Resilience Within a Conflict Zone

By Sara Burback

Although he was raised on the opposite side of the world from the United States, 28-year-old Mohammed Eid has been familiar with the global impact of U.S. policy since he was young. The Gaza Strip, where Mohammed was raised, is one of the world’s most densely-populated areas, with about 1.9 million people, 1.3 million of whom are refugees. Within this high concentration of people is a large number of international and American nonprofit organizations providing much needed educational, medical, food, and psychosocial aid for Gazans.

These nonprofits, in turn, rely upon government grants for a large share of their revenue. Due to recent funding cuts by the Trump Administration, however, many currently face a funding crisis, creating a financial strain upon programs that Mohammed and his family have always depended upon. Mohammed, who grew up in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, is eager to share his story with me to shed light on how the voices of the American people and the decisions made on Capitol Hill regarding U.S. international aid have influenced his access to education and shaped the trajectory of his adult life and career.

Mohammed is a current recipient of the Rotary Peace Fellowship, pursuing a double Master’s degree in Global Studies and International Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and Duke University.

His research is personal for Mohammed. He survived three wars between Israel and Gaza in the last 10 years. In 2004 during the Second Intifada, an Israeli airstrike destroyed his family’s home and Mohammed moved with his parents and five siblings to a shelter in a local school run by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). As a U.N. agency, UNRWA was created in 1949 to carry out humanitarian relief for Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel. UNRWA operates 677 schools which provide half a million Palestinian refugee children with free basic education. There are 15 UNRWA operated schools within the Rafah Camp alone.

Humanity knows no borders - nor do humanitarian crises.

While living in a tent nearby, Mohammed and his family were able to rebuild their home after several months. Their second home was destroyed in 2014 by another airstrike during the 50-day war between Israel and Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge. Mohammed and his family again found shelter within the nearby UNRWA school, where Mohammed began volunteering with UNRWA’s emergency response team, evacuating civilians from bombed areas and providing clean water, food, tents, and medicine to others displaced by the airstrikes.

After aiding in emergency response during the war, Mohammed was invited to participate in a training facilitated by UNRWA that provided humanitarian assistance experts with enhanced response skills during conflicts. His passion for humanitarian assistance was noticed by one of the international trainers, who encouraged him to apply to the Rotary Fellowship in the United States for his graduate degree. After completing English language certification, the GRE exam, and receiving admission to both Duke University and UNC, Mohammed applied for a travel permit to leave the Gaza strip to begin his Master’s programs. Due to the extensive amount of people attempting to leave Gaza each day, compounded with the blockade that prevents the entry of commercial goods and the exit of people with approved travel permits, Mohammed attempted seven crossings into Israel before he was finally approved for departure and began his journey to the U.S. to begin his graduate studies.

His capstone project for his graduate degrees seeks to emphasize human connection by focusing on the sustainability and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance and the ability of the international community to come to the aid of its fellow human beings in their time of need. His research focuses on maximizing the number of recipients of humanitarian aid in the most  cost-effective manner. Humanity, Mohammed says, knows no borders - nor do humanitarian crises.

When asked if there was one message he could send to Americans regarding Gaza and humanitarian assistance, Mohammed stressed that it is critical for Americans to understand the global impact of U.S. policy. The slightest alteration to a policy regarding international aid can impact a fragile community across an ocean. As the Trump administration scales back its overall contribution to international aid and announced in late August a complete cutting of its funding to UNRWA, Mohammed urged Americans to be mindful that many communities in developing countries, especially those in the midst of conflict, depend upon assistance from the U.S.

Included in the Center for Public Justice’s guidelines for the political community is the emphasis that “humans bear responsibility to one another as creatures called to heed God’s standards of justice, love, and good stewardship.” In an increasingly globalized world, how does this good stewardship extend beyond our borders to loving our neighbors in Gaza and other places facing conflict today?

Mohammed emphasized one of the highlights of his time in North Carolina over the past year has been meeting his kind neighbors, classmates, and professors. What are the ways in which we as Americans can actively demonstrate this level of generosity and appreciation for our neighbors? These neighbors may move in across the street, like Mohammed, or they may remain overseas and require Americans to advocate on their behalf, such as his family in Gaza.

How does good stewardship extend beyond our borders to loving our neighbors in Gaza and other places facing conflict today?

This stewardship can be done on multiple levels, from contacting our Congressional representatives regarding the U.S. government’s funding of international aid to leading an effort within our churches to become informed of the multi-narratives within Israel and Palestine.  It can be engaging in small group study with other believers regarding being an effective advocate for peace and justice for all peoples in the Holy Land. It can be volunteering with refugee resettlement programs in your city by  sponsoring a new family and learning their story. It can be done by educating oneself through literature and nonfiction to explore the narratives of Israel and Palestine. It is, ultimately, recognizing our common humanity.

The priority within the field of humanitarian aid, said Mohammed, should be working directly with those receiving aid; recognizing one another’s humanity and our need for security, food, and access to medical care and education. Such issues are too often politicized, with civilians caught in the midst of political conflict. As Mohammed pursues his ambition to research humanitarian aid, inform improvements to policy, and implement these reforms within Gaza; the future of his work remains shaped by American policy.

Our call to justice as followers of Jesus, who began his ministry by declaring he was sent to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to release the oppressed,” is to stand beside those in their time of need. It is contacting and visiting our Congressional representatives to speak on behalf of those whose voices are not being heard; it is reading about issues of injustice and engaging in discussions; it is befriending a neighbor and listening to their story. It is stepping outside comfort zones and recognizing our son and daughter; brother and sister within Mohammed’s family and his neighbors seeking shelter and safety from an ongoing conflict. It is engaging on a personal level, recognizing that humanity should have no boundaries.

Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works as the Director of Outreach at Churches for Middle East Peace, and participates annually in Bethlehem's Free Movement marathon in defense of the basic human right to movement.

Photo courtesy of ISM Palestine.