Thanks to the kind support of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), I traveled to the Gaza Strip in November of 2012. The agency provides education, health care, social services, and emergency aid to nearly 1.2 million refugees living within the territory.
Amid growing tensions between Israel and Hamas, I began my work with an art-based interview of boys at the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School, run by the UNRWA. The boys, all of whom live in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, have witnessed a great deal of violence. The area has been the site of countless attacks and counterattacks that place civilians in harms way. Through their drawings, some of the boys portrayed militants as heroic defenders and showed the struggles of Gaza under embargo, while most told personal accounts of the things they had seen and feared – death and destruction from airstrikes, fisherman fired upon, and family members killed.
I asked identical interview questions to a group of girls at the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City on the following day. As an outsider, I wanted to understand the things that happen in Gaza and invited them to share their stories with me. The girls more than obliged and created extremely telling drawings that, while similar to the boys’ accounts, were very unique. Many incorporated mothers and babies alongside scenes of extreme violence and devastation, while others told of the fears and anxiety they experience on a daily basis.
Reflecting the ongoing embargo and the severe poverty it has caused, the toys found in Gaza are very low quality. Most are bootlegs or remains from factories in China. Rather than discard mistakes in a production run or products with a limited shelf life (such as London 2012 toys), they’re sold for pennies on the dollar to retailers in Gaza. The toys I found to recreate the children’s accounts told a story all on their own.
As I sat pouring over the children’s drawings and bags of freshly purchased toy characters, sounds of outgoing rockets and incoming airstrikes could be heard. The situation between Israel and Hamas was deteriorating rapidly, leading to a growing number of wounded and dead. Over the coming days, my travel in the region was severely limited, but thanks to an experienced and well-connected fixer / driver, I managed to complete my work, all the while experiencing firsthand the fear and anxiety these children have faced throughout their lives.
I left Gaza on the morning of November 14th, the first day of what would become “Operation Pillar of Defense.” In the eight days that followed, approximately 1500 sites within Gaza were targeted by Israeli shells and aircraft, killing 133 and wounding 840. 1456 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into Israel, killing 6 and wounding 240.
Extra thanks goes to the UNRWA, Potato Productions, the American Colony, Matthew Reynolds, Christopher Gunness, Milina Shahin, Shareef Sarhan, Mazen Naim, Ashraf Al-Masry, Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawahina, Ghassan E. Ghosn, Asieh Namdar, Larry Register, Cyndi Strand, Anne Paq, GANSO, the staff and administrators of the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School, the staff and administrators of the Asma Elementary School, Dr. Jantien Dajani, Paul Vester, GoPro, SPOT, Christina Cahill, Stacy Woods, Judith Rubin, Julia Byers, Anne Stewart, and all of the individual contributors that so generously gave their support.