Saturday, January 27, 2007

First Public Screening!

Tonight was the community screening at Ibdaa of the twelve digital stories made by youth in Dheisheh refugee camp and Aida refugee camp.

Over a hundred people filled Ibdaa's community hall on the third floor of the center. It was very powerful to see the stories projected onto a big screen and I think the young people were pleased to share their pieces. Afterwards, we had a reception upstairs in the Ibdaa restaurant and three of the participants interviewed audience members to get feedback and discuss the impact of their words.

I haven't done any of the post-production work so I hadn't seen the pieces for a few weeks. During the screening I was yet again amazed by their work - their words, music and images fit so well together and tell such personal and powerful stories. I'm really looking forward to bringing the pieces to US audiences and hearing people's responses.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More on Gaza

I'm back in Dheisheh camp after a few more full days with Mona in Gaza. Erez Crossing was, of course, more of the same on the way out. Nightmarish gates and unintelligble directions through a speaker. I left in record time, just over an hour. On the way out you have to navigate the turnstiles, pass your belongings through the x-ray inspection (I had to send mine through four times), go through some frightening human x-ray machine with your hands up and legs spread. Then when someone finally appeared after an hour of getting orders on where to go and what to do through a speaker, the soldier opened and examined everything in my luggage. Another good experience with Israeli "security."

It was an overwhelming four days. Mona was hoping to travel to the UK to speak at a conference so we hurried to get everything done by Saturday when the Rafah Crossing was scheduled to open (predictably, the border didn't open and she had to delay her flight).

Destroyed Home in Beit Hanoun

Beit Hanoun town center

I haven't spent much time in Gaza so it's usually difficult for me to tell the new rubble from the old after so many years of military bombardment. But the scale of destruction was noticeable even to me.

I saw two of the bridges that were bombed by the Israeli military in June and still haven't been reconstructed (with so few trucks able to enter Gaza and the devastated economy, rebuilding is very slow). We drove by endless rows of inhabited houses that have holes from artillery shelling and large tracts of land without even a small bush or patch of grass because they have been newly bulldozed.

But more important than the images of physical destruction, are the effects this violence has had on the people. But my white, middle class upbringing in the US and my short visit there carrying an American passport leaves me unable to even imagine life in Gaza.

The poverty level in Gaza is 80-85%. We have created this. The US/EU/Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority have meant little to no money for government employees. The Israeli attacks with weapons made in the US and paid for by our $3 billion aid package to Israel have left many families with no home, no farm, or no breadwinner. And the border closures have forced the farmers that still have their orchards, greenhouses, or crops to let their produce rot in Gaza because they can't export them in time. It's frightening how fast the economy has plummetted from an already low place.

How can anyone be surprised by the internal violence after we have stood by for decades watching Israel attack and isolate Gaza? It's easy to look in now and say the people should unite, that more violence is the last thing needed. But the whole situaion is so hopeless and they cannot reach those who are responsible to hold them accountable. There's no leaving Gaza and no explaining the truth on CNN, so people have to place the blame on those they can reach, rival political factions in Gaza.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hell and Hope in Gaza

Mona and I had a busy day together in Gaza. Last night, she took me to Anonymous Soldier Square in central Gaza City. There is a protest tent there with people speaking out against the internal violence and calling for a united movement in Palestine. There are about 15 people fasting at the tent and people coming and going all day to show their support.

Then this morning we drove by the apartment that was home to the three boys killed by gunmen in December. They were 3, 6 and 9. Their photos were pasted on the walls in the entryway. It was hard for me to look at their smiling faces so I can't imagine what it must be like for their family and friends.

We made our way through Gaza City to Jabalia Refugee Camp which is home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees. The population density in Jabalia makes Manhattan look positively spacious. We visited with staff and volunteers at Al-Assria Center which runs art, dance, drama, music, media, and educational programs for children and youth from Jabalia. They have really carved out a space for creativity in the camp and have developed some amazing young leaders that now run many of their programs. The center was mostly empty because students are having mid-term exams right now but I saw some of their artwork on the walls and heard from them about some new program ideas for the center.

The strangulation of Gaza as a whole has meant they cannot get the technology they need for their youth media project so we dropped off a video camera that I brought in from the U.S. Their young people have created a few beatiful pieces already of a Ghassan Kanafani play and a documentary called Yom fe Jabalia (A Day in Jabalia). I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with the new camera.

We drove by Karni Crossing (the commercial crossing between Gaza and Israel) today and it was the first time I've been to that area. The road that runs along the eastern edge of Gaza has been ripped up in many places by Israeli tanks so it was a bumpy ride. Most of the areas we drove through were flattened, no more orchards, vineyards, or homes. The few buildings that were still standing were pockmarked from bullets and tank shelling. Right now, Karni Crossing is only allowing 14 trucks a day into Gaza instead of the pre-sanction 300 trucks. Of course technology is absent when there are so few chances even for food, medical supplies, building materials, etc.

Then we visited New Horizons Center in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in central Gaza. They welcomed us with a song from their marching band which came as a real surprise to me. It seemed somehow out of place with no football team but they were very enthusiastic and happy so that's what counts. The center is getting ready for a 10 day winter camp with 100 youth that MECA is funding. I got to meet some of the leaders and participants who were planning the camp together and see their facilities. Though they've been around for eight years, we've only known about them and been working with them for a few months so it was good to see what Mona the work and the people that Mona has been telling me so much about.

