To a Courageous Palestinian Mother

Do you know Wedad Saqa? I didn’t think you would. Wedad is not a war profiteer or a mercenary “leader” posing in photographs to support American-style democracy. She is not a blood-thirsty politician standing before thousands of people to speak about the importance of “ending wars”. She is not a white, privileged, CEO male giving advice about Western “meritocracy”, “success”, or about creating a healthy and balanced work place. She is not a Hollywood actress who has entered into a Faustian contract with the devil in exchange for a bubble of fame and millions of dollars to aid in the production of propaganda and the creation of certain images and discourses about “the other”, and who tries to atone for all that by adopting a few orphans from African countries.

She is not a bourgeois lady who has swallowed a pre-recorded script with the acceptable sentences and social skills to broadcast in every cocktail party. She is not a rich donor wearing a real fur coat and scarf with tons of makeup at a “charity” event filled with glutted people, held under the banner of supporting causes such as “women’s rights”, charity for the “less fortunate”, scholarships for the “underprivileged and underrepresented” students, or “salvaging” war victims, the hungry, and the refugees, after destroying their countries by the same actors.

She is not a popular TV face paid precisely for her sexy looks to help people easily digest the indigestible lies fed to them on daily basis. She is not one of those co-opted, secure, tenured, and presumably “leftist” Western academics who repeatedly tell us about social justice, equality, and how the “subaltern can speak” in remote parts of the world, while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the hideously underpaid and mistreated adjunct instructors right in the middle of their departments and home institutions.

She is also not a “terrorist” whose story can be appropriated and sensationalized to create hate and misconceptions about an entire group of people when broadcasted in mainstream Western media outlets. It is precisely because she is none of the above, there is no chance for you to have heard her name, her story, or the stories of millions and millions of other men and women who, like her, fight quietly and fiercely in the dark in every corner of the world.

Wedad is an exiled Palestinian mother and artist who supports herself with artistic work and artistically baked pastries. I met her in 2011 while working as a medical interpreter/translator at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Wedad is like millions of Arab women—and other women around the world—striving to maintain their dignity. Fighting to love and protect their children from pain, need, injustice, wars, exile, and death, at any cost. She is one of those women whose role in our broken world is best captured by Virginia Woolf’s brilliant line in A Room of One’s Own, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Woolf also rightly noted, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

Wedad is a Palestinian woman who was forced to leave her hometown, Gaza, along with most of her extended family members to Saudi Arabia where she now lives. More importantly, and against all odds, she is a woman who had decided to do everything within her power to save the life of her then 11 years old son, Talal, from leukemia. Today I want to share with you my first-hand encounter with Wedad and her now deceased son, Talal. I want to tell their story to anyone who cares to see, to sense, and to listen to all the voices that remind us of how interconnected our human destines are on this planet like one big and colorful tapestry.

Wedad arrived in the US with her son, after having tried everything possible to treat his leukemia in Saudi Arabia, and after all efforts led to a relapse. She came looking for the last ray of light to save her child. After one month of fundraising in Saudi Arabia, she succeeded in bringing him for an expensive treatment that would cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The fundraising campaign to save my son’s life had many heroes from all over Saudi Arabia,” she told me. “I received so many phone calls from people who cared and wanted to help. The hardest phone call came from a mother who had also lost her child to cancer, who told me that I shouldn’t bother going all the way to the US, because there isn’t much they can offer there either. I told her that even if such was the case, I would at least rest assured that I did my part as a mother.”

Another touching situation during the fundraising campaign came from a 6 years old child who broke his moneybox and decided to give the 35 riyals (KSA’s local currency) he had saved to Talal. Other ways of support came in the forms of prayers from people who didn’t have any money to give, people who called the famous MBC satellite channel to publicize the story, and a group of wonderful young men and women who made a short film titled “Talal: A Tale of Hope”. “All these people made it possible for us to raise the 3 million riyals needed to come to the US,” she wrote in her letter. Talal was delighted to come to the US, a country he had always dreamed of visiting because he had wanted to become a comedian actor to bring joy, smiles, and laughter to people’s hearts.

