Last year I received an email from an Elder of Dunfermline Abbey (which is one of my partner churches back in Scotland) informing me that one of their upcoming Labour of Love knitting projects was to be Teddies for Tragedies. The teddy bears are made to a simple knitted pattern, all the same size, and are often sent to children in hospitals, schools, or orphanages in areas of conflict or extreme poverty. She asked if any of our partner organisations might be interested. Just a few months earlier, I had taken a bag of similar bears to the EMMS hospital in Nazareth to sell in their shop and distribute to the children around the holidays, so I wanted to find other homes for these little bears. ‘I’ll try to get them into Gaza,’ I wrote back.
On 4 February, two boxes of teddies were blessed in Sunday worship at Dunfermline Abbey and began their journey towards Israel. I was in the UK when they arrived, so the staff at the Scots Hotel ensured they navigated customs without incident, and they were given a comfortable home in the sunny church office while we planned our trip to Gaza.
To be honest, we weren’t sure until the day before that we were going to get to Gaza. The situation changed daily, and the threat of war loomed as rocket exchanges became more frequent. Even on the day we traveled to the border, we couldn’t be certain we’d be allowed to cross, or once we got in, whether the border would close if violence escalated.
In preparation for the 15 minute walk through no man’s land, I repackaged the little teddies into two large plastic bags and vacuum-sealed them to make them easier to carry. Each one fit neatly into my favourite Lululemon bags, and as I put them in the boot of my car, I was conscious of the juxtaposition: teddies intended to go to children living in unimaginably uninhabitable circumstances, wrapped in bags representing the privilege of white Western wealth epitomised in ridiculously over-priced gym clothes.
The seven of us and the bears made it safely into Gaza and were met by our driver who escorted us throughout the time we were there.
On the second morning, we met a staff member from the Near East Council of Churches and visited a family health clinic in Rafah which is run by them. These health centres provide vital primary care to families living in refugee camps, where anaemia and malnutrition are common amongst the children. Funded by organisations such as Embrace the Middle East, UNICEF, and Act Alliance, they offer dental care, pre- and ante-natal monitoring, family planning, well-baby clinics, psychosocial support, and general primary care medicine.
Governmentally supported hospitals should receive medical supplies from the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health, but as we were told by several medical staff and human rights monitors we met, the PA’s sanctions against the Gazan Strip include the restriction of medication. As a result, hospitals across Gaza are currently operating with 43% of basic medicines (such as painkillers and antibiotics) at zero stock, and we learned that those injured in the recent Great March of Return demonstrations are often discharged from hospital without the medicines they need to prevent infection. Because of the funding they receive, the NECC clinics have a policy of keeping a 6-month stock of these basic supplies and therefore find themselves providing support that the hospitals cannot.
It is to these family health clinics and the associated children’s programmes that the teddies will go. I handed the bags over to the NECC to distribute the teddies as they felt appropriate.
The future that awaits the children of Gaza seems grim unless there is a radical shift in the current intractable situation. The UN has predicted that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020, but the reality is that Gaza is uninhabitable now. 97% of water is undrinkable. Electricity is on a cycle of four hours on, sixteen hours off, which means families find themselves up in the middle of the night to do basic chores such as laundry. Without electricity, waste water cannot be treated, so raw sewage flows into the sea, making the otherwise beautiful beaches unsafe. Rates of unemployment, especially amongst young people, are 49%, rising to 65% for female graduates. 80% of Gazan families are living in poverty.
In many media reports, Gaza is referred to as a humanitarian crisis, but nearly everyone we spoke to made it clear that this shifts attention away from the real issues, that Gaza is a political crisis. As a representative of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights explained, Gaza is controlled by three authorities. Israel controls the borders and restricts freedom of movement of both people and trade. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for many of the governmental bodies and, as the article referenced above states, last year slashed the salaries of many of its workers by 30%, contributing further to the struggle for survival for many families. And finally, Hamas controls security and ‘manages’ the Gazan strip. The result is that the people of Gaza are trapped in the middle of the political power plays and fighting between each of these. And though Gaza is one of the most widely documented conflicts in the world, the international community largely looks on in silence.
When we met with Dr Suheila Tarazi, the Director of Ahli Arab Hospital, she gave us a message for the churches we represent: ‘Tell churches that there is a Christian witness in Gaza putting faith into action. We are one body, the body of Jesus Christ. We want to live in peace and dignity; we don’t want to be beggars. We need to open our borders, sell our products, and help our economy. We need a new generation of hope.’
Bringing teddies seems such a small gesture, a drop in the great ocean of need that is Gaza. But I hope that the children who receive them will feel all the love and the prayers that were knitted into these cuddly toys. And as they hold them, I hope that they will know that there are those of us who care, who tell their stories, and who will advocate for change on their behalf.