The Orphans of Gaza: How Can We Help?

orphans of Gaza

I’ve a bee in my bonnet when it comes to the children of Gaza, and so far, have not found any means to swat it away. The buzzing is making me a little crazy. This may be a very good thing….

Here’s the background on that bee. The official death toll in Gaza is now nearing 28,000. Of that figure, accrued in just 122 days, about 70% were women and children, and a goodly portion of the rest were non-combatant males. Just under half the population of Gaza—prior to the current massacre—were kids. By my estimate, that would add up to these totals: about 20,000 individual women and children killed, of whom more than 11,000 would have been youths.

These numbers—28,000 dead, 20,000 women and children lost, 11,600 kids killed– are cyphers, little bits of fact that are supplied to us, but which fall profoundly short of describing the carnage. They are nothing more than snapshots of the Israeli-wrought destruction, devoid of any hint of the vast humanity lost, the complexity, the richness, the wisdom, the stories–small and large.


The tiny victims we see, white-shrouded, being lamented and then piled into mass graves, were children. They were not Hamas, nor were they PIJ. They never voted. For anyone. They never plotted against the Zionist occupiers. They were never in a position to participate in a coup against Hamas, as many Westerners seem to feel the Gazans ought to have done–and for which Israel insists they are culpable, deserving of their own deaths.

These juvenile fatalities are fairly well reported; it is no secret that the deaths point to massive war crimes.

THOSE WHO ARE LIVING

That said, here is the bee itself: there are other groups of kids whose plight is of equal and possibly even more pressing concern. To begin with, there are the children heartbreakingly labeled WCNSF, or ‘Wounded Child, No Surviving Family.’  Some of these kids have lost entire extended families along with their own eyes, legs, arms, hands, feet and voices. Next, there are those who have survived with bodies as-of-yet intact, but who are all alone in a world with little food or water or shelter, where bombs rain from the sky, and familiar landmarks are reduced to rubble each day.  

The total death count to date–28,000– comprises innumerable mothers and fathers, uncles, grandparents, aunts, and older siblings. The very people who would naturally care for the most vulnerable, the children. The ones who would procure food and water and blankets for them, nurse them when they fall ill. The people who would help them locate a center of sanity in the midst of this complete madness. Who would love them–arguably the most essential element to meaningful survival–even while every other aspect of their lives is shattered. The Israelis are not just eradicating people, they are destroying the very vital social networks that we all count on to allow our young to survive and thrive, physically and emotionally.

I find myself wondering: what happens to these children?  According to UNICEF, there are now about 19,000 orphans in Gaza. The organization Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, chaired by Richard Falk, puts that number closer to 25,000. Cold hard figures again, but for some context, can we try to imagine the unimaginable? Think of every single child in Lansing, Michigan violently orphaned in a matter of just four months, and then consider the magnitude of that loss. Add in widespread displacement, homelessness, war and famine, and a sense of what the number really means begins to emerge.

Let’s start with the physical needs: where will they live? Who will care for them? Who will raise them? We are looking at a huge contingent of children who need places to live. Family, including extended family, are the universally preferred options for children who have lost their parents. But for many of these kids, all vestiges of family have been wiped out.

Not only are their families gone, but they are almost certainly traumatized in ways and to an extent we have limited experience in addressing. Given that some solution will at length be found to house and feed them, who, then, will help them find a way to get out of bed each morning, learn to sing again, play with others, swim without fear in their beautiful sea? 

Children are resilient, it is frequently noted, and perhaps truly, but no one should just bounce back from what these kids have endured. The human mind and heart are not made to do that. These children, if they survive the genocide, are going to need great quantities of various kinds of support in order to keep on living with some sense of purpose and dignity. The buzzing says: I should be working on how to provide this help.

When I spoke recently with Zeiad Abbas Shamrouch, Executive Director at the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), he acknowledged the breadth of the challenge posed by needs of the orphans of Gaza, but expressed a position he said was shared by most organizations dedicated to the well-being of Palestinian children: Just let us do the first action to stop the genocide, and then we can discuss what is needed next. For now, he explained, MECA workers in Gaza are intent upon getting adequate food, water and shelter to all of Gaza’s children, as well as those who care for them. MECA, like so many NGOs concerned with Palestinian welfare, are very sensibly laser-focused on saving lives today. Only after the immediate and lethal threats are neutralized will they be at liberty to turn their attention fully toward helping Gazans heal and rebuild.