By the end of our first day of tests and medical evaluations, I still remember Wedad’s words, “we totally feel your pain about what is happening in Iraq after the occupation.” I wish I could have responded then to tell her that we in Iraq didn’t fully understand the full scope of the Palestinian suffering until 2003, but I remained silent and gave her a look of appreciation instead. On that day, I also remember Talal’s breathing test which reflected very healthy and strong lungs full of air and life. By the end of their first day, while I was escorting them out of the big hospital building to show them where they could get a cab on their way to the hotel room, we talked briefly about how important it is for children to have hobbies, to engage in creative activities that help expand rather than stifle their imagination: “Speaking of that, what are your hobbies,” she asked me.

“I inhale reading and exhale writing whenever I have something meaningful to say,” I said to her.

“Our story is worth writing about. It is a story filled with pain and alienation both in Gaza and in the Arab country where we now reside. But, there is also so much hope in my story,” she went on with a hesitant tone right after uttering “but”. Our first conversation was over after she promised to tell me the entire story one day.

Days and months went by, with all the doctors and staff at the hospital watching carefully and working hard to save Talal from leukemia. Sadly, the hope started to fade away when we called the family for an urgent meeting to notify them that Talal had had his second relapse. After the meeting ended, the doctor told me on the side: “Based on my long experience working with cancer patients, I am almost certain that a second relapse is always the end.” As soon as I heard the word “end”, I thought to myself that every relapse in our life is an end of some sort. It is the end of a chapter and a beginning of another, a shinier or darker one, but nonetheless it is the end. It is a death of some sort and a rebirth of another.

And so, over the following few weeks, I watched Wedad living through the relapse of her son’s cancer with admirable courage and steadfastness. I saw her using her strength to make her child’s last days memorable. She hugged, kissed, and comforted him every minute of the day. She cooked for him—and sometimes shared with me—all the delicious Palestinian foods he loved. One day when I went to pay a quick visit to them at the inpatient unit, she told me with a sad tone, “despite what the doctors tell me, I am still full of hope. When I married, the doctors told us that we won’t be able to have children. We now have three of them. When my second son was born, they told me he won’t be able to walk. Look at him now running and playing all over the place. And now, they are telling me that my child won’t survive leukemia. Days have proven that I was always right and they were wrong!”

Yet, sadly, as time progressed, it seemed like they were not so wrong this time. As the relapse effects started to show, it was unbearably painful to see how a child who was filled with life only a few weeks ago is now filled with symptoms of death. With each visit, I could notice how one body organ after another was failing, his face was swollen and looking increasingly pale. On my last conversation with Talal, I still remember his voice ringing in my ears, “you were very kind to us. My family and I were very pleased to know you.” When I asked which part of his body was hurting exactly, he responded, “Nothing is working in my body anymore.” That was the last time I heard his voice.

On a beautiful sunny day, I went to work as usual wishing I could be outside instead. As I turned on my computer to start working on a list of tasks, I logged into Talal’s medical chart on the computerized system to receive a warning message stating that I was about to enter a deceased patient’s medical chart! That was the moment I realized that my Palestinian friend who was at the climax of his childhood and the climax of his exile is now gone. I immediately called Wedad to express my condolences. She told me, “we are about to go to the hospital’s viewing room to take a last look at his body. Since Talal loved you so much and since you have become a close friend of our family, we would like to invite you to come with us to take a last look and say goodbye to your little friend.”

When I entered the viewing room, my heart was racing. As soon as I opened the door, I saw my colleague, the social worker who had also worked with the family all along. She was standing in the room divided into two parts with a curtain. Talal’s parents were behind the curtain weeping. I didn’t dare to take another step forward. There was a framed photograph hanging on the wall in the middle of the room half of which was in the part where I stood with the social worker and the other half on the other side of the curtain where the parents were with the dead body. I could see their reflection in the glass of the framed photograph. I could see them kissing the dead boy. For a moment, I felt as though I was a character in a scene from a novel. After a few minutes, Wedad showed up from behind the curtain and gently welcomed us despite the place and the time: “Do you want to take a last look at your little friend,” she asked while wiping tears from her eyes. “Yes, I do.” I whispered sadly.

