Countdown to the #Gaza5K

This is really gonna happen on Saturday, June 12th —- the virtual #Gaza5k with nearly 2000 people around the country walking / running in their communities to support mental health services for Palestine refugees in Gaza. (I’m walking with friends in Albuquerque.)

My first introduction to Gaza in 2004 was a meeting set up with Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, a world-renown psychiatrist in childhood trauma. That year he was honored with an international award for his leadership in childhood trauma but the State of Israel would not allow him to leave the Gaza Strip to travel and accept the award. An American psychologist invited me to travel to Gaza to present the award to Dr. El-Sarraj personally.

I remember sitting across the room from him at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme which I believe Dr. El-Sarraj had founded. As my friend was making the presentation, I was documenting it with my camera and thinking “this man looks like my grandfather, why would anyone prevent him from traveling?” In 2004, I knew very little about the history, the occupation, or the politics.

On that trip to Gaza, I asked a Palestinian to drive me to Rafah (in southern Gaza) where a young American woman had been killed a year earlier (March 16, 2003). I wanted to see the site where Rachel Corrie, a peace activist from Olympia, Washington was run over by an Israeli bulldozer driver. Rachel had traveled to the Gaza Strip to work on a sister cities project between Olympia and Rafah, and while she was there she joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). On the day of her death, she had been standing in front of a Palestinian’s home in Rafah to dissuade the bulldozer operator from demolishing the home. He ran over her, not once but twice, and killed her.

Rachel Corrie, Rafah, March 16, 2003

When I visited in 2004, the site was absolutely barren. I got out and stood there a moment, and was soon surrounded by children, lots of them. They saw my camera and wanted their pictures taken. I complied.

And then my world changed.

An old Palestinian man (maybe in his sixties or seventies), wearing the traditional galabeya, came up and stood directly in front of me. He started forcefully telling me something in Arabic but I had no clue what he was saying. I could only stand there and maintain eye contact out of respect. But I could tell he was either angry, frustrated, upset or maybe all of it. After a few minutes, he waved his arms in the air and walked away. I hadn’t said a word to him but when I stepped back into the car, the driver asked me if I wanted to know what the man told me. “Yes! Of course!”

“He was telling you that foreigners come to Gaza all the time. They see how bad things are here, and how difficult life is for us. They cry big crocodile tears, and they take lots of pictures. Then they leave and nothing changes. The same is going to happen with you. You will leave and nothing will change. And then he threw up his arms in disgust and walked away.”

On the ride back to the hotel in Gaza City, about a 40-45 minute trip, I sat silently in the back seat looking out the window and thinking to myself . . . “I can’t be that person he described. I can’t be a disaster tourist and go back to my life in the USA unaffected by what I’ve witnessed. I need to educate myself and then take action.”

Fast forward to June 2021 — after years of study, reading, talking with the “experts”, visiting and living in Gaza (2012-2013) and trying unsuccessfully to learn Arabic at UNM — I am taking action this Saturday. I’m walking the #Gaza5k and raising money to support the mental health professionals who are so critically important to the lives of Palestinian refugees in Gaza. And I’m going to be thinking of Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who knew that her moral compass demanded she take action, which her parents have carried on. And Dr. El-Sarraj who I visited with again in Gaza in 2012 before he died in 2013 from leukemia. And I’m going to be thinking of that old Palestinian man in Rafah, whose name I never learned, and the important wake-up call he shared with me. TAKE ACTION!

If you want to join the virtual #Gaza5k on Saturday, June 12th — either with me in Albuquerque or in your own community, just register here ($45 adult, $35 student/child). (Your t-shirt will arrive after the event.) And you’ll be able to join the Digital Festival that begins at 1 pm ET. If you can’t walk/run, please consider making a tax-deductible donation here.

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