Gaza’s youth create pockets of happiness amid destruction and blockade

Mahmoud Nasman of team Bar Palestine trains amid rubble in Gaza city (Stefanie Glinski)

Stefanie Glinski 

The National  /  July 8, 2021

95% of children in Gaza report feelings of depression, hyperactivity and aggression, Save the Children says.

Conflict and the blockade are constants for Gaza’s two million residents, but young people in the small Palestinian enclave are determined not to let this rule their everyday lives.

“You have to choose. You can either be miserable, because, yes, the circumstances are incredibly tough. Or you can decide to make the best with what you got,” says Mustafa Slebi, 16, a roller-skater who practices his stunts at a skate park near the enclave’s northern border with Israel.

Mustafa is one of dozens of teenagers who hang out in the late afternoons when the scorching sun has started to go down. They bring their skateboards and rollerblades – most of them donated by aid groups – outperforming each other with new stunts and acrobatics.

Born just a few years before the 2007 blockade began, Mustafa says his Gaza-issued ID card prevents him from leaving the 41-kilometre territory, even to visit Jerusalem or the West Bank.

“Learning to skate has helped me focus on something I love and not on the things that are difficult to manage,” he tells The National.

Since the blockade started, Gaza has gone through three wars and countless skirmishes. The most recent conflict killed 256 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel. Unemployment is at 47 per cent.

In a report, aid group Save the Children found that 95 per cent of minors in Gaza reported feelings of depression, hyperactivity and aggression.

“Many children in Gaza have known nothing but blockade, war and a growing cycle of deprivation. Their stress and anxiety compounds with every day that they continue to live in uncertainty,” the report stated.

But Gazans refuse to give up. At the weekends and in the afternoons, Gaza’s small stretch of beach is packed with families, swimming even though the water is often filled with sewage.

Those who have the money join the many emerging private clubs, which offer safe spaces to hang out, play sport or meet new people.

Born and raised in Gaza, Mustafa Ghalayani runs the Friends Equestrian Club. It has about 20 horses and 90 families are currently members.

When it opened its doors three years ago and its horses were imported from Europe, Mr Ghalayani said he wanted to offer opportunities to people “cut off from the outside world”.

A horse rider and show jumper since childhood, Mr Ghalayani dreamt of participating in the Olympics – an impossible wish for a Palestinian, he says.

“That’s why I’m trying to give the next generation some of the things they are missing out on,” he says.

“I want them to be able to grow their talents and abilities, and to believe in themselves,” he explains while sitting at the club, watching children practise their show jumping. Although it is mostly teenagers participating in his classes, the courses are open to all ages.

“If I see young kids with incredible talent, I tell them to leave Gaza. I tell them that you can only go so far here, that your success will be limited,” he says.

The only way out of Gaza – if no permit can be acquired to travel abroad – is often through online connections. This is why a group of poets and artists is now regularly connecting with like-mined people throughout the Middle East.

Batool Abu Akeen, 16, says she has been writing stories and poems since she was 9. She is now found a mentor at Al-Qattan Cultural Centre in Gaza, an initiative that has offered literature and writing classes, as well as a fully stocked library and other, science-based programs.

Batool says she transfers most of her work – written in a small notebook – to Facebook, hoping it might help people understand what is happening in Gaza.

“I mostly write for Palestinians outside of Gaza, because they can’t come here and they can’t experience what we experience,” she tells The National.

Her favourite poem was about the sea. “It’s big and mighty; no one can destroy it,” she says.

It is the sea that Gazans of all backgrounds – including the more than one million refugees who moved here after being forced from their homes after 1948 – gravitate towards on a daily basis, escaping their routines and hardships.

Batool says it is her escape, too – just as much as poetry is.

“The sea is free. No one can tell it: ‘Don’t go here and don’t go there'”, she says. “I want to be like the sea.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist and photographer who reports on conflict and humanitarian crisis