As my 2½-year-old daughter colors Halloween pumpkins, my cousin’s son in Gaza draws a self-portrait underneath a sky of metal, his little stick figure body standing below a rain of Israeli missiles.
Here in Brooklyn, I’m stuck in an anxious loop, asking myself how I could comfort and distract my girls if we were in the Gaza Strip, like so many mothers who are sheltering with their young children, living amidst horrific bombing and displacement. As a writer, I turn to storytelling to make sense of darkness and confusion. If my family was enduring the onslaught, what stories could I possibly tell to soothe my toddler, Lila, who defiantly colors her pumpkins blue or green because she doesn’t like the color orange?
Lila is obsessed with volcanoes. Every night, I tell her a different version of the same story: how a volcano and her animal friends set out to make an ice jacket to keep the volcano cool so she won’t erupt. It takes them weeks to collect enough ice from glaciers to sew the jacket. The surrealism never fails to keep my daughter intrigued and excited; could it possibly entertain the 1.2 million children living in Gaza and the West Bank?
In the first week alone, Israel dropped an estimated 6,000 bombs on a trapped population, decimating entire neighborhoods and killing over 3,000 men, women, and children so far. The number is only going to become higher.
Read More: A Photographer Captures Death, Destruction, and Grief in Gaza
My father, born in Gaza, was 9 years old during the Nakba, the Palestinian “catastrophe” when Israel was created in 1948. He was a child survivor of war; were he still alive, he’d be witness to yet another war and more death. Already, we’ve lost over 40 members of my extended family, 17 of them on Oct. 13 while huddled into one apartment in Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip. The youngest, a boy named Yamen, was only three weeks old. Yamen’s mother, an engineer, was breastfeeding him when the house was bombed by an Israeli warplane. “We found Yamen on her chest suckling milk,” my cousin Ahmed told me, our conversation riddled with the sound of whistling airstrikes. Yamen’s father survived but stopped speaking.
I hear the fatigue in my cousin’s voice. Everyone is tired and wants this catastrophe to be over. They want space to mourn and grieve without the fear of being killed in another airstrike. My grieving, on the other hand, looks different. I force myself to eat so that my own baby, Aya, has enough breastmilk and doesn’t go hungry. Too distracted to cook, I choose what leftovers to piece together for dinner while my cousins are putting their children to sleep with empty stomachs every night. How do you tell a hungry child there is no food?
Our family chat on WhatsApp is flooded with images of our dead cousins. The picture of Yamen haunts me as I hold Aya, who is not yet three months old and is crying to be fed. How do mothers breastfeed their babies if they aren’t eating? The guilt sits with me as I feed Aya. My stomach turns when I swaddle her; it reminds me of the images I can’t unsee of babies wrapped in tight body bags.
Every morning, I call Ahmed to make sure they are still alive. Sometimes he turns his camera on, passing his phone around to all of our cousins. The women look exhausted. I see children climbing on top of rubble, laughing like my daughter does when she climbs up the slide at our local park. I speak to Yamen’s father, offering my condolences. Somehow, he still smiles. Outside, the men are trying to rig a solar panel on top of a water truck to pump out water. A little boy eats stale bread. They’re running out of food and water, and an Israeli airstrike hit a bakery in Nuseirat, a Gaza refugee camp, one of the last lifelines of sustenance. Other bakeries have been forced to shut down due to lack of water and electricity.
On Oct. 14, the Israeli military warned 1.1 million civilians in the northern half of the Gaza to evacuate in advance of an anticipated ground invasion. Still, many Palestinians in the north refuse to leave, including many of my cousins. Most roads are destroyed, and the cars have run out of fuel since Israel cut off fuel, food, water, and electricity to Gaza. And where would they stay if they made it alive? Gaza is already one of the most densely populated strips of land on earth. “How can we flee and leave (our family) under the rubble?” Ahmed says. He believes that some relatives buried under their demolished home may still be alive, but there are no excavators to dig them out. How could he abandon them? “If we die, at least it will be with dignity in our home in Jabalya,” he tells me.
The United Nations. has reported that 25% of homes in Gaza have been destroyed. In Brooklyn, my home is safe. My daughter colors as I once again explain Halloween and ask what costume she wants. She wants to be a volcano covered in lava. Meanwhile, the U.N. has warned that Gaza faces a risk of an infectious disease outbreak amid a lack of water and sewage contamination. How beautiful would it be if the children in Gaza could play dress up and forget everything for just one day? I sew red and orange fabrics for my daughter’s volcano costume, feeling guilty for the privileges I have.
What story could keep my girls distracted from hunger, thirst, and exhaustion when the Israeli blockade created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that grows more dire by the minute? Lila knows that eventually the volcano will erupt. She pretends that the room is covered in lava and that she burns her hand. I think of the survivors whose scars will never fade. As I write this, 20 aid trucks filled with medical supplies, food and fuel, are waiting for permission to enter. This is what an apartheid state looks like: even in a humanitarian catastrophe, the Israeli military is above the law.
I call Ahmed. Lila is home from preschool with a fever and Aya is fresh from her morning bath. It’s raining in Gaza. Ahmed says they spent the day collecting rainwater to drink in all the cups and bowls they could find. He charges his phone with car batteries. “The children are shaking and terrified,” he says, not mentioning how it’s been over ten days since anyone showered. It will be a long time before Ahmed’s children will see the inside of a classroom.
My husband encourages me to keep focusing on the story I would tell my girls. For 16-year-olds in Gaza, this is their fifth war. For the over 1,200 children who have already been killed, it’s their final one.
Palestinians are resilient, yes, but we’re human. The trauma that Palestinians in Gaza endure is repetitive and ongoing, yet we must rally our friends and neighbors to show us compassion and empathy. With the uptick of hate crimes against Palestinian, as well as other Muslim-Americans, my husband worries over the implications of my daughter’s Halloween costume. That the metaphor of a little Palestinian girl dressed as a volcano might offend people. We’re exhausted from reminding the world that we’re human.
I realize my husband urging me to write stories for my children is less about how I would keep them distracted, and more about distracting me from the horrors that my family, and all Palestinians in Gaza, are living through. But I continue anyway to imagine the stories that mothers could tell their children to ease their pain and suffering. The preoccupation only lasts for a few minutes, though, before new messages come through on my family WhatsApp, notifying us of another cousin’s death.