Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to start by thanking you for dedicating your time. And thank everyone who’s watching us online. I’d like to start for those of you who are not very aware of the geographical context of Palestine. This map shows what you would like to call Israel/Palestine, if you may. And the territory that is marked with this light color is Israel and the territory that is marked with the dark color is Palestine. You can see that Palestine is two parts and it’s geographically separated: one part is called the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and one part that is called Gaza Strip. So, if we zoom in to Gaza Strip, this is Gaza Strip and its eight refugee camps as categorized by the UN. On the east and northern borders it a buffer zone and it’s Israeli borders, it’s one kilometer or during the rise of conflict to goes to be up to three kilometers buffer zone. After the conflict or after the war, it’s one-kilometer buffer zone, a no man’s zone.
I come from Rafah refugee camp. It’s in the far south, lies by the Egyptian borders and the Israeli borders as well. This is one of the only photos I have in the refugee camp. We didn’t have the privilege of having cameras or cellphones back then. This is my home or I would like to call home. This is the place [where] I grew up and spent all of my life as a refugee. You can see it’s randomly built. It’s covered with corrugated metal: freezing cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. The streets are very narrow, but we like it. We live there, we just enjoyed being in that refugee camp. We built a special social relationship with our neighbors. Those are the streets of the refugee camp. They are very narrow. It’s the place where we study, play sometimes, eat and in the summer sleep because in the summer the houses will be really hot especially with the power cut.
One of the happy memories I had when I was a child was going with my father to take the food package from the UNRWA. The food package will be delivered once a month or sometimes each other month, depending on how much the UNRWA receives fund from the donors. The food package would include oil, lentils, chickpeas, some basics, basic food supply. But the most important significant thing for us was the flour. The Palestinian people grow up eating bread. We eat bread all the time. Flour allows families to bake. We wake up and bake—normally Palestinian families start baking first thing in the morning. So as a child I’d wake up on the smell of the bread and my mom would be baking in the house. And there is even local poetry on the smell of the bread in the Palestinian house. Mahmoud Darwish wrote one of those poems. We did bread and tea, that’s our favorite meal. We have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We don’t have the three meals on one day.
In my life where I lived in the refugee camp, I had the privilege of walking every day to the school but on Saturday we would have a local market. It’s called Saturday market and in different regions there is different markets depending on the day throughout the week. So, on Saturday which was a school day, a week day—in the Middle East the weekend is Friday and most organizations will operate on Saturday—so I’d walk to school and I’d do that through the local market. I would meet the locals, old ladies, old men, young people. They’re just sitting there randomly; there is no law, no regulations. Everyone just has to be considerate for the person next to him. It’s very nice, I know some of them, some of them know my family. I chat with them as I pass by. Those old ladies I know most of them. They’d just be saying, “Hi! How’s your son doing?” She might be asking about my family or my siblings. Sometimes I pass by I hear someone trying to barter in the prices with them. And they get the harshest come back from those ladies. I learned that it was a bad idea at a very young age.
So, in Palestine if you grab a camera immediately children will start smiling. They just detect it and they like to be recorded. We used to call every man an uncle and every woman aunt and every grown up would call every child son or daughter. So, I’d feel like everyone is my family, every place is my home literally. I could ask anyone for water if I go thirsty as I’m walking. You could walk into any house. And I remember I’d be walking to school on Saturday during the market day and I’d be distracted by everything around me and many people would be coming down to me and saying, “Son you’re getting late to school,” and I was like, “Okay, yeah, better rush.”
This is one of the photos of the busy downtown areas and maybe the photo doesn’t show that, but the cars are moving. The people are moving at the same time. And there is a policeman doing his job. It looks random, complicated, unorganized but it’s not. There’s a very organized system over there and everyone knows that. So, the idea is when people walk by cars or between cars, if they want to cross in front of the car or if the car is reversing and they want to cross, all they have to do is to just tap on the body of the car. And somehow it works. The sound is magnified; the driver will hear it very loud. Do it to a friend – you’ll freak him out. So immediately as the driver hears that sound he stops, and the passenger will pass by. Sometimes you’re walking by and someone is reversing in a very tiny space, so we just stop and give him directions and then move on. It’s just, the main rule here is be considerate for people around you and for everyone around you and then things can move on.
