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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anwar Says Goodbye to Gaza

Senior U.S. staff member Anwar Khan wrapped up his visit to Gaza earlier this week. He was visiting Islamic Relief projects and met with many beneficiaries who shared their stories and feelings with him.

In his latest diary entry, he described his last day in Gaza and trip back to Islamic Relief Worldwide's headquarters in Birmingham, U.K.. Khan's parting moments with Gaza proved memorable. You will find some of his reflections below.

November 8 - My last day in the office was frantic as last minute preparations were being made. Normally a team of 3-4 members from the U.S. would conduct audits, evaluations, prepare media material, meet staff and beneficiaries. I had to do as much as I could with a limited staff because it is difficult to send humanitarian aid into Gaza.

I was told Ihad to get to the border by noon to make it smoothly across the border. I then had to wait nine hours at the border. It would be another five hours to Cairo by car. As I was waiting at the border, I was asked if I thought we would make it across. I had no doubt. The people of Gaza are the ones under siege. For most of them, being delayed is not the problem; it is entering, or leaving.

This year, the hajj pilgrims have been allowed to go on pilgrimage and that added to the rush.

November 9 - I arrived in Cairo at 2:30 a.m. only to leave for the airport three hours later. The journey from Gaza to the Islamic Relief Worldwide headquarters in Birmingham, U.K. would take nearly 30 hours and I still have meetings in the U.K. before I will return home to Dallas, TX.

This was an emotionally draining trip but it inspired me. It was difficult to hold back the tears when hearing of the human tragedy. But it was inspiring to see their resolve in face of adversity. Fathers buried their sons and then went straight back to helping others who were still alive; widows had to look after one son with multiple sclerosis, another with cancer and choose between medicine and food.

I remember a surreal moment when I was invited for a late lunch in a hotel restaurant by a local philanthropist. We were on the tenth floor overlooking the Mediterranean Sea at sunset.

This would have been a very romantic location, had it not been for the gunfire from the Israeli navy firing warning shots near Palestinian fishermen to keep them within 3 km of land.

As with the other occasions I heard gunfire on this trip. Nobody flinched. This is part of the Gaza routine.

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Read the rest of Anwar's Gaza entries here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Anwar Meets Gaza Families

Senior U.S. staff member Anwar Khan is in Gaza visiting Islamic Relief projects and beneficiaries. This past weekend, he met orphans Islamic Relief donors are sponsoring, and visited schools and hospitals Islamic Relief is supporting. He recounted and reflected on the experience in his latest diary entries, from which you will find some excerpts below.

November 6 - Today, we visited some of the most devastated areas from the war earlier this year. These areas are mostly in the north and east of Gaza. We visited olive orchards that were uprooted and cement factories that were destroyed. One of the olive orchards has been re planted, but it will take many years for them to grow back. The cement factory cannot be renovated until construction materials are allowed into Gaza and even then it cannot operate without raw materials.

There were children going inside destroyed buildings to scavenge for anything useful. We visited destroyed schools and damaged playgrounds.

We prayed Jum'aa (Friday prayers) in one of the largest mosques in northern Gaza. It was paid for by a ruler from the Gulf. It looked beautiful from afar, but when I entered the mosques I saw broken windows and broken fixtures. The locals are finding it difficult to find the raw materials to maintain this building.

We visited more orphans today, Suzanne, Iman and Amina. Suzanne is a gifted girl who lives in a refugee camp, but got a scholarship to go to a private school. Her favorite subject is English and she wants to be a teacher when she gets older.

When I asked her what her dreams were she replied "For peace to Gaza. For the ability to travel locally and internationally without problems." This from an eleven-year-old orphan.

Iman and Amina are seven-year-old twins. Their father died one year and three days after their birth. A few months later their younger brother was born. Their mother is remarried and they have to live with their maternal grandparents in a refugee camp. What shocked me the most was young Iman's favorite subject: human rights.

November 7 - We revisited Al Shifa and Nasser pediatric hospital. Al Shifa is overcrowded and desperately needs a new building. The new building is half done, the construction ceased three years ago when the sanctions were tightened.