Four years and a half have passed since Talal’s death. I haven’t forgotten him and, of course, neither have his mother and family members. Recently, Wedad followed up on her promise and sent me a long letter saying that although she hasn’t healed from what had happened, she still wants to share Talal’s story with the world, because it is such stories that remind all of us about our mutual human connections: we are all connected through our wounds, tears, sweat, and smiles. She said in her message that she wrote the story in her own words, though she is not a writer, and that she wanted me to include any details I wanted in whatever I was going to write about her journey with her deceased child. In the letter she writes about how her child was born on Valentine’s Day in 2000. She tells about how from the day they received the sad news about his leukemia in 2007 until his last day on this earth in 2011, she refrained from crying or showing any signs of pain and sadness, “because I was his mirror. He was sad when I felt sad. He was happy when I felt happy. And so, I chose to stay happy to give him strength…I decided to be like a clown working hard to put smiles on his beautiful face.”

Even during the most difficult stage of the treatment, after the second relapse, and after it was confirmed that he was not going to survive, she didn’t shed a tear, “I still remember the therapist begging me to cry to get some relief. I told her I wasn’t going to shed a tear so long as Talal is breathing.” She wrote about how hard it was for her to lose her mother—her biggest support—in the middle of the treatment. She wrote about the problems they had with their Saudi sponsor (aka kafeel) who turned their lives into a nightmare and prevented her husband from joining his son for most of the treatment in the US, and how she had to be on her own dealing with a cancer child in a foreign country about which she knew little, and in a foreign city in which she had no friends or social network of support. She wrote about how the American people, doctors, and staff were incredibly kind and supportive of her child and family at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, something that made them feel as though “we were at a hospital that was on another planet…Talal and I spent at the Hospital three of the most beautiful months of our lives before he relapsed for the second time. During these months, I constantly held him and breathed the same air he breathed…he used to hug me tightly and sleep so he can feel warm, but in reality he didn’t know that he provided me with more safety and comfort than I provided him. It was enough for me to wake up every minute to see that he was still breathing next to me.” She told me about how when Talal’s body organs started to fail one after the other, he asked her to end everything and let him go. One day, on their way back from treatment, he was in an excruciating pain and asked her to kill him with a knife. He told her, “mom, it is enough, let me go please. Let me die and be done with this,” he said to her. “It is not enough, darling, I can’t live without you,” she responded to him. He then suggested that she should also take her own life with him, “but if I take my life, you will go to paradise and I will go to hell, baby,” she told her child.

When Talal finally died, Wedad shed all the tears she had been holding on for a long time. She cried bitterly and for a very long time, she says in her letter, as she was packing to leave the inpatient ward. She cried when she had to give away most of his toys and belongings to other kids to use, while keeping a few pieces of clothes that have his scent, to touch and smell them every single day. She ends the letter speaking directly with Talal:

Now after four and a half years of your death … I still constantly hear your voice in my ears. I am not sad, but I have an unbearable longing to see you. I still smell your scent on the clothes you left behind. No day has passed without remembering your name. I will always be proud of our journey together as a mother and a child until we meet again in the next life.

Your forever longing mother,

Wedad Saqa

I, too, still remember Talal, a child who lost his home and his life. I still remember Wedad who, despite all hurdles, decided to fight for her family and do everything she can to remind us of how our human lives are precious everywhere on this planet. Having worked at the hospital for two years, and having worked extensively as a medical interpreter with the Oncology Department, there is a scene I will always remember: every time I entered the Oncology Department’s waiting room, I remember how all parents of different colors, races, religions, and from different countries sat next to each other and often befriended each other in that waiting room. They all had one thing in common at that room: a child who is diagnosed with cancer. A child whose life is at stake.

I always wondered how different our world would be if we all remembered how intertwined our humanness is; if we all learned that when disasters befall us, they hit us regardless of sex, class, income, color, sexuality, country, and any other humanly and politically manufactured borders and classifications. It is precisely moments like those at the Oncology Department’s waiting room that remind me of a beautiful line by the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, who states: “And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we who never let each other sleep above it.” Such moments bear witness to how thirsty this world is for a gentle touch of love that can make this thorny and lonely path of life more bearable.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.