I loved going outside to buy falafel from the falafel shack. It’s kind of the same place family business people do in [the] Gaza Strip. If you ever see a falafel shack in Palestine you’ll see there is no line for the falafel shack, simply because the culture there says it’s inappropriate to give your back to someone. People have very strong social relationships [so] that they chat with each other all the time. So if they chat in the falafel shack they will actually stand next to each other and that’s how you get to chat with people on both sides. But you don’t give your back to anyone. If women or children show up, they will be given a priority but otherwise there will be a small crowd and they [are] all buying falafel. And just giving the [inaudible] for anyone to move on. No fight for the line. This is the basic rule for the falafel.
When it rains in [the] Gaza Strip that will be a party for young children. We’d go out in the rain, dance, and have fun. If it keeps raining, the party stops because the water rises, it gets into the houses. And then we have to leave. We take our stuff, whatever is still dry. And we leave the houses. We go to the schools. Because in Gaza Strip we don’t have hotels, we don’t have emergency centers. And we figured out [a] long time ago that schools are basically classrooms. It’s very similar to the structure of hotels and we can use them during emergency. So, we go to schools and the UNRWA would provide people with aid and emergency response in such crises. Sometimes we sail to schools. It’d be like a trip. This is one of the families that has been hosted recently in the UNRWA schools during a storm. [It’s] not the perfect place, not the perfect condition but much better than if they would stay in their flooded houses.
Speaking about schools, this is a picture of an old school. This is exactly what my school looked like when I was young. We had one floor buildings. My school had lots of trees around them because the classrooms are covered by a corrugated metal and it gets really hot in summer. So, the trees would be covering the classrooms. The classrooms were amazing. This is not a swimming pool – this is just the playground, but it had just rained. Classrooms would have on the lower level [with] fifty to sixty students. On the upper level it would have something between forty to fifty students. It’s very crowded, very noisy sometimes but it’s just amazing. I’d say this is the best education I have received in my life. This is the nicest thing that has happened to me. I wouldn’t say enough about my teachers, the teachers were teachers, were parents, were mental counselors, they were caretakers. They did much more than they were expected to do. They knew my family; they knew the family of everyone. Sometimes you call them teachers, sometimes you call them uncle, sometimes you call them Abo Ahmed for example, it means father of your eldest son. That’s how Arabs call each other: it’s a kind of being close to them, being friendly with each other.
We would do our homework in the court yard, on the stairs, on the floor, anywhere. Any place can be our studying desk. Schools have changed in Palestine now. This is a very [inaudible] school for the UNRWA schools in Gaza strip. And you can see it’s a multi floor building. Students are having some sort of festival. It’s amazing. The UNRWA also has an in-service training program where they keep training staff all the time and improving their ability and skills. So, you can see here students: they are learning using games and toys. It’s a very new and smart method. We didn’t have that privilege back then, but I wouldn’t complain. I enjoyed my own way of learning or my teachers’ way of teaching.
So, I remember the first time I lived through a military operation and that was when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. I woke up at night on the sound of the tanks’ engine and the tanks are so huge [that] they have a huge engine you could hear it from a mile or more even. So, we woke up on that sound and there was bombing, there was shooting. We figured out it wouldn’t be smart to walk outside until we figured out what was happening and when you stay inside, and the shooting and the bombing is happening outside, you basically think that it’s all around you, it’s all targeted on you. And because you’re still alive you have the idea or the exception that I’m the only survivor in this village so far. Cause the sound is so scary. The whole house is shaking that you figure out everyone has gone. So, we stayed inside all the night. In the morning we heard someone who was shouting at us and he said everyone has to leave the house. He was someone from our camp.
As the tanks proceeded to the village they were followed by bulldozers and then because the camp is very narrow… the roads don’t even fit for cars. It wouldn’t even fit for bulldozers of course, so they created roads as they driven through houses, creating their own roads. When we had the person asking everyone to leave we walked outside, I stood in front of my house and I looked at the end of the road and I could see the bulldozer proceeding through the road and knocking down houses on both sides. And maybe the photo doesn’t show that but the bulldozer is a huge vehicle. I’d describe it as a (?) building. And when I was a child and I would look up to such huge creator or spaceship that was very scary. We left houses. Here you see a family all of them are trying signal to the soldier or the driver telling him wait. In our culture in the Middle East if you signal that way and shake your hand to someone it means wait, because some people were still inside they couldn’t leave on time. And he started bringing down the house. So people would leave and that would be the worst scene my family have always told us how they left from the north and came to the south of Gaza strip and became refugees. We’ve always had stories about it but then suddenly we were reliving the same crises that they have been through. We would take everything we can with us, not because it’s worthy but because we wanna feel that we have saved something specially if we’re gonna sleep in the streets for the following nights then we could use few mattresses and blankets.
