Skyping Gaza: How a Ramadan scheme is connecting Americans to besieged Palestinians

Skype meet-ups during iftar celebrations are connecting the US with one of most inaccessible places on earth, in an attempt to foster friendships

Bel Trew
Gaza City
Sunday 02 June 2019 17:58
Mitchell, 21, a student based in New York, gets a lesson in Gazan life
Mitchell, 21, a student based in New York, gets a lesson in Gazan life

With that bewildering speed of an excited teenager, Nawar Diab, 16, from Gaza, flits between chatting about surviving three wars with Israel to her desperation to learn the cello.

We are seated on the floor of her family home in Gaza City, trying to fix the battered instrument, which is too small for her and has ancient strings that have come loose.

The pressure is on, as Nawar is anxious to play for a surprise American guest, who will Skype the family as they gather to break their fast for the holy month of Ramadan.

The meeting is part of an initiative organised by Gaza’s Youth Committee, a rights group that gives people in the States an opportunity to “meet” Gazan families who cannot leave the besieged Strip because of a 12-year-old Israeli-imposed blockade.

This Ramadan, the committee has organised 25 different Skype sessions during iftar, connecting families from one of the most inaccessible places on earth with people from Wisconsin to Texas.

In the sessions, Palestinian electronics graduates, entrepreneurs, swimming coaches, comedians and seamstresses have chatted with American software developers, student civil engagement bodies, academics, and in this case Mitchell, 21, a Jewish history student from Dallas.

“I want to show Mitchell we are not fighters and terrorists,” Nawar says, shrieking with delight when the top string hums a perfect A.

“I am desperate to learn the cello but there are no teachers in Gaza. So I’m hoping he might help,” she adds.

The Diab family is comparatively well off for Gaza, a 25-mile militant-run enclave that is home to 1.9 million people, over half of whom live below the poverty line.

They were given the cello by a rights group that managed to secure permission from the Israelis, who frequently ban goods into Gaza on the grounds parts could be used by militants to make weapons.

But the instrument is fairly useless. Gaza’s last cello teacher, a Romanian woman, left the enclave last year. The enthusiastic teenager scratches out a scale for her virtual guest.

The idea for the Ramadan chats was pioneered by peace activist Rami Aman, 37, who founded the Gaza Youth Committee in 2010, maximising one of the few resources Gaza has, the internet, to reach the world.

The committee has both Muslim and Christian members as well as Jewish supporters in Israel and across the world.

Aman tells The Independent he chose to focus on the US this year as he worries that the policies of President Trump, often perceived to be anti-Palestinian, are skewing the American perception of Palestinian civilians.

Trump sparked anger here after he recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, questioned the definition of a Palestinian refugee and slashed all funding to the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency that is a lifeline for thousands of families in Gaza.

Over the last month, Aman has also connected Gazan civilians with those in the West Bank, in a bid to override a bitter political spat between the rival political bodies that rule the two Palestinian territories.

They also hold regular Skype meetings with Israeli citizens living just across the border fence to try to build bridges.

“We think the only way to start is with people actually talking to each other and knowing each other,” Aman explains.

We think the only way to start is with people actually talking to each other and knowing each other 

Rami Aman, founder of Gaza Youth Committee 

“Most of all we want to teach the youth to communicate with the outside world without violence.”

Eran Heyman, a software developer from New Jersey, recently met a group of Gaza electronics students through the Ramadan Skypes. He has now offered to start a paid training programme for young Palestinians on the Strip. The chosen 20 students will get a $550 (£435) monthly salary and will learn how to computer programme, Aman says.

Back at the Diab family home, Nawar helps translate for her two parents, speaking fluent English with an American accent, despite never having left the Strip.

In tune: Nawar plays her cello during the Skype meeting 

Her mother Wessam Yassin, 43, a TV journalist and her father Nabil Diab, 46, a comedian, are keen to set up a theatre initiative to use comedy to help struggling and depressed youth in Gaza.

All three of them are eager to meet Mitchell, a third-year history student at Bard College, New York, and to explain to him what life is really like in Gaza.

He pops up on the computer screen, as homemade sweets are handed around.

The student says the most important part of the initiative is jump-starting dialogue between two communities who are often taught to distrust each other.

“I’m a Jewish American who grew up in a Jewish community in Dallas, Texas, and was never exposed to any other perspective but a Zionist Jewish one,” he tells The Independent later.

“Just talking to people from my own community, there are so many stereotypes that are incubated in a space where there is so little dialogue, they are deeply suspicious.”

The Diab family and friends gather for the video chat (Bel Trew)

“I think it is really important to see how people are living, to talk in person on Skype, not just to rely on what you read,” he adds.

At the end of the brainstorming session, Mitchell puts Diab in touch with the Breaking Walls peace programme which connects young people through the arts, to help the father-of-three kick start his comedy project.

Mitchell also promises to help find a cello teacher for Nawar, so she can learn via Skype.

“Each one of us has his own message he wants to share with others,” Diab says, taking a break from the laptop, as peals of laughter erupt in the background.

“For some, like us in Gaza, that is just much harder to do.”

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