Life in Palestine: A tale of two Monas

Adie Mormech on the Samouni family, who lost 29 in the Gaza war

September 26, 2010
7 min read

Mona Samouni and the Samouni Family

At the height of the Israeli military’s Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, a three-day bombardment of Zeytoun, near Gaza City, left 29 members of the same family dead. As is typical in Gaza, extended families are large and close; the Samouni family numbered more than a hundred and lived along an entire street that was razed to the ground. News stations gathered to cover the tragedy of ‘Samouni Street’.

I visit them twice weekly to teach English. Originally just for 11-year-old Mona Samouni, but now it’s a class of six and they’re keen to learn. But I’m not walking alone. Many children come and warmly take my hand, and we walk to the three-storey building at the end of the street. The only one left standing after the assault, it was forcibly evacuated by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) for use as a base.

There I meet Mona Samouni. She is thoughtful, still very playful, and eager to talk English. I’d been introduced to her by a Gazan documentary maker following her story. She’d previously taken Jeremy Bowen around the ruins of her house in his BBC documentary Gaza, Out of the Ruins. I don’t ask Mona about what happened to her a year and a half ago, but whenever we draw there is only one thing on her mind. She draws pictures of herself with her parents and brothers, with a big sun shining. Then she draws them motionless beside her in the rubble. Apart from cousins, uncles and aunts, she lost three brothers, a niece and both parents.

Mona was one of more than 100 members of the Samouni family to be rounded up by Israeli soldiers at the beginning of the assault and forced into Wael Samouni’s house. Throughout the night of 4 January 2009 munitions rained in on the area, and three Apache helicopter missiles or tank shells (depending on the report) struck the single-floor house into which the Samounis had been corralled.

When the Red Crescent finally arrived, they found the entire street had been bulldozed. Picking through the rubble, an adult and two children were found alive in what remained of Wael’s house: Nafez Al Samouni, whose wife thought he had died, 16-year-old Ahmed Samouni and 10-year-old Amal. Ahmed had been lying injured, unable to walk, curled among his dead mother and brothers. Like many other children, Amal and Ahmed have been left with mental and physical scars. Slivers of shrapnel remain permanently lodged in Amal’s brain, giving her headaches, nosebleeds and sight problems. Despite finally getting her out of Gaza to receive treatment, doctors in Ramallah and Tel Aviv both told her there’s nothing that can be done for her.

The issue of what happened on Samouni Street is no longer contentious; the family’s version has been corroborated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN’s Goldstone report.

From the time I’ve spent with them, it’s clear the Samouni children have the courage to carry on. What surprised me was how little help was available for them; some still live in tents or asbestos shacks. Most of all, though, I was shocked at how much the children have to fend for themselves. For all the global media attention, and apart from occasional physiotherapy or counselling visits, there has been no replacement for their enormous loss. Literally nothing. As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights puts it, ‘The attack on the Al-Samouni family was widely publicised, yet the survivors got no real help. What little they received has now stopped, except for limited assistance from local organisations. The family now lives in deep poverty with no source of income, and no publicity about their plight.’

Fortunately, through another fearless Mona from Gaza, a grass-roots Palestinian group working closely with an international partner would provide some respite. Their work put to shame the many who closed their eyes and forgot Mona and the other Samouni children.

Dr Mona El Farra and the Middle East

Children’s Alliance

When the older Ahmed Samouni asked me if I could organise some summer schooling for the Samouni children, I tried the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA). Although from a poor neighbourhood, and with much of their life and homes in ruin after the bombing, the Samounis were not eligible for help because, unlike most Gazans, they were not a refugee family forced out of pre-1948 Palestine by the then nascent Israeli army.

So I spoke to Dr Mona El Farra, a Gazan dermatologist who has been tenaciously dedicated to health, children and women’s issues in Gaza for more than 20 years. She is the projects director for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA).

A remarkably resolute woman, Dr Mona is originally from Khan Younis in southern Gaza; her work is with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and with MECA, who most recently funded the New Horizons psycho-social support programme, ‘Let the Children Play and Heal’. Last year the programme reached more than 100,000 children, helping to address their psychological needs after the 2009 Israeli attacks through participation in art, dance, music, story-telling, theatre and puppetry.

Once they heard of the situation with the Samouni children, Dr Mona and New Horizons’ coordinator Ehab Abu Msalam immediately visited them to hear of Ahmed’s desire for an educational project. They acted fast. It took only days for New Horizons to set up the month-long ‘Learning on the Rubble’ marquee classrooms at the end of Samouni Street. Operating four days a week, they taught, provided meals and organised trips for more than 120 children from the area.

Dr Mona describes how they managed to organise such a well-tailored programme so quickly. ‘I went to visit,’ she says. ‘I had a meeting with the families there, asked about their needs. They were worried about the children’s missed education because of the trauma – losing your father or mother or both is a severe trauma – and I wondered how many years it would take them to get back to normal. I gathered the team from New Horizons, and spoke to MECA, who work with children all over the Middle East. The speed comes from our grass-roots work, the experience of many years, getting the trust of people inside and outside of Gaza.’

She explains that dealing with such trauma needs a lot more than they could offer in this short time: ‘The importance is in the follow up for the children, which involves a lot of effort – one month is not enough. We need to try again and again to follow up. For this we don’t need huge amounts of money. We need the will, having grass-roots communications, the vision and knowledge on how to invest the money in the best way – that’s how it started.’

A lot more is required from us in western countries to help alleviate some of the pain caused by our governments’ policies, and most importantly to ensure that Palestinian families such as the Samounis never have to go through this again. Dr Mona El Farra’s message to the world is an important reminder that what is happening to Palestinians is not just a humanitarian issue, but a continuing wrong that can only be addressed when people on the outside begin to understand it.

‘I want people to try to learn about us,’ she says, ‘and try to learn that there is an injustice that has been imposed on the Palestinian people. Not just because of the siege, but what has been going on for more than 60 years since Israel was founded on the ruins of Palestinian refugees. We are looking and working for peace despite the difficult circumstances – but peace without justice is not peace.’


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas


8