? Everything and nothing is possible…
Khan Younis, Palestine