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On the ground in Gaza. (Photo: Supplied)
On the ground in Gaza. (Photo: Supplied)

SocietyDecember 24, 2023

A candle in the darkness

On the ground in Gaza. (Photo: Supplied)
On the ground in Gaza. (Photo: Supplied)

A Palestinian New Zealander reflects on losing loved ones in Gaza, two months on and how it feels to be in Aotearoa during this time.

The morning of October 17 dawned, shattering the normalcy of my life. For the past two months, I have closely followed the unfolding situation in Gaza. As I woke up that day, a message from one of my in-laws awaited me, asking, “Isn’t this your mate?” My heart sank as I stared at the Facebook post, my mind struggling to comprehend the devastating words beneath the photo of my friend Ahmed.

He along with his wife, brother, sister-in-law, and their six kids, had been killed in an Israeli strike. Dragging myself to the living room, I turned on the news, a routine that had become my daily ritual. Trying to hold it together while serving the kids breakfast; the daily routine was no easy task that day! Amid the echoes of news reports, my wife approached with a soft urgency, “You heard about your friend Ahmed?”

The weight of unspoken sorrow demanded release in that moment. Feelings of hopelessness and anger linger, casting a shadow over the daily life of my family here in New Zealand. 

As we navigate our lives in the serene landscapes of New Zealand, the distant echoes of tragedy reverberate through our home. The escalating situation in Gaza extends far beyond the immediate circle of those directly affected, touching the hearts of individuals worldwide. Our family, too, feels ensnared in the emotional weight of loss and the unsettling specter of injustice.

Like most Gazans, my wife and I both have our extended families and friends back in Gaza Strip. We were even trying to make some plans this summer holiday to go visit with our kids to connect them with their whānau yet again another tragedy shatters this plan. These recent events have taken me down through memory lane of my childhood that I wanted my children to experience; the warm cup of tea I used to have after dinner with my grandmother; the smell and taste of the fresh homemade bread at my aunt’s house; the tahini salad made by my uncle at his tiny kitchen every time I ask him for it; the half melted ice cream (from the power cuts) that I used to get from our neighbour’s shop; the large family house where we used to play our treasure hunts every summer holiday.

This is all gone now, the house, the tiny kitchen, the bread, the ice-cream, the tea and the cup. 

The aftermath of an Israeli air strike that displaced a number of the writer’s whānau in Gaza. (Photo: Supplied)

Watching how the current situation unfolds in Gaza with the suffering of my whānau, the limited access to basic needs and limited communication doesn’t only open an old torment that never heals but also fuels the anguish that the Palestinian people have been going through for over 70 years. Despite all that suffering I learned that I have only one option which is to go on, and despite feeling hurt, to stay strong.

During my 10 years here in Aotearoa, I feel lucky and blessed by the embracing environment that my children are growing up in due to the similarities of the values of the tāngata whenua to my Palestinian values that I grew up with making me the person that I am today! Everything from pūkenga (abilities and skills) and tikanga (values & beliefs) to tuakiri factors (secure cultural identity) makes me full of hope for the people of Palestine that they are not alone in this walk to freedom and justice!

Over the past two months, I have been deeply moved by the outpouring of support and solidarity for the Palestinian people at rallies around the country which has been growing not only in numbers but also in support. Talking to people has only showered me with nothing but aroha and support in standing against the killing of innocent people who are being subject to collective punishment and dehumanising conditions in Gaza. 

The New Zealand government has had a long history of promoting human rights and peace, and it has brought warmth to my heart when I heard Aotearoa’s name echoing through the international headlines among the nations calling for a ceasefire. Yet this small step can be the beginning of a potential for New Zealand to take a further step and promote for peace and make sure that the international community “does the right thing”. This reminds me of Banksy’s statement, made in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, capturing the essence of our responsibility to act in the face of injustice.

His words echoed Paulo Freire’s powerful reminder that neutrality in the face of conflict between the powerful and the powerless, is essentially siding with the powerful. As Freire reminds us, we cannot remain neutral in the face of injustice. Let us join our voices with those around the world calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and be on the right side of humanity!

As we approach the close of the year and embark on the festive season, I want to share a heartfelt reminder with each of you, including myself. Let’s fortify our strength, truly value our blessings, relish the moments spent with family, and heed the timeless wisdom of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

“Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish

As you prepare your breakfast — think of others.
Don’t forget to feed the pigeons.
As you conduct your wars — think of others.
Don’t forget those who want peace.
As you pay your water bill — think of others.
Think of those who have only the clouds to drink from.
As you go home, your own home — think of others — don’t forget those who live in tents.
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others — there are people who have no place to sleep.
As you liberate yourself with metaphors think of others — those who have lost their right to speak.
And as you think of distant others — think of yourself and say
‘I wish I were a candle in the darkness.’”

Anas Shatat is a Palestinian New Zealander originally from Gaza.

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