This is an item I wrote for our local paper. Nothing very new in it except about the Viva Palestina convoy which is one of my main activites these days.
This time last year I was frantically busy selling up and closing down my house in Haxby, to go and live in Jordan teaching organic gardening to refugees there. Twelve months later I’m back in York, setting up a new home in Fulford – but at the same time pulling out all the stops to go back to the region. And this time it’s a journey with a very tangible mission: to deliver a modern ambulance loaded with medical and other essential supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip.
I had an overwhelmingly positive response to my teaching. Refugees from Iraq, Palestinians from the refugee camps in Jordan, and low-income Jordanians came to learn how to grow their own food, using simple, achievable sustainable techniques such as making active compost heaps. And it was a two-way process: they taught me what works and does not work in the region, and how the growing season is influenced by rainfall as much as by temperature; and I was able to transfer lessons about water conservation, especially after visiting some pioneering projects across the River Jordan in Palestine.
I had studied Social and Therapeutic Horticulture at Askham Bryan College. I learned there to measure success not just by the size of the harvest. It was just as much a question of whether the refugees were making a meaningful use of their time, whether they were bonding together as a group, practising team-work, gaining in self-confidence. And the results were positive, I felt: the students wanted their courses to continue, they were proud of what they produced and enjoyed sharing it, they socialised regardless of whether they were refugee or host community, Shia or Sunni. When I met them off-duty they always asked me to share a glass of tea with them. There were a half-dozen spin-off projects, like selling compost boxes to well-off people who wanted to do organic gardening; or helping to get off the ground a garden project for people with learning difficulties.
I made many friends there, people who were genuinely sorry when I decided to leave. But we had found an excellent replacement teacher, an Iraqi soil scientist who had been interpreting for me. Reluctantly, for he spoke with passionate love of his country, he has decided to make his home long-term in Jordan – having seen former colleagues murdered because of the work they had been doing.
The shadow of violence like this loomed over the sunny and positive work we were doing. It was most intense when I first arrived, in January of this year. That was when the Israeli Government launched its massive assault on the Gaza Strip – an assault which included unpunished war-crimes, according to the UN’s investigator, Richard Goldstone. On Day 3 of the course I was teaching, news came in of 42 people being killed at a UN school in a refugee camp. In Jordan as many people as not are of Palestinian origin, and of these a large proportion have kin in Gaza. They all felt a strong sense of solidarity with the people of Gaza, keeping in touch daily and making unprecedented efforts to collect money and goods and send relief by road. By the end of January the fighting had ceased but 1400 Palestinians and 14 Israelis had died.
Throughout the rest of my time in Jordan this sense of loss, of an un-healed wound, pervaded all our serious conversations about building for a greener and more prosperous future. Ismail, who also did some translating for me, has a daughter whose home was at Rafah on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Buildings nearby were bombed to bits, leaving her home so shaken it was dangerous to live in. She and her family carried on there as long as possible – because, as she said, where else was there that was safer ? eventually, though they did move out and stay with relatives. Last I heard they had not been able to secure enough building supplies to restore their own home.
One note of hope on this issue was, in March, the arrival of the overland convoy Viva Palestina. This brought much-needed relief. It was not just the supplies and the vehicles which meant so much to the people. It was also the sense that someone cared enough to organise transport and make the journey. There was another breach in the siege in July, when an American convoy arrived, again to great joy – and not just from the people of Gaza but throughout the Middle East as readers of the Arab press and followers of media such as Al Jazeera saw what was happening. So when I read about another convoy going from London in December I was determined to be on it, if I possibly could.
Fortunately friends still in York had the same idea. They had already held fund-raising dinners and registered with the organisers, Viva Palestina, a registered charity (no. 1129092). Another supporter had raised hundreds of pounds with a collecting tin in his shop. On my return we got together to plan what we needed to do to be ready for departure.
We have now bought an ex-Health Authority ambulance. It is getting serious: we still have to raise as much money as we can, to cover the costs of fuel, ferries, insurance and return flights as well as supplies. We will be travelling via London, Istanbul, Syria and Jordan, and entering Gaza through its border with Egypt. We expect to arrive on 27th December.
It is obviously difficult in the space of a short article to explain what is driving us to undertake this journey – it is certainly a tough time of year to be crossing continental Europe and Turkey ! For me, after my year in Jordan, it is largely a gesture of friendship with a people who are friends of the friends I made – a way of repaying some of the welcome and hospitality they gave me. The people’s needs are still acute after last winter’s war. Rebuilding is severely hampered by Gaza’s land borders being tightly controlled and air and sea connections closed. I recently heard from a doctor working with Medecins Sans Frontieres. He says that so many months after the conflict people who bore up well during the actual fighting are suffering the after-effects: mental illnesses, emotional distress leading to apathy or nervous behaviour, as well as physical symptoms such as abdominal pains and diarrhoea. Many are not eating or sleeping properly. Amputees do not have adequate prosthetics.
The list of needs is a very long one. We are taking the best advice about priorities from people on the ground there, as well as from people who have been on the previous convoy. Although there will be a huge back-up group, both in York and nation-wide, we are limiting the numbers driving to two or three so as to make as much space as possible for goods. We will concentrate on medical supplies but we may be able to take some donated goods too, such as notebooks for schools. More information about the convoy is available on the web-site: www.vivapalestina.org.
We will use the best technology available to us to keep York people informed of the progress of the convoy as we make our way across the winter landscapes of Europe, Anatolia and the Middle East.