Most of us–myself and those reading this—are citizens of countries that have actively aided and abetted this slaughter. Our tax dollars have purchased the bombs, our elected leaders have winked and nodded at Netanyahu and his accomplices as they spew racist and genocidal hatred, meanwhile orchestrating the massacre. Biden—as we all know– went beyond the winking to commit that odious embrace. Just recently, a number of our governments defunded UNRWA (based on rock solid ‘evidence’ from the ever-mendacious IDF and Shin Bet), further endangering Gaza’s children at a critical moment when famine and disease are rampant.  

It’s true, and worth noting, that many of us are doing what we can to stop or slow the killing. We are organizing, marching, getting arrested and clogging the courts, insisting that our voices be heard in the AIPAC-infiltrated halls of government. We are praying, we are shouting and we are writing and pleading, sending money as we are able, but …. as it was with the Iraq war, our voices and our bodies out on the street–so far–tend to be brushed off like a small swarm of gnats, annoying but little more. As we continue to rally and to do all we can to hold those responsible for this ongoing war crime accountable, the grim reality is that Palestinians continue to die. 

That means not only more loss of life, but more orphans, more kids who desperately need universal, wrap-around care.

As we call for ceasefire, we can think concurrently about the kids, alive but without family, how we can do right by them both now and later, when the slaughter stops. I feel an obligation, foremost because of our shared humanity, but also because I live in the country most complicit in creating this catastrophe. In order to silence that bee, I must do something to counteract the obscene violence that has robbed these children of their families, their homes, their schools, their friends, their teachers, their pets, their ability to feel safe, and to an unknown–but surely considerable–extent, their capacity to grow into the beautiful multi-faceted humans their parents believed was their birthright. 

This is a situation that requires solutions encompassing the needs of the whole child– spiritual, emotional and physical. It is one I have seen little discussion of, and yet there is no doubt that it is and will continue to be a complex and urgent issue.  As Zeiad noted, stopping the killing is first, but for those of us not living under Israeli assault, those of us with the luxury to simply turn on the tap to obtain water to boil for coffee, rummage in the fridge for something to eat, pick up our phones and computers at will to communicate, the capacity to contemplate possible answers exists right now.

A WELL-INTENDED (but likely) WRONG TURN

Some people are at work seeking these answers; I’ve encountered some mention of plans to resettle orphaned children in the US. Although this is a tempting idea in some regards, I have grave concerns. It seems quite transparently to be the case that the Zionist objective is and always has been to remove all Palestinians from the land of their ancestors and further, to dismantle their culture and identity such that they disappear into the diaspora. Transplanting Gaza’s children to the US, the UK or EU countries thus facilitates that criminal and illegal Zionist intention.

For the kids themselves, separation from the familiar sensory landmarks–the sounds, smells, foods, music, language—would be another huge and disorienting loss. Even placed with the most well-meaning and culturally aligned families in the West–and I know there are wonderful people who would open their hearts and homes without hesitation–I strongly suspect that the discordance, the loss of what little remains of ‘home,’ heaped on top of the trauma they are already carrying, would be insurmountable for many kids.

Adoption in the Islamic world, from what I understand, is not seen in the same way as it is in the US and Europe. While raising another’s biological child is not uncommon, particularly in the case of orphans, there is an emphasis placed upon maintaining that child’s birth ties, a tradition which would run counter to sending children to far-off places.

All kids deserve to be cared for and to have their needs met; after a trauma like the one suffered by the young people of Gaza; we must consider their intrinsic need to be Palestinian as one of the most paramount. The complete destruction of the lives they were leading on October 6th is almost certain to be the defining event of their lives. For that reason alone, anything that might undermine their identity as Palestinian would, in my view, be a failure to meet those needs.  

There are a host of reasons, then, not to go down the road of ‘resettling’ these kids outside of Palestine and the Middle East. While it might be a beautifully open-hearted reaction to the critical situation of these children (a family without kids for a kid without a family?), it is clearly not a plan that speaks to most of these children’s best interests.