We visited three-year-old Fayek who is in the Intensive Care Unit after he fell nearly forty feet. We were told he is stable, but not out of harms way. His spleen, lungs, liver and brain are partially damaged.

Nasser pediatric hospital is another old building, but the emergency unit has been renovated by Islamic Relief Palestine.

We also did some more food distribution today. One beneficiary, an elderly disabled man, was too weak to take the food package home. I helped him place the package on the back of his bicycle and he used the bicycle as a trolley to take the parcel home.

After nightfall, I visited the main shopping area which is on Omar Mukhtar Street. Most of the items were from China. The fake shirts were cheap quality, but the same price as the originals in the US. Before the siege there were very limited items to buy, now the shops are full with cheap quality items that were smuggled through the underground tunnels.
To read the rest of Anwar's Gaza entries please visit the Islamic Relief USA blog.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gaza Convoy Presses On

Islamic Relief USA staff member Anwar Khan is in Gaza with an international delegation visiting some of our projects and beneficiaries. He shared tearful reflections with USA staff via teleconference, and is sharing his stories with supporters below.

November 3- Yesterday was physically and emotionally trying, but the human spirit in adversity was inspiring. We visited Al Shifa clinic in the South. The medical director was thanking us for coming to Gaza and he felt they were not alone. He thanked all the Arab, Muslim and friends of other faiths who had come during and after the crisis for their help.

He explained how the hospital was overflowing with patients in the first half hour of the bombing. Patients were placed on the floor, bleeding and waiting for help. Staff risked their lives to come to work. Some lost their families and took of the funeral and came straight to work. At this point he was interrupted by a local who mentioned that the doctors own 21-year-old son was killed in the bombardment. The doctor buried his son and continued treating patients in the hospital the same day. At this point, the doctor had a tear in his eye, but then showed us a photo of his son on his mobile phone. He smiled and then continued with the needs of the children in Gaza.

We then visited the blood donor ward, the fluoroscopy lab and the Intensive Coronary Care Unit. We visited many sick children and were told that because of the closed border this hospital was for many children their only hope.

The next visit was to a water pump. Islamic Relief Palestine had to drill with the local partner 90 meters to get water and treat the water with chlorine, before it was safe to drink. 90% of Gazans do not have access to drinking water from their faucets and 30% do not even have access to regular water, even if it is not drinking water.

Next was a children's center where Islamic Relief is providing fortified milk shakes and cookies, which are an essential source of calcium and vitamins to the children.

Our final visit was to a University where we provided science equipment. The campus had been damaged in the bombardment, this equipment was away being repaired at the time of the bombardment, so was not destroyed. Now it is relocated in a different building.

Our delegation was amazed at the can-do attitude and lack of complaining in the face of insurmountable odds. We don't need to pity them, but respect them for trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

November 4- The international delegation left today after we visited the Islamic Relief warehouses. We inspected the emergency items we have ready for the next emergency. We know it is a matter of when, not if the emergency will come. On this trip, we have seen some neighborhoods in the north that have been destroyed. It was as if a tsunami had washed everything away. In other neighborhoods, some buildings were destroyed and some neighborhoods were relatively unscathed.

The international delegation was delayed at the border on their return. That is not a good sign for me, but they made it back safely.

I had a meeting with some of our staff today and was told stories of how some had to bury their loved ones and then went immediately to work. I wish they could come to the U.S. to tell their stories of delivering humanitarian aid during the conflict, but they, like most of the Gaza population, are not able to leave.

November 5- Today, we visited some of the poorest families we are sponsoring in Gaza. We give them food rations for three months, but they consume them in two months. The food rations are for 7 in a family. There were between 11 and 15 family members in the families we visited today.
In one family, there were three generations living in one house. One of the daughters, 27, became a widow at the age of 19and now has moved back home with her seven-year-old twins. Her eleven-year-old brother has a hole in his heart and none of the adults are able to get jobs.

