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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.’

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