Suhaila Tarazi directs the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Children and their grandmother stand in their home in Beit Hanoun, which suffered heavy damage in the 2014 war. (photo: Shareef Sarhan)
Suhaila Tarazi, left, meets with patients at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital. (photo: John E. Kozar)
I was born in Gaza, in Palestine, to a Greek Orthodox middle-class family. I had my elementary and secondary education in Gaza public schools and later left for Egypt for further studies, where I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree.
When I was young I was sent by my parents to join Girls of Light, a Christian program at the Baptist church, to study the Bible and learn more about Jesus. During the course, I was very much inspired by the life of Lillian Trasher, an American missionary in Assiut, Egypt, who founded the first orphanage there. She was known as “the Nile Mother.”
The essential message I learned from her story was from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
I started my work at Al Ahli Arab Hospital, the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which belongs to the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. This was during the first intifada (uprising) in 1987, when Palestinians fought Israeli occupation, which brought with it violence, fear, strikes, kidnappings and killings of innocent people.
At the sight of all those atrocities, I seriously thought of leaving my job and my country to join my family in the United States.
At this time, God sent a message to me through a Catholic woman whose parents were Palestinian refugees who had fled Jaffa in 1948. She had come from Vienna to work in Gaza with a U.N. organization. She eventually lived in the neighborhood and we became friends.
We spent hours talking about the misery of the Palestinians in general, and the people of Gaza in particular. I changed my mind and decided not to leave my people in such circumstances, but to remain in Gaza to keep our Christian presence in the land of Jesus.
In 1994, following the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the newly constituted Palestinian Authority arrived in Gaza. Never before had the Gazans enjoyed such peace and tranquility. Everyone hoped to witness an era of reconciliation, which would bring an end to the Israeli occupation. Unfortunately, this hope faded and proved to be false. Israel imposed restrictions on the Palestinian economy, prohibited the freedom of movement, confiscated land, built new settlements and constructed a separation wall — all of which have had a devastating effect and have left no hope for some for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
During that time of political instability, the hospital board offered me a promotion to become its director. No one in my family liked the idea; Gaza was in a state of chaos and total unrest. It was not easy for a Christian woman — in a predominantly Muslim male society — to shoulder the burden of the most difficult tasks and responsibilities. But after wrestling with this, and with God’s help and guidance, I finally accepted the challenge.
In 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections in Gaza, which the international community described as transparent and legitimate. Since then, Israel has engaged in three brutal wars in Gaza — the most recent in August 2014, which lasted 51 days and killed thousands of innocent people, mainly women and children. The war destroyed homes; ruined cultivated lands and uprooted orchards; and damaged infrastructure, ruining water pipes and sewer networks.
The war has also greatly harmed Gaza’s vulnerable health system, which had not functioned well beforehand. Many services and specialized treatments are not available to Palestinians inside Gaza. There is a lack of medicine for cancer treatment, drugs for cardiovascular diseases, life-saving antibiotics and kidney dialysis products.
Working in such dire conditions is too much for any human to cope with. Hundreds of the displaced were taking refuge in safer areas and we had our share of them at the hospital. They filled whatever little space we could find; they sat in the gardens and slept in the open. Our staff spared no effort in alleviating their suffering; I even hired extra help to give some staff a break. We offered them meals and water and blankets. (I have to record here my deepest gratitude to all of our donors, including CNEWA, for their support and generosity. Without them, we would not have succeeded.)
During this time, an Israeli air raid bomb changed its course and fell near my house, causing considerable damage to the backyard. There was a deafening sound and I just stood frozen in one of the rooms, not knowing exactly what to do or what really happened. Dust filled the house. Most of the windows were shattered, and a glass shard sliced my upper lip. Some neighbors came to check if I was there and one of them rushed me to the hospital, where I received sutures.
Over the past several years I have been invited to address various audiences in different countries and cities, to speak about our work and life in Gaza. Each time I sat to write down my ideas, the same bleak pictures kept coming to my mind. I had always hoped that I could utter, at least once, something positive or cheerful to talk about, but that has been simply impossible.
I remember one day when a person from Germany decided to organize a benefit concert for the children of Gaza. He asked me to write a short letter to the parents that he could read during the concert. I cried my heart out bitterly as I was writing it. I listed a few ways the children could make use of the money he would raise and my heart ached just at the thought of what their priorities would be. Then I thought to myself: There, you have children who are privileged to enjoy listening to beautiful music, while here, in the forgotten city of Gaza, all our children know and hear are the drums of war!
A year and a half has elapsed since the war ended. And little of the money pledged from donor countries to rebuild Gaza has been received. The suffering in what many call the world’s largest open-air prison continues and it seems the rights of Gazans do not matter. According to several reports issued by the United Nations, Gaza will be “uninhabitable” by 2020.
For us Christians, all this suffering, depression, melancholy and despair should not sadden us, but render us more mature to confront the horror of the occupation and serve the needy. When I look into the eyes of our children wandering in the rubble, or when I see their stare on television screens, expressing their angry feelings to reporters, I know that nonetheless there is hope. Palestine will never be forgotten; it will remain deeply anchored in the conscience of the world. … I pray that justice will eventually be done.
As with many, I am pained to see the Christian presence in Gaza and the Holy Land rapidly vanishing. Christians emigrate in search of freedom, safer living and better working conditions. If this continues at the current rate, soon there will be no church in Gaza. There will always be holy sites and tombs to visit – but there will be no living stones, no living body of Christ. Christianity in Gaza and the Holy Land could become a memory without the presence of vibrant living communities.
As Christians, we are the salt of the earth, an essential part of the foundations of this area and we ought to question the passivity of some influential leaders. Contrary to what many in the West believe, the effects of the so-called Arab Spring have done more damage than any person could have ever imagined. Christians should not be uprooted from the Middle East; they should be regarded as a stabilizing factor to help prevent extremism and fundamentalism. This truly and genuinely depicts our daily life. Please understand we need no pity, we need action.
Our cross is heavy, and the only one helping us carry it is Jesus.