Dreams crushed by trauma

Basma Ismael Kurd

Mondoweiss  /  August 30, 2021

What do you tell a ten-year-old who has seen carnage around her, when you are also traumatized yourself ?

Tiny hands, a slow movement, and a glass of water. A small person in a white lab coat passes an insulin shot to a diabetic old man. Next, she gives him some pills and a plastic cup filled with water.

This small doctor is my niece Shaam, then 4 years old. Her favorite hobby at that time was using her toy medical kit to pretend to fix her sick grandfather. She wanted him to recover fast. 

As a distinguished girl in the family, my brother always encourages her to be a doctor. He bought her only doctor’s equipment. She was eager to fulfill her dream, even her favorite color was white, the color of the doctor’s coat. She is different from other girls of her generation. At playtime, she emphatically chose her plastic stethoscope over a doll. She was lively and optimistic. Her passion for helping people drove her to run around our house in the southern city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, creating a combination of real and make-believe treatments.

At a family gathering last May everyone was looking forward to seeing her in her white coat. For that reason, I was surprised when I heard her words, “Please auntie, try to convince my father that I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t think that I can help all of these people.”

This happened immediately after news broke of an escalation between Israel and Gaza that killed 260 Palestinians in 11-days of fighting. We were sitting stiffly in front of the television in our living room, our eyes steadily watching the breaking news. I live with my mum and dad. But during the war, we all gathered in the same place as we were afraid to be apart. Like many of our neighbors, we preferred to stay in one house. This way, we either live together or die together.

How should I tell Shaam that she is not the only one who feels this way? Watching graphic content on the news that week, I could barely handle the horrible scenes. If an adult struggles, how can I expect a child to cope? She’s only ten.

I thought that maybe after the war ended, and if we survived, she would change her mind and once again be inspired to become a doctor. But one week ago, I heard her mother arguing with my brother, “I can’t let you choose the future career of my daughter. She is a child, she is in trauma,” my sister-in-law declared. “I can’t allow you to force her to be a doctor.” 

She was right. Witnessing traumatic events has changed all of our aspirations. 

About five days into the escalation we were hoping to hear something about an armistice agreement when suddenly the presenter interrupted with breaking news: 17 people in the Kuluk family were killed in Israeli airstrikes on two four-story buildings on Al-Wehda Street, killing a total of 30 people. The buildings collapsed from the blasts, leaving two members of the Kuluk family, mother and son, Sanaa and Mohammed, under the rubble until rescue workers pulled them out the next morning. 

I used to go to Al-Wehda Street for dinner at a favorite Thai restaurant or shopping with my friends after lectures. The street is close to my university. I was an English major and graduated in 2013, although I never had a full-time job as Gaza’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. I am a freelance translator and writer. 

All of these events reminded me of the first of four escalations over the past 13 years. In the winter of 2008 my brother Mohammad— may God have mercy upon his soul—was shot by an Israeli soldier. He was 19 when he died. I was 17. We were really close. He was passionate about becoming an engineer, to help construct homes that were destroyed by Israeli forces. 

And what really breaks my heart is that before his death, only two days before he left us forever, we were talking about our dreams and future careers. He told me that he would build me a house when I get married. Actually, he said, “I am going to build you a princess castle.” He was still a freshman in college. I laughed and I said Amen to all of his aspirations.

Alas, he and his dreams vanished once his death was announced in the news. That’s how we found out. My mother’s cried her heart out. I felt that my soul would leave my body just like how he left me alone. He was my soul mate.

A few days before his death, our neighbors, the Ghanam family, were killed in an airstrike. Six people died in the bombing, one lived. It happened just before dawn. I woke up to the sound of screaming, crying and black smoke filling our house. I could barely see anything as it was dark out and the impact cut our power. For a moment I thought that I was the one under rubble and that I had lost my family. 

As soon as I figured out what happened, I darted to the street and hid near the al-Huda Mosque.

After the sunrise, I explored the situation. In the debris pile that once was their house, I saw all my neighbors’ mangled body parts. Pieces of them were stuck on the walls. Ambulances weren’t able to reach the house, but I suppose it was too late anyway. 

What shocked me more is that when I heard my brother Mohammed shouting and seeking help. “I heard someone moaning in pain. Leave the dead and let us save the living,” he called to me. One of the Ghanam sons was still alive. Husam was 15 years old.  

He was protected by their front door, which fell over his frame, shielding him from the rest of the collapsed house. 

Stories like this are why some of the families in Gaza think that they are safer downstairs so they all sleep in first-floor living rooms during wars. While my brother was helping the boy, he fainted because dirty smoke filled his lungs upon entering the house.

Only one person survived and will lament the loss of his family forever.

My niece and I survived the latest escalation, but I don’t want her dreams to be crushed the way mine were. So many children will never have the same opportunities as us. From wars in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and  2021, more than 1,000 children have been killed. 

One can only imagine how all these victims could have built a better future. How many more generations will be deprived of life? At 30 years old, I feel my dreams have been snatched from me. But Shaam, she will carry on what I failed to complete. I will continue to support her and help guide her to achieve her goals. 

Basma Ismail Kurd is a writer and translator from Rafah, Gaza