In conjunction with KCL Disability Awareness society and KCL Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières KCL Action Palestine hosted three young people from Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) who spoke about living in occupied Palestine with disabilities.
Amal (from Hebron in the West Bank), Latifah and Suleiman (from Gaza) were accompanied by Esperanza Shannan who works as an aid worker in Palestine.
• More than one third of 15 year olds with disabilities have never enrolled in school.
• Over 87% of those living with disabilities are unemployed.
• One third will never marry.
Yet their voices are never heard. Not only are they confronted with the difficult conditions imposed by the Israeli Occupation, but are also forced to deal daily with the social stigma attached to disability. The Disability under Occupation event on Thursday was a rare and eye-opening discussion. It was an important opportunity to avoid negative Orientalism through first hand narratives. Due to unfortunate under attendance, we think its necessary that Latifah and Suleiman’s experiences are relayed.
The event was made possible through the organization Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP), founded in 1984 in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. In the words of Esperanza Shannan, the aid worker present at the event tonight, the aim is not to provide the chairs, tables and equipment but the training as well. MAP provides sustainable medical support and development for Palestinians. She also made a very inspirational speech of how beliefs are what gives us strength, whatever they might be.
Latifah began her talk with an exercise, passing around a plain piece of paper and asking us to comment and speak to it with positive language. The group commented on the paper’s cleanliness, the sacrifice that went into its production, the hope it provided, the capacity for greater things and the paper as a canvas for imagination.
She then passed around a second piece of paper, asking us to use negative language towards it. The group commented on how the paper was worthless, it was torn up, it was defenseless and through folding it and scrunching it up, the creases would never straighten out. Latifah explained to us that the second paper is representative of how those with disabilities are treated, those who suffer from marginalization and are only looked at through the lens of disability which ends up diminishing their humanity.
Latifah works in projects supported by MAP which empower disabled Palestinians and challenges how they as well as others view themselves. Through the project she saw that the stigma surrounding disability is not just an individual problem but it is a cause that society has to engage in. In the 2008-9 siege, Latifah was affected psychologically. She felt powerless, remained inside her house and couldn’t leave during the aggression. On the TV she saw people with their limbs amputated, she could hear guns and tanks. This is not just the case for her, many people felt this sense of powerlessness.
Suleiman is from Gaza as well and aspires to become a political analyst. In the siege of Gaza in 2012, the Israeli forces demolished his house as he and 60 odd members of his family were inside. He spoke of the role of the Israeli occupation and the effect it has had on Palestinians with disabilities. He commented on the different manifestations of occupation, the existence of the apartheid wall which breaks the Palestinian economy and deals with the population as if they are terrorists. He related a joke in which an American asks a Palestinian what he wishes for, the Palestinian says he wishes to get married, have a house and car. The American says that he asked for his wishes and not his rights. This shows the disparity in human rights related experiences within humanity. He comments on how when viewing the Shard on his way to the talk, he thought of the people in Gaza living under tin shacks.
Suleiman asks for the international community to deal with Palestinians not from a charitable or even humanitarian way, but developmentally, allowing Palestinians to sustain themselves independently and not rely on donors. There is an expression in Palestinian politics: teach me how to fish instead of giving me the fish to eat.
Latifah commented that one way to send a strong message to Israel is to boycott and show that Palestinians are unhappy in the way that they are being treated. It was asked whether the people in Gaza support the boycott, Suleiman says that since Israel controls the borders what enters and resources how can Gaza boycott? Other products that have alternatives are fruit and vegetables as they can be homegrown – an innovative form of Palestinian boycott.
During the Q&A session, it was asked what will they take home to Gaza after visiting London. For Suleiman, this was the first he left Gaza, realising what freedom is for the first time. He said he wishes to teach Palestinians what freedom is, even if it comes at his own personal cost.
Overall, it was a once in a life time event from people that really struggled to manage to get permission to come to the UK, on a Visa that was given to them for the exact 3 days of talks they are giving in the country. More than academic speakers with tons of credentials, or ‘Palestine’ specialists, we should emphasise our focus on listening to Palestinian themselves. This event taught us that we should be learning from the very people we are standing in solidarity with.
KCLAP, March 2014