“Papa, if I give them all my toys, will they stop? If I give them one shekel? If I give them one kiss?”: Amira Khaled, age three, Gaza.
By Melodie McCullough
There’s a trio of women who have been great friends for many years, all seniors, living in three different countries around the globe. Together, they have reached out to a Palestinian family for some time now to help them survive the conditions of the Israeli land, air and sea blockade and occupation in Gaza, and give some hope to a desperate future.
One of those women resides right here in Peterborough, Ontario.
Margaret Slavin, 77, long-time peace activist and a Quaker for 40 years, who can be seen riding her bicycle to numerous social justice events around town, has been helping the Mahmoud Khaled family of Gaza with financial and moral support for the last 10 years.
“The situation is thoroughly outrageous. Their needs are endless,” said Slavin, in a recent interview, “and we don’t know from day to day whether they’re going to be alive, because it just takes one hit (from a bomb). Mahmoud, at times, sounds absolutely in despair.”
She points out the group’s enterprise is humanitarian – family to family – not political. It is not to support or criticize one side over the over, she said. Its goal is to secure financial donations.
“A lot of people ask ‘Why this family?’. This is the family we know. There’s no other reason,” she said.
The Gaza Strip is three to seven kilometres wide and 41 kilometres long, the distance between Peterborough and Lindsay, said Slavin, with 1.8 million people, half of whom are children. Known as “the world’s largest outdoor prison”, it has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007, which has caused many hardships for the Palestinian people – extreme unemployment, contaminated water, power shortages, expensive food, Israeli bombardments, many restrictions on what can or cannot enter the country, and restrictions on personal movement.
The children in the family have endured much heartache …
The Khaled family needs money for all necessities – food, fuel, medications, school supplies. It is in the process of building a greenhouse to grow its own food, but needs money for building supplies, which are very hard to obtain. Almost no construction equipment or materials are allowed into Gaza.
The story of the three women began in 1989 when Heather Spears went to the Middle East to draw the children of the first Palestinian Intifada. Now 81, the Canadian portrait artist, novelist and poet who received the Governor-General’s Award for English-language poetry in 1989, lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
In 1990 she returned to Israel and Palestine to draw images of Israeli soldiers. But after witnessing the Temple Mount massacre, where soldiers opened fire on Palestinian Muslims at the Al Aqsa mosque, her focus changed. Instead, she used art to document the wounded, and the Palestinian paramedics who risked their lives to save the injured and transport the dead. One of the paramedic students she drew and interviewed was a young man named Mahmoud Khaled.
Through the ensuing years, she kept in touch with him and supported him as his family grew and his circumstances changed. He is now married with seven children aged four to 23, a traditional Muslim and father of a loving family, for which schooling is an important value, said Slavin. He suffers from a painful parasitic bowel disease requiring on-going medical treatment and medication. His illness means he can seldom work (and also there has been very little work in Gaza for a long time), which makes it impossible to support his family without help. Despite this, during the bombardments he tries to assist the wounded whenever he can. He is very grateful for the help his family receives from around the world.
Slavin has known Spears since she lived in Ottawa in the 1990s. Once, when Spears was travelling west, Slavin introduced her to an old friend from Slavin’s Queen’s University days who lived in Seattle, Washington, Hallie Appel, 75, who is also a peace activist. The three women – all with red hair, Slavin says with a laugh – became fast friends. They are in touch almost daily.
“There is a sisterhood feeling among us. It’s a really special friendship,” she said.
About 10 years ago, Spears got cancer. It was then that Slavin and Appel decided to help her out with her correspondence with her Palestinian family.
“So we got involved and we’re still involved,” said Slavin. “My role has been the one who handles the money. One thing we can send is money. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to send anything else. Parcels (books for the children and medical equipment) often go missing.”
Three others have recently joined the group of friends: Carol Dixon, a Quaker friend of Slavin’s in Ottawa; and Michael Johnson and Sandy Strehlou, both of Washington, who have set up a GOFUNDME fund raising campaign on the internet. (See below) It has reached over half of its $8,000 goal.
Donations are sent by MoneyGram every month through a dedicated account at a Peterborough credit union.
The United Nations recently announced that by the end of this year, it is expected there will be no more viable water at all in Gaza.
The children in the family have endured much heart ache. One boy was suicidal. One girl has malformed legs due to malnutrition. The two older boys search every day for work but find little. (Unemployment in Gaza is the world’s highest at 43%). One girl, Shahd, age eight, once mischeivious and bold, is now old enough to remember three bombardments.
“But the last one, it’s like her psyche broke,” said Slavin. “She’s the one who breaks your heart”. Now with severe post traumatic stress disorder, she experiences seizures and hallucinations and is in treatment at an NGO mental health clinic for psychosis.
“It’s a window for me and for us when they say ‘this is what trauma looks like’. Little Shahd is close to my hart, not that I can do anything.”
The fear of imminent death is so strong that the women in the family keep their heads covered even when indoors, so as not to be found dead and uncovered, said Slavin. The family fears both Hamas and the Israelis, she said.
She said the United Nations recently announced that by the end of this year, it is expected there will be no more viable water at all in Gaza. The one aquifer is almost completely contaminated with a combination of seawater and sewage. This is mostly because the pumping station can’t work most of the time because there is no power. But apparently the damage to the aquifer is permanent. Many Gaza entrepreneurs draw water from wells and sell it as bottled water, and that too is highly contaminated.
Recently, the group’s long-term goal has changed.
“I’ve given up on the idea that Gaza will change, for the reason that unless something shifts on the big world scene, no nation has reason to change,” said Slavin. “So we’re hoping now to bring one son out and then the whole family. To say the least, it’s difficult.”
Margaret Slavin is the clerk of the Peterborough Quaker Meeting; co-facilitator of the local Earth Care, a Quaker children’s program; co-facilitator of Peterborough’s Peace Council, which holds monthly peace vigils at George Street United Church; a member of Peterborough’s Older Women’s Network; and is involved with Peterborough’s Transition Town movement. In 2015 she received the local YMCA Peace Medal.
Originally from Belleville, Slavin has been a writer all her life, has taught creative writing, and been a book seller. In 2000, she was writer-in-residence at Champlain College at Trent University. She has one book of short stories and two books of poems published. She is now working on her first full collection of poetry.
Margaret Slavin is a RED PASHMINA INC. Woman of Impact
To donate to the Khaled family: www.gofundme.com/survive-gaza
For an update from Amnesty International on Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories: www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde15/4199/2016/en /
The Gaza Strip: The Humanitarian Impact of the Blockade (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs): https://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_gaza_blockade_factsheet_july_2015_english.pdf