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Two Palestinian Stories: Mona Samouni and Dr Mona El Farra

11 November 2010 | Adie Mormech

Children of the Samouni family scrambling in the rubble of their Gaza homes days after they lost 29 family members in the 2009 bombings

Children of the Samouni family scrambling in the rubble of their Gaza homes days after they lost 29 family members in the 2009 bombings

When the story of the Samouni family of Zeytoun broke, news stations and media gathered to cover what was the epitome of the tragedy that hit Gaza during Operation Cast Lead – the Israeli military’s 3 week bombing and ground assault over the new year of 2009. The huge numbers of children left orphaned amidst the rubble on ’Samouni Street’ reached out to a worldwide audience. As is typical in Gaza, extended families are large and close; the Samounis, a family of mainly farm workers, numbered over a hundred and lived along an entire street. In just 3 days of intense Israeli bombing and shelling of their neighbourhood, they lost 29 family members as most of their houses were razed to the ground. The Samouni family deserves our attention, most of all for the resolve of the remaining family members and the ways they cope. The girls and boys now take care of each other, mothers and guardians at the age of ten or eleven.

I visit them twice weekly to teach English, and to play and draw with them. Originally just for 11 year old Mona Samouni, but now it’s a class of six and they’re keen to learn. Each time I walk the few hundred metres along Samouni Street I get an eerie feeling as I recall the television footage showing the air filled with dust around the rows of flattened houses, twisted metal wire, piles of broken breeze blocks with bits of clothes and school-books sticking out from under them. What flashbacks it evokes for families still living there I’ll never know.

But I’m not walking alone for long. Many children come and warmly take my hand, and we walk to the three story building at the end of the street. The only one left standing after the assault, it was forcibly evacuated by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) for use as a base. There I meet Mona Samouni. She is thoughtful, still very playful, and eager to talk English. I’d been introduced to her by a Gazan documentary maker following her story. She’d previously taken Jeremy Bowen around the ruins of her house in his BBC documentary ‘Gaza, Out of the Ruins’.

Mona Samouni showing the Identity cards of her mother and father soon after they were both killed during the 2009 bombings

Mona Samouni showing the Identity cards of her mother and father soon after they were both killed during the 2009 bombings

I don’t ask Mona about what happened to her a year and a half ago, but whenever we draw there is only one thing on her mind. She draws pictures of herself with her parents and brothers, with a big sun shining. Then she draws them motionless beside her in the rubble. Apart from cousins, uncles and aunts, she lost 3 brothers, a niece, and both parents.

Mona was one of over 100 members of the Samouni family to be rounded up by Israeli soldiers at the beginning of the assault and forced into Wael Samouni’s house. Throughout the night of January 4th munitions rained in on the Samouni’s area, and three Apache helicopter missiles or tank shells (depending on the report) struck the single floor house into which the Samounis had been corralled. 21 were killed and over 30 were injured. Eight more were killed in separate incidents: those fleeing the area did so against the orders and gunfire of watching soldiers who shouted, in classical Arabic, “Go back unto death.” They replied that they would carry on and “die on the road.” The Samounis suffered more dead during the 2 day attack than the total Israeli victims of rockets fired by militants over a period of 9 years. The issue of what happened on Samouni Street is no longer contentious; the family’s version has been corroborated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nation’s Goldstone Report.

Mona Samouni drawing

Mona Samouni drawing

The family’s first victim had been Mona’s Uncle Ateya al-Samouni, on January 4th. He had walked outside when Israeli troops started firing on his house and asking for the owner. With arms raised, ID in one hand and an Israeli driving license in the other, he was shot dead in front of his children. During the firing his 4 year old son Ahmad was severely injured and two others were shot. The Red Crescent ambulance that came for him – responding to one of 145 calls from the neighborhood – was barred from entering until January 7th. Ahmad died the next day, having been forbidden from leaving the Wael house.

12 year old Mahmoud and his 10 year old sister Amal are still haunted by the sight of their father shot as he walked out. Amal told us, “Our mother started to scream and cry. The soldiers came in and destroyed the furniture of the bedroom, set fire to the furniture in another room. We begged them not to shoot, we are kids please don’t shoot. Then they started to shoot. That’s when Ahmad, Farraj and Fauzi were also shot.” Their story is presented in the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary “Children of Gaza”.

13 year old Almaza Samouni remembers seeing her family piled on each other in the ruins of the bombed house, bleeding, with both her parents dead. Her story was covered in Al Jazeera’s, ’A Girl Called Jewel’

When the Red Crescent finally arrived in the Samouni’s area together with other family members, they found the entire street had been bulldozed. Picking through the rubble, an adult and two children were found alive in what remained of Wael’s house: Nafez Al Samouni whose wife thought he had died, 16 year old Ahmed Samouni and 10 year old Amal. Ahmed had been lying injured, unable to walk, curled among his dead mother and brothers. Like many other children, Amal and Ahmed have been left with mental and physical scars. Slivers of shrapnel remain permanently lodged in Amal’s brain, giving her headaches, nosebleeds and sight problems. Despite finally getting out of Gaza to receive treatment, Ramallah and Tel Aviv both told her there’s nothing that can be done for her.