The very next day immediately as the military operation stops the first thing we will see is the UN vehicles, it doesn’t matter if it was working hours or not. They were always on duty, they will come immediately as the military operation stops and they would provide us with the most important things needed. Mainly they would start with drinking water because we have lost all the water supplies, it has been destroyed. Normally the first thing will be destroyed is the drinking supplies and the power supplies. Then the next thing they would provide us with tents. Sometimes those tents will be put in schools. Will be put in other places away from the border area but for most of the families we would prefer to have our tents rights next to the building or the houses that were destroyed. When I think about it, that helps people deal with their trauma. My family stayed in that tent for months after our house was destroyed and that was just to think about it just to accept our loss to feel comfortable walking away after that and then we’ll move away. So in that tent I went to sleep we lived, we ate, we chatted with each other, we studied. I’d go school from that tent and go back to home, calling this tent home. Think of it as a long time camping.
I grew up and started working for the UNRWA. Just a minute please! And talking about the UNRWA I’d like to mention that I won’t be speaking on behalf of anyone other than myself Mohamed the refugee from a refugee camp. I grew up and studied for a local college and I started working for the UNRWA the education department. The UNRWA has seven programs, three of them are the main and the biggest programs: the Education, the Relief and Social Service, the Health Program. The Education serves over half million refugee children, the Health program serves over nine million patients each year. And the other programs, the Protection, the Microfinance, the infrastructure and Camp Improvement, the Emergency Response are all small programs trying to help as much as possible. I worked with Education Department and I managed to work with young people, I managed to work with teachers and help them develop the curriculum, help them to improve their teaching strategies, evaluate, assist the whole process. That was something I really enjoyed and I like doing and I wish that I could do it for the rest of my life. Until some of the fund was transferred to the emergency response program and then some of the staff were transferred to the emergency response program that included me in 2012 and 2014 military assault.
In 2012 we learned lessons from the military assault and we prepared for the next one. We had a plan and we thought that next time we will be more prepared and we will be able to host up to 50,000 refuges, we’ll perfectly host them, provide them with services and emergency response and that should be good. To give you a glimpse of the attack I’ll show you few seconds just to get idea of the scale of the crises. So if you see the time difference, the bombing started at four and finished at five. In one hour the whole village was destroyed and everyone was displaced, the ones who survived, in the first three days, or four days of the conflict the UNRWA had 50,000 refugees on the shelters that we have prepared. We wished that the conflict would only last for five days maybe. Unfortunately it lasted for fifty one days by the end of the attack the UNRWA had 300,000 refugees on sight six times more than we expected and more than we have prepared to receive. The crisis was defiantly overwhelming.
What happens is that once the bombings start refugees immediately leave their houses and head to the UNRWA schools. People would be marching down the streets in huge numbers that would be scary like nothing would be like that. People would go to the UNRWA schools whether they’re open or not. Sometimes they’d open the schools and get inside. It’s war, people would be dying in that case. And what happens is the UNRWA staff prepares the place for them. They give approval to open the place as refugee shelter or not once it’s approved everyone will get inside.
This is one of the classrooms, chairs has been taken outside and then you can see that families … it’s very crowded, families are sitting there, children, women, it’s amazing when you walk inside you grab camera you wanna take a photo and then you’ll see children start smiling to you. They are the hope in that misery and you can see that there are no men in those refugee shelters in those classes and that’s because of that conservative culture out of consideration men will actually stay outside or will stay in the streets. So if we go outside you’ll see all the men, they’re hanging out giving all the space for women and children. They also sleep outside. We’ve provided them with rooms only for men to go and sleep inside but then they gave those rooms to children and women to give them extra space and they insisted on sleeping outside. The UNRWA provides them with very important aid and services they need. The first thing we start with would be the mattresses and you can see they have different colors, different sizes different shapes because we don’t have large supplies in Gaza strip. We basically buy them on individual basis. We call people, we call the suppliers and someone would be able to provide us with five mattresses, someone will even provide with one mattress and we just collect tem and on that way the good thing about doing that is that is that we always try to support the local community so kind of support the economy of the local community, the hosting society, but it’s definitely sometimes we fall short in certain situations.
