Gaza 2014. Flickr/United Nations Photo
The first thing I thought when I met him was, where does one run in Gaza? I had just come off the tube to meet Baha’ in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium in London two years ago. He looked much younger than I had imagined, slight build, quite shy. It was difficult actually, to draw him into conversation. He gave short answers, and kept nervously looking around. Perhaps he was overwhelmed, I thought. Or maybe he was just taking it all in.
The Palestinian community in London had spent weeks competing over who would host Olympians coming from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We all had such pride that our best athletes would carry the Palestinian flag in the games. Speaking with Baha’, I wondered what he thought about being branded the “Palestinian athlete.” It seemed that his status as a national symbol was somehow tangential to the adventure of the Olympic Games. Baha’ just wanted to run, and he wanted to win. He was ready to compete.
It was good to get to know him as a young athlete, heart-breaking to hear of the poor training and funding afforded by his circumstances back home, the potential he missed out on. He was a boy who had aspirations to run his way out of Gaza and into a better life. "Qatar", he told me, maybe funding would come from the Gulf.
I felt quite protective. Since then, my phone would often ring with a missed call from Baha’, and I would call him back in Gaza, where he lives with his family. More than anything else, the sense I always got was of how bored he was, and how desperately he wanted to get out. He would try a million different initiatives to fund his departure, to complete his schooling abroad, to learn English, to compete. But the obstacles were, are, insurmountable.
Every time we spoke, I vividly felt the claustrophobia of the Gaza prison transfer over the phone line. I would try to encourage him to focus on his high school exams. “You know, you need to do well in your tawjihi. It will help your chances to get out.” I’m not sure I believed that, but it felt like the responsible thing to focus on. What else was there to say?
My phone rang last week, around midnight, and then stopped. I looked at the screen and my heart sank. I had exchanged messages with Baha’ when the latest Israeli offensive on Gaza began. I knew that his family had been told to evacuate their neighbourhood, and that they were sheltering in or next to one of the UNRWA schools in the Strip. I had received a panicked message from him the day before telling me that they had just escaped the school after the Israelis bombed it.
I rang back but could not get through. I left Baha’ a Facebook message and crawled into bed with thoughts of Gaza on my mind, as they had been for days. Faced with the sheer tragedy of what is going on, I thought of how successfully Palestinians have been dehumanised. How else could the world let something like this happen, again?
I thought of the language we are being bombarded with in the flood of media coverage. Palestinians acting as human shields, as if people in Gaza have no agency in their struggle, and would stand on a roof waiting to be massacred if ordered to do so. I tried to comprehend this narrative that Israeli self-defence somehow justifies more than 1,800 deaths. I looked away from the computer as people on Facebook asked how Palestinians celebrate their death and have a culture of martyrdom.
And in the middle of all this noise, I just thought of my friends in Gaza, in the West Bank, and in refugee camps. I thought of my family, and I tried to find them in all these simplistic narratives being thrown around so casually.
Baha’ and his family are moving from one neighbourhood to the next in Gaza, sheltering wherever they can. They’re now staying with friends, alongside two other families who had to flee the Shijaiya massacre. Last I spoke to him, he sounded resigned, tired.
I think of Baha’, and of what he would give to be just another athlete. What I would tell if we were to meet again. I would apologise that, while he made us proud two years ago, we are letting him down now. How it is that people stood by while this was taking place? Perhaps I would try to sound convincing and say that one day we will not have to perform our humanity to reclaim our rights, whether we are Olympians or faceless victims. Perhaps he will believe me. Perhaps once all this dies down, Baha’ will put on his trainers and run once more. He will be running for himself, for Gaza, and for the generations of Palestinians joined in sumoud.
Appeal: Gaza has been under Israeli bombardment for more than four weeks. More than 1,752 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians. Like 475,000 others, more than 25% of Gaza’s population, Baha’ and his family are now internally displaced, and are sheltering with friends, extended families and UN shelters. More than six UN shelters housing such refugees have been directly bombed by Israeli forces. The horrors we see in media often make us look away. But there are many who would benefit from direct relief. Please visit Palestine Children Relief Fund, Hope and Play, Palestine Red Crescent, Palestine is in our Hearts, or one of the many other organisations working hard to bring aid to Gaza.