Ahmed and Younis are both orphan brothers that Islamic Relief is sponsoring. They are disabled and their mother has to look after them and their older brother who is suffering from cancer. Their sponsorship payment goes mostly to pay for their medical visits and medicine. Their building was damaged earlier this year during the bombardment. They are just surviving and cannot repair the one room they all live in.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

IR Convoy in Gaza

Islamic Relief USA staff member, Anwar Khan, is part of an international delegation visiting Gaza and some of Islamic Relief's projects there. He arrived on November 1, and will be sending his reflections from the field. Below you will find an excerpt from his writings so far.

November 1- We left Cairo at 4 a.m. to escape the desert heat and arrived at the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian/Palestinian border just before 10 a.m.. We were expecting to pass the border in an hour. It took seven hours. We were very lucky - for some it takes days, if they cross at all. As I put my foot on the Palestinian side I felt I was in a special place. After eleven years I had stepped back into the holy land. Christian, Muslims and Jews all believe this land is special.

The sixteen hour journey had come after years of trying. Since the crisis happened earlier this year I have been longing to come and see the situation for myself and I wanted to see the people of Gaza, whom we saw suffering on television news every night in January. I had so many questions, including; how they were and what kind of people were they who stayed during and after the bombardment?

As we traveled from the border to our residence we saw some destruction, but not on the scale I had seen in the media. That was to come tomorrow.

November 2- Today, we visited one of the psychosocial centers Islamic Relief is running in Gaza, to help children affected by trauma. One of the children there, Mahmood, lost his mother and is still suffering from severe trauma. Through play, animation, role playing and other forms of therapy, therapists are slowly seeing improvement in his condition. After his session, we had to drop him off at a camp he is staying in since his home was destroyed earlier this year.

We then visited a clinic which had been converted to a hospital due to the conflict earlier this year. It is in northern Gaza, which took the brunt of the destruction. The hospital was waiting for funds for radiology equipment. They are not able to function properly without working equipment.

Next stop was a visit to the agricultural wells that help the local farmers. Islamic Relief Palestine had rebuilt five wells this year.

At the only artificial limbs center in Gaza, which Islamic Relief operates, we saw a patient who had lost his leg in the conflict and was now learning to walk on a prosthetic limb. Because it is the only center of its kind in Gaza, it was flooded with requests this year. In the past, some of the patients may have gone overseas for treatment, now they have no choice. They are not able to leave. The staff is working tirelessly with smiles on their faces and can see the positive side to any tragedy.

Islamic Relief's center for the hearing impaired was next and we visited kindergarten children who were learning through play. I and my colleague do not know Arabic and these children cannot speak English, but as my colleague was rolling on the floor with the children I saw them speaking through the language of laughter and smiles. I realized then that I was not watching Palestinian, or Gazan children, I was watching beautiful children playing and laughing. No labels. I thought of my own daughter in kindergarten in Dallas, Texas. Maybe one day these children will be able to go home and drink clean water from the faucet, maybe one day their parents can afford to feed them regularly, at least now we can help them with hearing aids. One act of compassion is not enough, but every act of compassion makes a difference. To these children it may make a world of a difference.

There was then a visit to another hospital where Islamic Relief had provided medical equipment. Before the improvements, the paint was peeling and you could smell the mold. The emergency department looked new and the equipment was new and was saving lives.

We then went upstairs to the neonatal unit to see tiny babies in incubators that were not working properly. The hospital was not able to get all the spare parts and was making do with what they could. The neonatal ward had mold and the paint was peeling. The building was forty years old and it is extremely difficult to pay salaries and get equipment, let alone maintain the whole building. No matter what we do, there are always more needs. As I looked at the sick patients, I felt some relief in that at least we've made a difference with these children. We need to help one child at a time.

We then visited another pediatric hospital and a school that had been devastated. This day had broken my heart several times after witnessing so much pain and destruction. In the evening I met a local man who explained how he was recycling some of the olive trees that were destroyed earlier this year. Instead of burning them he was constructing jewelry cases and tissue boxes. Broken glass was being recycled into plates. Nothing was to be wasted and the item would come back in a different form. This is also true for Gaza. It is so different from eleven years ago and the courage of the people in adversity is amazing.