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By Lilas Taha
The girl brought her head down. She swung her legs back and forth under the kitchen table and crossed her arms on the wooden surface. A single braid sat neatly in the middle of her back. A big window behind her framed her profile in the mid morning light. She looked small, too little for an eleven-year old. Her sister sat to her left. Her head stayed upright, her legs dangled above the floor and she crossed them at the ankles. She ran her hands over her hair, tightened her ponytail, and then brought down her hands to her sides to grip the bottom cushion of her chair. Her size didn’t match her age, either. She looked like she was five or six, not ten. The girls exchanged quick glances then sat perfectly still. They were nervous. We had that in common, at least. I could not clearly see their faces from where I stood at the other end of the big kitchen. But I had seen pictures in their files and had read their psychological evaluations. I was prepared. Or so I thought.
Fatimah and Hala are burn victims from Gaza. They came to Houston for treatment sponsored by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, or PCRF for short. PCRF is a non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to fighting the medical and humanitarian crisis facing children in the Middle East. The girls could not be treated in besieged Gaza. Doctors and surgeons had volunteered their time and expertise to provide reconstructive surgery for them in Houston. A number of wonderful volunteers were involved in the girls’ unbelievable journey. On my end, I had volunteered my family to host the girls in our house during their stay, and this was my first meeting with them. The month was October, the year 2011. My daughter and son formed a deep relationship with Fatimah and Hala, and we all kept in touch after they returned to their family in Gaza once they finished their treatment. Now I have no idea what happened to them. I can’t get through on any of the numbers I have for their parents. Their mother was also burned in the same explosion that maimed her girls. PCRF representatives informed me they are also trying to get a hold of them, as well as the other children they helped from Gaza. No news yet.
Today, my daughter asked me about the girls. She said she felt nauseated for not being able to do anything. I had no answers for her. And the little information I could gather was not promising. I remember the long nights, when the girls couldn’t fall asleep no matter how hard I tried to ease their pain. I remember the way I had to shield them from people’s stares, the many times I had to set strangers straight on how they got hurt. More often than not, people would doubt my account when I mention the Israeli invasion of 2011. But once in a while, informed individuals would briefly close their eyes and mumble, “Yeah. We heard about that.” Going back to those days, when the girls graced us with their courage, their everlasting smiles, their giggles and tears, their hopes and dreams drawn in crayons and hung on my fridge door, I gulp for air to get rid of a suffocating sensation. We helped them heal, and where are they now? Are they still alive? In what shape or form? What kind of nightmares are they having? Are they with their mother and father? Holding them when they wake up screaming during the night? If they are alive, are they able to sleep? And how many children are burned like them this time around?
I heard my daughter’s voice quiver when she asked, “Will you let me know as soon as you find out anything?” And I’m afraid of what I may have to say. I can’t, cannot imagine what those mothers who saw their children’s bodies torn by the latest Israeli bombardment on Gaza are going through. What courage, what faith, what strength they have!
How can they go on after this horror? How can we all?
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