Though Nuseirat is mostly a conservative community, the center has programs for boys and girls. They are community-based so can challenge some social norms without jeopordizing their relationships with families in the camp.

And now we are back at Mona's flat where the electricity was off for several hours. It's been nearly seven months since Israel bombed Gaza's only power plant and still the electricity is patchy at best. I know it gets said often, but people here are remarkably resilience. I'm sure I could not endure continuous violence, electricity outages, food shortages, and general isolation. But people continue to live and find ways to support and meet the needs of the young people, preparing them for the better future that they deserve.

In any case, we are going back to the tent now but I will download some photos from the day later and add them to the blog.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Erez Nightmare

I came to Gaza today to spend a few days with Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA's director of Gaza Projects, and to visit the centers we support in Gaza.

The process of getting in and out of Gaza belongs only in terrifying science fiction novels. As a foreigner, I have to apply for permission from an Israeli office at Erez crossing one week before I want to come. I always feel conflicted when dealing with this office because it is part of the occupation infrastructure and staffed by Israeli soldiers. I have trouble deciding how to approach my interactions with them...It's like visiting a friend or relative at a prison and having to ask the prison guards to let you in. I think it's better to have the visit than refuse to interact with the guards but I also don't want to forget or ignore who I'm speaking to.

Each time I apply I face the same excuse from the soldiers at Erez: they never received my fax. As usual, my first fax disappeared into thin air but they did confirm getting it the second time. This is actually quite efficient in my experience. So I called back five days later to see if I had permission or not and had a bizarre conversation with the Israeli soldier on the other end of the line.

His first question was, "What is your number?" Having gone through this process before I knew he was asking for my passport number but I still felt uncomfortable that he wanted my number, not my name. I know I shouldn't expect it from an occupying army but I still want to be treated as a person. After looking me up, he spent a minute trying to pronounce my name and guess it's origin which is actually quite common for me. Something about "Shields-Stromsness" really arouses people's curiousity. He then told me I had permission until July 15, 2007 "which is a good day. " I didn't know what he meant. Could I enter now? What was good about July 15? I was worried some propoganda would follow but instead he continued that July 15 is the day he finally gets out of the army and that I could enter any time after January 15. I didn't know what to say and still don't. There were so many uncomfortable things going on in such a short phone call. I was calling to ask him (and the Israeli army by extension) for permission, he was looking me up by a number, and then he tells me he's looking forward to leaving the army. But why tell me? Why not refuse to serve? Was he saying this because I'm an American going to Gaza so he thought it was what I wanted to hear?

In any case, I'll continue explaining the surreal process. I took a taxi to Erez from Dheisheh camp this morning and when we arrived at Erez the soldiers at the gate would not let me get out at the gate. Instead, we drove around a military compound that is surrounded by concrete walls with sniper towers and I got out and walked 200 feet completing the circle that took me back to the gate. They checked my passport and sent me inside the office where I am used to waiting at least 1/2 hour while they check everything and then ask me quesitons. This time, I didn't even sit down - just in and out. Then I handed my passport to an Israeli soldier for the third time and entered this long corridor of electric gates and turnstiles. I had carelessly brought with me a large bag with gifts and a video camera for one of our partners. It was hilarious negotiating the trunstiles with such a bag while a Palestinian woman on the exiting side of a fence directed me. We were both laughing and shaking our heads while I pushed and pulled to get both myself and my bag through. Next time, I'll remember to pack light.

I walked through the corridor, waiting now and then for a gate to open. I stopped at one point to switch my shoulder bag to my other shoulder and someone barked at me in Hebrew through a loudspeaker. There are surveillance cameras up and down the length of the corridor. What are they afraid of? Someone taking a photo that shows the maze of gates and metal detectors with mostly elderly and sick people from Gaza who are trying to cross so they can get adequate healthcare?

And that's literally the VIP treatment for getting into Gaza. The ordeal of going through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is an entirely different and more horrific experience. As is crossing at Erez if you are not an international but a Palestinian.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Digital Storytelling in Dheisheh

I've been in Palestine now for a week though it feels much longer with my never-ending days. I'm at Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp right now running a digital storytelling workshop with twelve youth from Ibdaa Center and Lajee Center in Aida refugee camp (also in Bethlehem).
There are six of us from the US working together with staff and volunteers from the centers on facilitating the workshop and it's still exhausting! We are packing so much into this week-long project but it's working out well. Tomorrow is our last day and I'm confident they'll all have something powerful to share (or to keep private if they choose) by the end of the day.
It's been interesting for me to be working directly with youth while in Palestine. I'm usually doing administrative work here and I'm enjoying spending lots of time with young people. Two of the participants are also members of the Ibdaa Dance Troupe who I spent a month with for their November 2005 tour so it's great to be with them again and continue getting to know them.
In any case, it's 1am and I need to get to bed so I will be ready for the workshop to begin again at 9am. So, here are some photos and I'll try to write again soon.

Playing "pass the penny" icebreaker in the Ibdaa computer lab
One participant sharing her life map before starting to write her story