Drawing by Mona Samouni

Drawing by Mona Samouni

From the time I’ve spent with them, it’s clear the Samouni children have the courage to carry on. What surprised me was how little help was available for them; some still live in tents or asbestos shacks. Most of all though, I was shocked at how much the children have to fend for themselves – often when I teach, I don’t see an adult for my entire visit. For all the global media attention, and apart from occasional physiotherapy or counseling visits, there has been no replacement for their enormous loss. Literally nothing.

As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights puts it, ’The attack on the Al-Samouni family was widely publicized . yet the survivors got no real help. What little they received has now stopped except for limited assistance from local organizations. The family now lives in deep poverty with no source of income, and no publicity about their plight.’

Fida Qishta, an independent Gazan documentary maker made a short and very moving film “Where Should the Birds Fly?” from footage she shot during Operation Cast Lead about Mona Samouni and what happened to her family. In it, while walking through the ruins of her home, Mona recited a verse by the Palestinian writer, Lutfi Yassini:

I’m the Palestinian child,
I carried the grief early,
All the world forgot me,
They closed their eyes of my oppression,
I’m steadfast,
I’m steadfast.

Fortunately, through another fearless Mona from Gaza, a grass-roots Palestinian group working closely with an international partner would provide some respite. Their work put to shame the many who closed their eyes and forgot Mona and the other Samouni children.

Doctor Mona El Farra and the Middle East Childrens Alliance

When the older Ahmed Samouni asked me if I could organize some summer schooling for the Samouni children I initially tried the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA). Although from a poor neighbourhood, and with much of their life and homes in ruin after the bombing, the Samounis were not eligible for help. This was because unlike most Gazans, they were not a refugee family forced out of pre-48 Palestine by the then nascent Israeli army.

Samouni children Mona and Amal (centre) with Dr Mona El Farra

Samouni children Mona and Amal (centre) with Dr Mona El Farra

So I spoke to Dr Mona El Farra, a Gazan Dermatologist who has been tenaciously dedicated to health, children and women’s issues in Gaza for over 20 years since she began as a volunteer with the Red Crescent Society. She is the Projects Director for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) and I knew about her work with MECA through its Gaza partner organisation Afaq Jadeeda, or ’New Horizons’, where I also teach.

A remarkably resolute woman, Doctor Mona is involved in many grass-roots organizations throughout Gaza that provide the vulnerable with support. Originally from Khan Younis in Southern Gaza, her work continues to be with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and with MECA, who most recently funded the ’New Horizons’ psychosocial support program “Let the Children Play and Heal”. Last year the program reached over a hundred thousand children, helping to address their psychological needs after the 2009 Israeli attacks on Gaza through expression and participation in art, dance, music, story-telling, theatre and puppetry.

Once they heard of the situation with the Samouni children, Dr Mona and New Horizons Coordinator Ehab Abu Msalam immediately visited them to hear of Ahmed’s desire for an educational project.

“So we had this idea to teach them 6th grade primary school classes” Says Ehab,“to give them support in the most important subjects: Arabic, English language and Mathematics.”

Over 100 Samouni Children were taught in the ‘Learning on the Rubble’ Tent set up on Samouni Street

Over 100 Samouni Children were taught in the ‘Learning on the Rubble’ Tent set up on Samouni Street

They acted fast. It took only days for New Horizons to have set up the month long ’Learning on the Rubble’, marquee classrooms at the end of Samouni Street. Operating four days a week, they taught, provided meals and organised trips for over 120 children from the area. Some of the older children like Mona Samouni helped organise the younger kids.

“We decided to call it ’Learning on the Rubble’, said Dr Mona,”because all that you see of the area is the ruins of houses, people living in tents. We thought it was important to give it that name despite what had happened, to show that the desire and willingness of people to live and to come up from the ruins is stronger than death.“

When I visited, the bright green marquee next to Mona’s house was a hive of activity; hands up in the classrooms, singing and physical games in the activity room, with some other kids handing out boxes of drinks and sandwiches.

