“My grandmother, Sharifa, used to tell me stories about the Nakba. I could never truly imagine it—but now, I feel I am living it.” These are the words of 27-year-old Gaza journalist Ahmed Dremly, referring to the Nakba, the traumatic event that started in 1948 when over 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and lands by Zionist militias, made into refugees, and were never allowed to return, and to his present-day experience living under the devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza and witnessing the horrific loss of human life.
Ahmed’s grandmother and my own parents are of the same generation. They and my eldest brother—two years old at the time—fled Palestine in 1948 and lived in exile from their homeland in Syria, Lebanon, and eventually the United States for the rest of their lives. The generation that experienced this catastrophic deracination over 75 years ago is slowly dying away. Sadly, today, dispossession continues. Palestinians always say that the Nakba never ended.
My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 10 years old, and my Palestinian identity continues to undergird my persona values. As a poet, writer, and advocate for Palestinian culture and the arts, I have been volunteering since 2015 as a mentor with We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a project of the nonprofit Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, that offers youth in Gaza an opportunity to tell their stories to the world, beyond the headlines. The name, WANN, refers to the fact that so often in the western media, Palestinians are reduced to statistics and numbers, especially as victims in war; they are mentioned without names, humanity, or agency.
Ahmed was one of my mentees in WANN. It is very meaningful for me, as a Palestinian living in the diaspora, to connect with young Palestinians like him, living in Palestine, who are writing about their lives. I have learned that the relationship of writer and mentor is an intensely personal one, with rewards for both. For me, playing a supporting role in facilitating a young writer’s self-expression allows me to get a deep glimpse into this generation’s experiences. It gives me a rare and welcome opportunity to connect with them on a profound level. So many of their stories are heart-rending and provide a window into how macro-level politics are experienced and felt by people every day. Ordinary people are always the ones who pay the price for the political and military decisions made by those in power.
I often think of how these realities have made the younger generation in Gaza mature far too quickly. With five major wars since 2008 and constant Israeli military belligerence in the coastal enclave—in addition to high unemployment, a shortage of fundamental resources such as water and electricity, and Israel’s land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza along with severe restrictions on movement—the youth of Gaza face formidable challenges.
One way to cultivate their inner power and resilience is by telling their stories. WANN pairs young people in Gaza with mentors in the United States, Europe, and Australia to craft their essays and poems. They write about education, sports, weddings, the olive harvest, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, the artists and the women boxers of Gaza, and so much more. I worked with Ahmed on a story about a 74-year-old Palestinian man in Gaza who had collected 20,000 newspapers since 1969, hoping that they would one day serve as a library for those interested in history.
The most recent writings, however, are about Israel’s current war on Gaza. One writer, Hamza Ibrahim, texted a reflection to his mentor, writing, “My whole life is in fear and anxiety; bombing from everywhere comes without warning.” Others describe the death of neighbors and friends and the devastation of neighborhoods. A young man, Abdallah al-Jazzar, asserts, “Time and time again, we have resisted by simply surviving. Our existence is resistance. Israel understands this all too well. To end our resistance, they believe they must end our existence. The polite term for this is ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
Reaching out to Ahmed and my other mentees at this fraught time almost feels selfish: I want to know they are out of harm’s way, but I don’t want to waste their electricity and ask them to write back. In fact, during a 34-hour communication blackout in Gaza from October 27 to the 28th, when no one was able to contact relatives or ambulances under the ubiquitous airstrikes and explosions, I dreaded losing our ability to communicate at all.
Each time I hear from one of my mentees, I feel a bittersweet relief because I know they continue to live in a very dangerous place. “We’re thankfully alive,” one responds about herself and her immediate family—a comfort to hear, yet that’s what it’s come down to: We are alive. But what conditions are you alive in, I wonder. What destruction do you see around you, are other family members and neighbors alive, can you sleep at night with the bombs overhead, how are you handling your fear, do you have water and food? My worries about the people of Gaza mount ponderously each day.
In one of her poems, “Hidden,” Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes about the people who matter to us and how, after a while, they become an invisible force—a kind of “fuel”— in our psyches that inspires and guides us. I know I rely on the fuel of many people in my life, and my relationships with mentees have affected me deeply and added abundantly to the reserves. When Ahmed once called me “mama” in a WhatsApp message, I felt gratitude for our connection. The Arabic word haneen came to mind, which means compassion and affection; in fact, Ahmed is just a few years younger than my own son.
These young people are our witness and our abiding hope for this generation. We need to listen to them and lift up their voices. Sadly, an Israeli missile strike killed Yousef Maher Dawas, one of the writers, with many members of his family on October 14. A few days later, an Israeli strike killed over 20 family members of Ahmed Alnaouq, one of the co-founders of WANN. Everyone in the organization is grieving these tremendous losses. Many others have lost friends and family members. In a recent article about WANN, the project’s senior editor and mentor coordinator report that they have been receiving messages from some of the young writers like the following: “Can you kindly publish the attached stories if I die?”
One of the more jarring posts on WANN’s Facebook page came on October 22nd:
“We have become numbers
We are counting numbers not humans, not people, not dreams, not children, not women or men or families.
We have become numbers in the news”
Theirs is indeed a desperate plea to the world: We are trying hard to counter our own dehumanization and to communicate our plight, but the world continues to treat us as expendable, as statistics, as people not worthy of lives and dreams.
Ahmed loves horses. In one of his essays, he writes, “What calms my soul is riding horseback along the beach in the dawn before anyone else is there.” I know he is now sorely missing this balm to his soul. In response to a message from me, he said, “Your words mean a lot to me. Your support always let me believe that I am not alone. Love you. Hope to survive and see y—.” That he took the time to write these words was an act of generosity.
My heart skipped a beat, however, when the last word was not completed. Did something happen to him? For hours I was obsessively checking Instagram to see if he signed in again, and thankfully he eventually did. But I worry about him and his family, and everyone in Gaza, because with the current Israeli ground invasion, it is clear that the situation will only deteriorate further. The United Nations’ human rights official, Craig Mokhiber has described it as “a textbook case of genocide.” When I asked Ahmed if I could quote him for this essay, he wrote that yes, and “send me when u publish. Inshallah I could read it.”