We were sitting at Lincoln Park in West Seattle, with a handful of friends who had gathered for a picnic potluck, awaiting others who would be joining us shortly.
A Facebook message came through on my Smartphone from my friend Yousef Munayyer.
Hey Jen, just saw some news about a young man from the Shurrab family in khan yunis being the latest victim, Name is Tayseer. Have you heard from Amer recently?
Amer Shurrab was, as a matter of fact, sitting across the picnic table from me at that very moment. He had come for a few day visit from Monterrey, where he is finishing his MBA. Though we had planned the visit weeks before the shit hit the fan in Gaza, the timing of it felt oddly right. I think it felt somewhat comforting to Amer to be surrounded by people who had some notion of what he was going through, and the beautiful Pacific Northwest was allowing some respite from the obsessive news-checking and strangling stress that is inevitable when one’s family is under bombardment.
We had just returned to Seattle after spending the last two days in Olympia with Rachel Corrie’s family. In between deep acknowledgment of the horror of the situation in Gaza, some of it spoken and some of it silent, we spent several hours on Mt Rainier. Just a few hours earlier, Amer took his first ride in a kayak.
And then, as we were waiting for other Seattle friends and activists to come and meet Amer, which had been the impetus of organizing the picnic potluck, Yousef’s message came through over Facebook.
I walked around the picnic table where everyone was introducing themselves and gently touched Amer on the shoulder, asking him to step aside from the group with me. He did, and I showed him Yousef’s message.
“Is he a relative?” I asked.
Amer’s face instantly clouded with fear and worry. “It may be my cousin Mohammed Tayseer,” he answered. He immediately pulled out his phone, and walked up a path towards the woods so he could call his family with some measure of privacy. I stared at him for a moment as he sat on the railing of the path, head bowed down, cell phone pressed against his ear, and could think only about the incident that led to Amer and I re-connecting after many years of not having been in touch–the incident in January 2009 during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” when two of his brothers were killed and his father injured. In the months and years since that horrific event, I had grown very close to Amer, holding him in my heart as family. I had visited his family in Khan Younis twice–the first visit is described in this blog post and the 2nd visit, tragically, just two days after his father passed unexpectedly, due at least in part to the grief and stress related to the murder of his sons.
And now. And now, here was Amer, on the phone to confirm if the most recent killing in Gaza was another member of his family.
Amer continued to sit on the rail, head down, but his arm with the phone was dropped limply by his side. I approached.
“Was it your cousin?”
I went back to the group at the picnic table. Amer needed a few minutes alone, he told me, and he would join us when he felt ready.
The mood of the gathering shifted instantly. Where there had been casual, light conversation, there was now mostly silence laden with sadness, anger, dread, and, overlaying it all, worry for Amer, who was now sitting on a log by the water’s edge, head still bowed. The only clear thought echoing through my mind in those next minutes: This is so unfair. This is so fucking, fucking unfair.
I saw a rather large group approach and walked towards them to see who was joining us. It was my friend Kara, and her husband Hakim, who is from Gaza. With them were Hakim’s six-year old sister Hiba and his mother, who he had been working on bringing to the U.S. from the Gaza strip for months but had managed to get out, in the end, just a day before the bombardment began. Other friends from Gaza, one from the same neighborhood that Amer is from, joined shortly afterwards.
I sent a quick prayer of thanks for the new arrivals. There were people here who shared Amer’s pain.
Hakim and his friends Anas and Mohammed lit coals on a barbeque and started to grill meat patties, chop peppers and tomatoes. Hiba found some sidewalk chalk and began to draw a stick figure of a smiling little girl under a big colorful tree, next to a house. Amer came back from his perch by the sea and soberly joined the group which had now trebled in size and had the Gazan dialect of Arabic chatter intermingling with English and the wafting odors of grilled meat prepared with Middle Eastern spices.
Hiba gave Amer a rock she had specially decorated for him with the sidewalk chalk. People began to eat.
In some way, we needed to directly confront, as a group, what had just happened to Amer’s cousin, what was happening to every family in Gaza. We had to find a way to hold space for the pain and the loss. And to honor those who had been killed these last 8 days, those that loved them, and those that were living in terror that they, or their family member, would be next.
And so, as the sun set and the mountains turned a deep purple, our group of 17 (6 of them from Gaza) gathered tightly together around the picnic table. Passing around a smartphone with the information loaded, we read aloud, one by one, the name and age of every one of the 194 human beings who had been killed in Gaza (as well as the one Israeli killed) since the assault began. A reminder that those killed are not numbers. They are people. Many of them children. Some of those children even younger than Hiba. Each one with a family. Each one an entire world.
The web-based list had not been updated in the last hour. Amer’s cousin was not yet on it. But we didn’t need a website to know his name.
“Mohammed Tayseer Shurrab,” Amer said in a strong voice when the last name on the smartphone had been read. Insha’allah ,he added, this would be the last name. Insha’allah, the list would grow no longer. Then, as the mountains deepened from purple to black, Amer led us in a prayer for the dead.
We held silence together for a moment. Anas and Hakim spoke about what this simple act of solidarity meant to them.
Then, we shifted our circle from around the picnic table to around Hiba’s chalk drawing. It was by the narrowest of threads that the six-year-old girl was not, at that moment, shuddering under fierce explosions from bombs dropped by warplanes and drones.
The drawing: A smiling girl. A home. A tree.
What every child deserves to draw.
What every child deserves to know.