I asked Dr Mona about how they managed to organize such a well tailored programme so quickly.“I went to visit” she said,“I had a meeting with the families there, asked about their needs. They were worried about the children’s missed education because of the trauma – losing your father or mother or both is a severe trauma – and I wondered how many years it would take them to get back to normal. So I quickly gathered the team from New Horizons, and spoke to MECA, who work with children all over the Middle East. On the one hand, the speed comes from our grass-roots work, the experience of many years, getting the trust of people inside and outside of Gaza. Equally MECA trusts the work of their Palestinian partners, were supportive enough to offer the funding immediately so we could cross the bureaucratic lines and set up before Ramadan and school begins.”

“The classes are educational but also fun, open air, mixing formal education with informal classes. The program also helped to fund 6 teachers who were willing to carry on as volunteers such was the warmth they had received from the Samouni children. This is the beauty of it; we are able to get volunteers in difficult circumstances because people see the value of the work, empowerment and participation being at the core of our philosophy over dependency and charity. I visited the place three or four times and every time I had a great feeling about the program.”

And the children? Most that I saw were excited, showing a terrific keenness to learn, cherishing the opportunity before them.“We are happy with our classes because it’s important to know how to read and how to write, we must have a good education in order to continue to struggle for our land that was taken away”, said 10 year old Mohammed Samouni.“We learned mathematics, English, and Arabic to be better in school. We hope these classes can continue.” Said Amal.

According to Ehab, it was also an opportunity to understand the real needs of the children:

“Children feel afraid in this place because every one of them has something lost here, so you’ll see that they want to be near you to have more safety, so we tried to give them what we could and we helped them to know how they can help themselves.”

Without question the most fun was had on the daytrips, with over 100 of the Samounis and some other local families brought in on coaches to a beach resort – a day dedicated to fun. They went in boats, had a great time in the sea, participated in some of the magic, singing and puppet shows before food and refreshments arrived.“We swam and were very happy with this trip and it’s very important to have a day like this playing and being more happy”, said Maysaa Samouni 11 years old.

Majdy performing magic tricks for the Samouni Children

Majdy performing magic tricks for the Samouni Children

One of the volunteers and magician, Majdy, said,“We are happy to work to help all the Palestinian children who want help – not just the Samouni family, that’s what we must do. We ask everyone around the world and all of organizations to do the same thing to help the children in Palestine and Gaza.”

But Dr Mona added that dealing with such trauma needs a lot more than what they could offer in this short time: “The importance is in the follow up for the children which involves a lot of effort, one month is not enough. We need to try again and again to follow up. For this we don’t need huge amounts of money. We need the will, having grass roots communications, the vision and knowledge on how to invest the money in the best way – that’s how it started.”

“Those children need love and sympathy and care and despite their smiling faces there’s a lot of stories of horror and agony they’ve passed through. We’re trying to let them heal. Let them forget. I’m not sure they’ll be able to forgive. Because what happened was a crime against humanity and against the civilian families who lived there.”

Drawing by Mona Samouni

Drawing by Mona Samouni

For someone so young, Mona Samouni has reflected a lot on how to articulate her loss, her words and drawings full of thought and clarity. When I asked Mona what message she had to give to children in Western countries, she said:

“My message is to show as much love as you can to your parents, because I lost my parents and I am not able to care for them anymore.”

The caring and outward nature of the message epitomized the way the kids had not yet succumbed to the introspection and bitterness such a loss could bring about. What shines through when we see them is the support they have for each other in the absence of so many parental figures, the open hands they hold on to us with when we visit. My English classes often descend into an Arabic class for me, interspersed with hiding behind sofas and cat and donkey impressions.

A lot more is required from us in Western countries to help alleviate some of the pain caused by our government’s policies, and most importantly to ensure that Palestinian families like the Samounis never have to go through this again. Doctor Mona El Farra’s message to the world is an important reminder that what is happening to Palestinians is not a humanitarian issue, but a continuing wrong that can only be addressed when people on the outside begin to understand it:

“I want people to try to learn about us and try to learn that there is an injustice that has been imposed on the Palestinian people. Not just because of the siege, but for what has been going on for more than 60 years since Israel was founded on the ruins of Palestinian refugees. We are looking and working for peace despite the difficult circumstances – but peace without justice is not peace.”

Donations for Zeinat Samouni

We are raising money to help rebuild and improve the house of Zeinat Samouni, 11 year old Amal’s widowed mother. Since her husband and son were killed in the bombing she continues to live in a single room alone with her 8 children crammed into it. Cracked asbestos tiling covers the roof, which leaks when it rains in winter. In this the hottest summer on record, the sweat from the children forms condensation that drops down at night. She can’t afford cooking gas, and cooks over a fire. The material to improve the house of Zeinat and her children would not cost a lot and would substantially improve their living conditions. We are also trying to support Amal to find a neurosurgeon in Europe who would give further analysis for the shrapnel still lodged in her brain. She continues to suffer from headaches, inflammation, nosebleeds and tiredness and there are concerns about the effect of the shrapnel as she grows.