Also water is one of the most important supplies during the last military assault in 2014 the one gallon of drinking water reach the price of 100 dollars and we couldn’t even find it so when the UN staff reported the humanitarian need they asked for drinking water and then the higher administration wasn’t so happy with that they said we can’t just pay all that money for transferring all the supplies and then eventually it’s just water. This is have to be provided locally and we will have to bring other important things from outside then the emergency reporting staff they said this is the only thing we need right now as emergency appeal, it’s only drinking water and we ended up buying, getting drinking water from Jordan and convoys of drinking water brought all the water from Jordan to Gaza strip because we didn’t have them luckily. The UNRWA would provide having refugees, having people who have just lost their houses, have just lost their family members. They’re sitting in there and Gaza strip is a very small place so when there’s bombing we’re actually sitting there and we’re hearing it happening around us so having people in there for fifty one days it’s a very stressful, very traumatizing experience so the UNRWA would mobilize mental counselors who would come and provide children with games, with exercises with debriefing sessions, rehabilitation programs in a way of helping those young people and the senior people as well and kind of overcoming their traumas.
Unfortunately the UNRWA staff they get themselves traumatized sometimes and for they fall victims of the situation so in 2014 more than around twenty UNRWA staff were killed on duty at some point, the refugee shelters, the schools themselves were bombed and people were killed inside. This is one of the schools or the refugee shelter where I used to live, it’s in Rafah camp and you can see it says Rafah prep boys school. It’s a school but it has been opened as a refugee camp. It has been bombed during the war, it’s very far from the border area. It has been categorized as safe zone suddenly with all that crowded places the crowded room, the crowded playground where men would stay outside as I showed you in the photo suddenly bombs were dropped over their heads. I’ll play this short record just to show you an idea about the crises. We told them 33 times where exactly the refugee shelters were so every morning the first thing we do in the morning is that we send reports with coordination saying so on so place is being dedicated as a refugee shelter and we have to repeat that on a daily basis so by that day they have been reported 33 times that this place was a refugee shelter and it was bombed. It was a surprise for everyone we didn’t know what to do; we didn’t know what else we can do.
Personally speaking, protection is a relative thing after all people did not leave that refugee shelter, people stayed there because they knew that protection was a relative thing even with bombing still those shelters were the most safe place possible. I’m gonna talk about the challenges and difficulties were faced working in that context and among that was the carpet bombing. The carpet bombing some other people call it random bombing which is just bombing an area. There is another term for it they call it scorched land policy when they just bomb everything that is moving, everything that is over the ground, a building, a house, a car, anything in that area. That is in eastern Rafah, that is the Rafah black Friday. If you search that in Google you will get all the information. in two to three hours 300 or 200 people were killed and Rafah had black Friday. Bodies injured, people were all over the streets all over the roads. Calls were coming from everywhere and the response was way below the scale of the crises.
There was an UNRWA refugee shelter in that area during the carpet bombing and people were evacuated just a few minutes before bombing before bombs targeted that school and you can see here that the bombing is mainly centered around the main road so mobility it really becomes very difficult, very challenging and the thing people have to do is just walk. They walk from a house to house, from a farm to farm through the side roads and become very challenging. Also one of the main challenges was bombing the power station which is one of the most strategic targets that probably would be the target of the first day of the military assault. The first thing we have to deal with is the bombing of the power station so we’ll have to know that we will lose running water, we will lose the sea which trade treatment and everything that works on electricity. Something else was the surprise of the white phosphorus which categorized as illegal weapon according to Geneva Accord. One bomb can cover the whole neighborhood. It’s white material that burns for days, it burns literally for days and it produces a very stinging acidic gas that is hard to breath and it stings the skin itself. The skin would feel burning just being in that region. That substance, if it hits the human flesh as locals call it a flesh eating weapon. It just goes through the flesh. It’s so scary, so crazy, we tried pouring water on that and the more we pour water the bigger it goes, it’s like we’re feeding it.
