Dear Friends,

Your support for Cycling4Gaza has made a great impact on the lives of many children in Gaza. This year, we raised over 230,000 USD for the Gaza Mental Healthcare project, launched in partnership with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. You can read more about the project here.

Dr. Bahar Al Hashemi, who is leading the mental health project and whom we had the honor to cycle with on this year’s ride, recently gained permission to enter Gaza. She was there last month to provide hands on support for the project and monitor its progress. We were deeply moved by the personal account she wrote upon leaving Gaza, and wanted to share her words with you.

“After almost one year of waiting, my permit to Gaza finally went through.   Within three weeks, I was on my way to Palestine, eager to meet with folks I had been communicating with from across the globe. While the intensity of what I saw and experienced cannot be understated, it was also coupled with beautiful moments with the people in Gaza and the continued positive developments of our pediatric mental health program.

As go all trips to Palestine, the predictably unpredictable setbacks related to Israeli “security” checks did not deter me. Off they sent me to the usual sad looking room in the airport in Tel Aviv. When I was asked to hand over my cell phone, I respectfully refused and was told “You don’t have to give it to me, but I can’t guarantee it won’t affect my decision.  How else do I know you aren’t an Iranian spy?”  I reminded the lady we both knew I was not a spy, but a doctor coming to volunteer to help children.  I understood her objective to make me feel uncomfortable and I was willing to endure it.   Six hours later, I was permitted to enter the country.

This was my fourth trip to Palestine but my first entry into Gaza.  Nothing could prepare me for the experience I had there.  From the moment I saw the crossing point at Eretz, I immediately understood why Gaza is referred to as an open-air prison.   With turnstyles for people and their luggage to maneuver through, the long narrow walkways with barbed wire and concrete walls, I couldn’t help but feel the experience was made to make humans feel less human.   
The first meeting of the day was with the PCRF staff, who blew me away. They are a lively, energetic group who are passionate about their work to heal children in the face of such big challenges.    They insisted on starting our meeting with deep breathing exercises which they learned in the training from our partner, the Center for Mind Body Medicine.  Soon after, they broke the silence with a traditional Gazan welcome song. I was thrilled to hear the very positive feedback about the work they did with the Center for Mind Body Medicine.  They went from not being sure they could buy into the mind-body skills group techniques, to a transformative experience over their five-day training.  As you can imagine, our staff have endured and witnessed unimaginable amounts of trauma and suffering, which has a direct impact on them in varying ways.   The need for self-care and support from one another cannot be understated.   Here are a few testimonials about their experience in the groups:

"The skills provided me with serenity I've never felt before; meditation filled me with spirituality in my prayers, I felt like it was the first time I actually prayed!" - M.A.

Itt was a great chance for us as PCRF staff to know each other, the iceberg between us is destroyed and we can communicate and work with a new positive spirit." - M.F

“I'm pleased to be a part of such new, unique, and sophisticated training. I was able to discover my feelings. I'm ready to face problem and solve them. I needed this training; it helped me avoid negative thoughts and recharged me with cheerful thinking.” - A.G.
I also attended the first follow up group for the children who took part in our mental health summer camps.  CMBM is providing these children with weekly follow up mind-body skills groups for 10 weeks, and 10 months thereafter. Witnessing firsthand the beautiful job the group leader did in engaging this group of children was deeply moving and gave me a renewed appreciation for this work.  It was having a clear positive impact on the children.

With the social workers, I went on various home visits to see the kids who were part of our screenings.  Despite being a child psychiatrist who hears troubling stories in my day-to-day work, listening to Palestinian children and families in Gaza talk about their experiences, their traumas, and their daily lives, was overwhelming at times.  But in many ways, I also received an education about resilience and strength unlike anywhere else; parents doing what they can to provide a sense of security in an environment where this simply cannot be guaranteed; children trying to get an education and build their own dreams for a future that cannot be guaranteed.  To continue to fight to live life to its fullest capacity, maintain faith, love one another and nurture compassion and kindness for their community.  This is also Gaza.  And these are some of its people.

This is Ibrahim, whom we visited in his home in Rafah, in the South of Gaza. He and his brother are both receiving treatment from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP_, and Ibrahim also attended our summer camps. They witnessed their 16 year old brother die from an Israeli bombing and both sustained significant injuries. The boys suffered from intense symptoms of trauma, including bed-wetting, nightmares, trembling, and flashbacks. Their schools and home life were impacted significantly. They have made some noticeable improvements; as Ibrahim said, "step by step” he is feeling better and more optimistic. His father was incredibly grateful to the PCRF for providing mental health support and pleased with his son’s improvements. He even joked with us, saying that the PCRF is stuck with him and they would have to throw him out the window before he agrees to go somewhere else for support!

These two miracles, Yamen and Janna, were pulled out of the rubble after their three level family home collapsed last year killing 19 of their family members, including their entire immediate family. They are now living with their uncle's family in central Gaza. Their uncle’s wife was so happy to talk about Yaman’s experience at the mental wellness summer camps, saying it was like "magic", bringing him joy and lifting his mood. In addition to some of the most beautiful and kindest souls, I am touched to have met incredible, strong mothers in Gaza.   When one of Yaman’s cousins teased him about not coming out of his mother’s womb, he went to his uncle’s wife and asked if this was true. She said to him, “yes that's true, but you both came out of my heart, and that is all that matters.”

We would like to thank Dr. Bahar for her commitment and dedication to supporting the mental health of children in Gaza.
Thanks to our supporters, friends, and cyclists – and stay tuned in the coming months for news about our 2016 cycle!
The Cycling4Gaza Team