Possibly of equal importance is the recognition that answers to the question ‘how can we help the orphans of Gaza?’ must come from Palestinians. And to my knowledge, no one in Palestine is yet asking for Americans or Europeans to rush in and scoop up their orphaned children. Even though I understand the attraction, the personal satisfaction it might offer to anyone who would open their home, it is almost certainly a wrong turn.

WHAT MIGHT REAL HELP LOOK LIKE?

So what can we do? How can those of us who feel compelled, help in a way that is actually… helpful?  Ram Dass and Paul Gorman wrote a book some decades ago titled How Can I Help?.  It is a wonderful compilation of anecdotes and clear thinking about helping, about that which underlies much of our helpfully- intended efforts. The book includes ideas and guidance about how to offer our love and support in ways that truly center the person or people we wish to show up for. One of the key messages I gleaned from it points to the profound power—and often, incredible challenge– of simply being fully present with someone else’s pain or fear. Opening and closing the shades, plumping the pillows, getting more ice for the water jug—these all may be, Ram Dass and Gorman suggest, more for our own benefit than for that of a loved one lying gravely ill in a hospital bed. The person who is in that bed is in fact more or less abandoned by the fussing and fixing of our ‘helping.’ Instead, they say—and I paraphrase–sit with the suffering, join in it, honor it. Be authentically with that person where they are, and in general, this will prove to be of far more actual help than doing a lot of stuff that hasn’t been asked for and isn’t particularly needed. Of course, when you are asked, respond. Getting more ice is indeed very helpful, when it is wanted. 

The bee in my bonnet has a terrible time simply sitting with the suffering of Palestinians, orphaned or not. I want to act, to do my little bit to soften the horrors. I am not sure that ‘being present with’ Gazan distress is of much value at all. From what I read and hear, the people of Gaza are actually pleading for us to get more ice, to act on their behalf. So the bee drones on: where will these children best be served?  In orphanages within Palestinian refugee settlements?  Should I be raising the money to enable the Palestinian social workers, doctors, and therapists of all sorts who might provide the staffing for such facilities? Should I think about finding ways to make it possible for Palestinian or even other Arab families to foster or adopt, to take on sponsorship of individual kids?  What else can I do

I have so much privilege and security, so much choice; these surely add to my obligation to act. Still, it is humbling to see how easy it is to identify a problem from my comfy living room, devise a solution that makes a lot of sense to me and charge ahead.  Being a ‘savior’ is another easy-to-make wrong turn.

So the buzzing continues—I’m sure I will keep searching for ideas about how to help, but against that backdrop, I will persist fiercely in doing the small things I can to stop the killing. This has to be primary, not only because it is a prerequisite for any reconstitution of somewhat normal life, but because this is what the Palestinians I have spoken with ask me to do. What funds I have, I will give to any of a number of incredible organizations that are feeding and sheltering Gaza’s kids. It is clearly not time yet for action on my concerns about the orphans. I will wait for Palestinian leadership on this issue, and I will do my best to show up when a direction is identified.

The pace of global collapse layers another challenge to the future of these children. The speed with which each new disaster captures our attention leaves us all at risk for inconstancy. It is not hard to believe that three months after the shooting stops in Gaza, most of us currently transfixed will have moved on to the next emergency. But this is one excruciating debacle for which we bear some direct responsibility, and we must not turn away from it. As Philippe Lazzarini of UNRWA said, “An entire generation of children is traumatized, and will take years to heal.”  Our bombs did that. Our winks, nods and hugs did that.

I hope that we will show up and stay present, do all we can to make healing a viable option for as many of the orphans of Gaza as possible. It may not be apparent just yet how that will best transpire, but the hard work of regenerating lives and country requires commitment, consistency, and a willingness to work in relative obscurity.

This may or may not call to you, but if it does, and if you have your own bee, let its buzzing serve to keep you from complacency. Let us be poised, then, to help in earnest, once the path is plotted. Let us resolve to do all we can to show up for Palestinian-led efforts to rebuild the networks that support life and love, those that have been ripped apart by Israeli-dropped US bombs. Let us not allow the next riveting train-wreck to distract us or to banish the orphans of Gaza from our hearts. These innocent and innately worthy children deserve—at a minimum– real help. They are our fellow humans and they must not be abandoned again.

Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. Write her at [email protected] or visit her website.

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