The other challenge we faced was bombing Rafah hospital which is the only hospital in Rafah. It was bombed and the ministry of health, the health staff had to evacuate everyone, they had to evacuate the dead bodies and the conflict happened in July that was the attack you could imagine having no electricity and having lots of dead bodies we haven’t recognized to whom the belong or haven’t recognized their families and it’s in July. That was a very critical situation one of the solutions the UNRWA came up with was giving one of their main generators to a local farm storage or vegetable storage. It was like a huge storage that is used to freeze vegetables and they got all the vegetables outside and they put all the bodies inside that fridge for those days and the owner will help the local minster of health and the local health department and developing a categorization program or plan to identify the bodies and find the families in a very quick way to arrange funerals because the numbers were huge and we couldn’t wait we thought that will last forever.
One of the other challenges would be he problems with the staff. The staff has families they live in that conflict zones and in those targeted areas, they will get affected, they would feel bad for their families. I myself received a call when I was in one of the refugee shelters saying that my neighborhood is being under military operation and my father told me to come back home immediately because we need to get everyone outside we need to get out a few things I went back home and I couldn’t find home. I just looked everywhere and I couldn’t recognize the whole area, it just evaporated. This crater is what you see after houses being bombed and because the place is too crowded, the houses are too narrow then this house is being bombed but this house is completely destroyed as well as this one and those ones are partially destroyed and this one is completely destroyed so basically one bomb could destroy a whole neighborhood. I went back there immediately, I found my house was bombed. I looked for everyone once I found out that no one was killed and and that all of my family has left on time I just didn’t care, I didn’t mind. Once you experience the feeling of losing someone you know or someone you love everything else becomes easy for you to accept, you will never complain about things. Ten minutes after I was there, I saw my family, I saw my father, and then we were having fun and telling jokes about the bombing and about losing the house and about the bad décor and the bad structure and maybe we could avoid making the same mistakes this time. Those are two different photos of course but I wanted to show you how it would look like from above.
Leaving Gaza strip and coming for this of course for this program that I am doing right now, during one of the training sessions the UNRWA have held for the staff I was one of the training, the international trainers he suggested to me that there is an American fellowship that teaches students in the fields of conflict, peace, and humanitarian aid and the said just make an application and maybe it will work out for you. I did their application and I was selected for the rotary fellowship to come to university of North Carolina and Duke study global studies and international development. That was very interesting, very exciting only if I could leave Gaza strip because on one is allowed to leave Gaza strip. I mean that’s what it means to have siege. The UNRWA thought that this program will contribute to their operation so they agreed on applying on my behalf for a travel permit. They did that and I was informed seven times that I’m allowed to travel and I would pack my stuff, say goodbye to my family, go to the buffer zone, spend the whole day, go through the security interrogation then by the end of the day they will ask me to go back. On the eighth time I was told that this is the last time like every time they would say come to the buffer zone and we have given you conditional offer which is going through the security interrogation which is something we’re used to.
I went there, this is on the Palestinian side and I saw that they have already bombed the crossing point authority so we basically land into a place that is very traumatizing, very scary. There is no man in there and I found someone who acts like he is selling tea but I feel like he is part of the staff so I asked him and he said yes I’m part of the staff you just walk in there, you shout out, you whistle and someone would come out and help you, I was like okay! So I walked and I shouted for people and someone came out and he said you’re leaving or why are you asking for us? Yes I’m leaving. He said follow me, he took me and basically they will be hiding next to a wall under a tree finding a closed home and staying inside they will just keep changing their position because they’re very scared at some point the drones will come up in the sky and they will bomb them and that happens all the time so they stamped my passport and they sent me to the next point where there was security people, security team who leashed out to the Israeli side and they said we have this and that person this is his name this is his ID number, let us know when should we let him in. After a while they reached out to them on the radio and they said let Mohammed Eid come in. The security team were very nice, they told me they have this door or this gate built on the Palestinian side, they say to you if your bag fits in that trolling door then take it with you, if it doesn’t then leave it behind because the Israeli army will not allow you to take it in. My bag did fit luckily. I went inside and then I have to walk in the buffer zone for one kilometer, that’s a thousand meters maybe three thousand feet, walking in there just dragging my bag and it’s no man zone, everything around me is destroyed, no trees, no houses, no buildings, on one, nothing.
