On November 15, the Middle East program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) presented Laila El-Haddad and Refaat Alareer with their "Inspiration for Hope" award. The presentation was made at a lovely, capacity-crowd gala dinner held at the Chicago Theological Seminary, under the auspices of AFSC's Chicago office.
Laila El-Haddad is the author of Gaza Mom, co-author of The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, and co-editor (with Refaat Alareer) of the timely anthology we published last July: Gaza Unsilenced.
In addition to his work on Gaza Unsilenced-- which showcases contributions from Palestinians inside Gaza and around the world-- Refaat was the editor of the 2014 anthology Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. In April 2014, Refaat and two of the young contributors to Gaza Writes Back took the message of the book to eight urban areas around the United States, on a book tour co-sponsored by Just World Books and AFSC.
AFSC is the international service organization of American Quakers, and has maintained active programs in Palestine/Israel since 1948.
At the November 15 gala, Refaat Alareer was able to "be present" only via a Skype videolink. He is a much-loved teacher of world literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. He is, however, among the tens of thousands of Gaza Palestinians eager to pursue their studies or other academic pursuits in other places to whom Israel-- which controls all of Gaza's borders, with the help of Egypt-- has denied the right to leave the Strip.
The evening was introduced by Jennifer Bing, the tireless director of AFSC's Middle East Program at her office in Chicago.
Talking to the gala from Gaza by Skype, Refaat shared some of the fond memories of his time in the United States in 2014-- including his first encounter with Chicago's famous "deep dish pizza." He noted that the situation in Gaza continues to be very harsh, even 14 months after the ceasefire that ended Israel's punishing mid-2014 assault on the area. In some ways, he said, the situation there is even harder than it was during that assault.
"Did you know," he asked, "that they have just now finished the rebuilding of the first one of the thousands of homes demolished in 2014?"
He spoke very movingly about how many things he had learned and how many great connections he had made, during his tour of the United States; and he expressed particular appreciation for the many expressions of solidarity and support he had heard while he was there.
Next to speak was Laila El-Haddad. She spoke about the many grave difficulties Gaza Palestinians have dealing with the many restrictions Israel places on their basic freedoms. She explained that one of the main tools of control used by Israel is the whole system of "hawiyas" (ID documents) and permits that the Israeli military authorities running the occupation of Gaza use to decide who can go in or out of the area. She herself has a "Gaza hawiya"-- but even with that, she has been unable to return to her family's home in Gaza for more than a year, because Israel has kept the border points closed almost continuously throughout that period. As for her husband-- a Palestinian from a part of Palestine other than Gaza-- "he can't go into Gaza at all."
Laila echoed the point Refaat had made that the situation in Gaza has been steadily deteriorating over recent years. "If anyone deserves to be recognized for their hopefulness it's the people of Gaza!" she concluded.
After Leila spoke, longtime AFSC volunteer Joyce Cassel also received an award. Joyce spoke primarily about her most recent project with AFSC, which was to shoot video interviews with four Palestinian children from the occupied West Bank who had recently been released from lengthy periods of detention by the Israeli military. The 18-minute that she and her husband shot, "Detaining Dreams", was released in Chicago earlier this month.
Joyce talked with passion about the damage, a retired high-school teacher, spoke with passion about the terrible damage tat such detentions inflict on the young people and their families.
The evening was brought to an end by Rabbi Brant Rosen, the Midwest Regional Director for AFSC, who is shown with Laila in the picture at the top. Before Rabbi Brant started working for AFSC, he was a congregational rabbi in Evanston, IL. He was also a published JWB author, having authored Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity in 2012!
The evening in Chicago proved that Palestinian voices and Palestinian issues are starting to gain a serious hearing in the heart of the US midwest. Just World Books is proud to work with all these amazing thought leaders!
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