Abeer was excited when I called her today.
“It’s my time, Jen!” she told me breathlessly. “The baby might come today or tomorrow—any moment now!”
Last time I saw Abeer, a year ago, she had shown me pictures of her fiancé, who is a teacher, and last time we spoke, months ago, she told me she was pregnant. But I had no idea how far along she was and that she was about to give birth now.
Now, of all times.
Abeer lives in the Gaza Strip. She has been waiting for her water to break as missiles rained down, killing over 380 Palestinians.
I wanted to express whole-hearted joy. This will be Abeer’s first child, her parents’ first grandchild. But I felt panic at the news. Gaza is enduring the bloodiest, most vicious attack in over forty years of Israeli occupation. I couldn’t imagine Abeer, whom I have known since she was fifteen and have visited many times in her cramped home in Khan Younes refugee camp, giving birth with the sound of explosions in the background.
Abeer expressed some trepidation herself. “I’m frightened,” she told me. “The situation in Gaza is really terrible. And bringing a child into the world is such a huge responsibility. How can I guarantee my baby’s safety?”
I was concerned, too, for Abeer’s safety. What if air-strikes came as her contractions increased and it was time for her to go to the hospital? Even if she made it to the hospital safely, would they have room for her? There are 1500 hospital beds in Gaza public hospitals and perhaps another 500 in private clinics, but the bombings of the last four days alone have left over 1,900 Palestinians injured. Assuming there is space for Abeer, what kind of medical care will she receive? Doctors are forced to operate without surgical gloves, anesthetics, even gauze. The medical system in Gaza had already been devastated by the sixteen month siege of the strip’s 1.4 million inhabitants. Now, it is on the verge of total collapse.
I was reluctant to mention my fears to Abeer. If she wasn’t already worried herself, what good could it possibly do? A thin and wiry 24 year old woman with dark, smoldering eyes, a warm voice, fierce laugh and a tight hug, Abeer is, above all else, extremely strong. This will not be the first baby in the world born with bomb blasts in the background. It certainly wouldn’t be the first baby born with no guarantee of medical care during delivery. Chances are, Abeer will give birth to a healthy baby and be fine herself.
The reality Abeer is bringing her child into is the truly terrifying thought. The potentially life-threatening shortages of food, electricity, water, cooking gas, car fuel—and on top of it all, relentless, inescapable, pointless violence. Abeer is right. She cannot guarantee her baby’s safety. No child in Gaza is safe.
It was difficult to end my conversation with Abeer. I didn’t know what words to leave her with. “Stay strong,” or “I’ll be thinking of you,” felt horribly inadequate.
“You’re going to be a great mother, Abeer,” I finally said. “This baby will be surrounded by so much love.”
Abeer laughed quietly. “I hope so, Jen.”
I told Abeer I would call her in a few days and asked her to try to get me word if she delivered before then.
As the grim news from Gaza continues to pour in, I think about my friend and her unborn child. My closing comment was honest: Abeer will be a wonderful mother. Her strength, her warmth, her fierce intensity will all be harnessed in the service of caring for and protecting her infant. In the midst of the terror that is Gaza, there will be the joy of a new, precious life.
I find a measure of comfort in knowing how much this baby will be treasured, and yet, this is not enough. It doesn’t compensate for what Abeer’s child will lack. Beyond the humanitarian disaster, rubble-strewn streets and constant fear of new assaults, there is this horrific reality: no matter how precious Gaza’s children are to their mothers, their well-being, their safety, their very lives are held hostage by all those who execute, support and benefit from the continuing violence.
JEN MARLOWE, a Seattle-based documentary filmmaker and human rights activist, is the author of Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival (Nation Books). She is now directing and editing her next film, Rebuilding Hope, about South Sudan, and writing a book about Palestine and Israel. Her most recent film was Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. She serves on the board of directors of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre and is a founding member of the Rachel’s Words initiative. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org