This is the buffer zone that connects Gaza strip to the wall. The wall is a huge 30 feet wall with military towers across the wall and once I get close to the wall that’s where I would find the gates. The most scary thing about the wall wasn’t the military towers but it was the mobility center or the sensitive machine guns so I would be walking in there, they tell me that if you walk inside this tunnel the machine gun will not sense your movement and they will not kick in and start shooting at you. So I would be walking there hopefully that it does not do that. once I reach that end I’ll find two gates. They watch me through the camera. I have to open my bag empty everything and they watch it through the camera then bring everything back inside. Once they get sure that I have shown everything, they open the gate, I walk inside, there’s a table inside so I do the same thing again and I empty my bag on the table. The table has some kind of a scanner system it scans everything. I take everything inside again and walk in, I reach the Israeli side, this is the Israeli air crossing, you want to travel and by the crossing you see a tank and soldiers with heavy machine guns every person who works at that crossing is either a soldier or a special force soldier or something like that and it’s a very scary place to travel through. When I reached the other side they I went through security interrogations and all the procedures but then suddenly they brought a small bag, like a bag you’d take to the gym or you’d have your meal in that bag when you go to work and they said to me fill this bag with clothes and leave everything behind. Your cellphone, your laptop, your food, your drink, your electronics, everything., not even my flash drive and I said to them I can’t do that I have to have my laptop on me I’m a student, I’m travelling to study. And they said well that’s fine, you can have everything on you but make sure you go back to Gaza strip and tell everyone that we allowed you to travel and you’re the one who said no so I kind of figured out it was the way of dealing with my request to travel. The UNRWA has asked for that, the US consulate was involved in the process; the rotary foundation was involved in that process so probably too many people have given him a headache so they decided to kind of play a game with that.
I left everything behind and took their bag and left. The way it works, I leave from the north of Gaza strip and then I take a taxi, I pay for it, it’s a very taxi, no one would like to work in that region unless if he was desperate. I would take a taxi and then would be accompanied by an army vehicle. I will drive go all the way through the Israeli territory and then the Palestinian territory and then I go to Jericho. In Jericho I have to pass more than three checkpoints. Israeli checkpoints, Palestinian checkpoints and Jordanian check points. Once I’m cleared by the three checkpoints and for the Israelis they would have more than one checkpoint and they’d be the worst checkpoints, they have very strict regulations and they’re separated from the checkpoint in Gaza strip. They don’t coordinate with each other so I have to go through the same process all over again. Once I finished, I passed to Jordan. I stayed in Jordan for ten days, two weeks finished my US visa interview. I wanted to do that in the west bank or in Tel Aviv. I said to them I just have to quickly do the US visa interview and then travel to Jordan and they said no Arabs from Gaza Strip are not allowed to go into Israel. They didn’t even use other terms, they said it that clear and that loud. So I went to Jordan, I done that in Jordan and then after that I traveled to the US.
Since I came here I haven’t met but very generous community, and kind and friendly people. People have been very supportive for me they have been very currently responding to me and to my people in my community. I have nothing but to thank everyone, to thank my host community, my friends in North Carolina, my neighbors, the UNRWA USA I’m volunteering with right now. Everyone I have met so far has been so friendly to me I can’t but appreciate that and I can’t ignore the fact that the American people have stood by my people during the past seventy years of their suffering. If anyone of you has paid his taxes to the federal government during the past seventy years, part of it has gone to the UNRWA and to my people and the refugee camps. Since then I have been travelling around, attending conferences, meetings, discussion sessions contributing to the main concern for me which is the humanitarian effectiveness on sustainability. How can we do more? How can we help those refugees, how can we respond properly to their crises? How can we adjust large scale crises? Those are very important and critical questions in my field of study. And I feel it’s my duty at this time to contribute back to that field to those communities not only my community. I believe humanitarian has no religion and ethnicity but to all or any humanitarian crises that would appear in the world, hopefully I would manage to do that at some point. I thank you so much for listening and I would like to take your questions. Thank you very much.