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Being on the ground in Egypt providing aid to Palestinian refugees with the grassroots organization Safebow, I’ve learned, requires a fair amount of flexibility. Because of the nature of the work, plans are loose, and nothing goes as planned anyway. Add to that the concept of Egyptian time, where “five minutes” can mean 30 minutes or one hour or even two hours. And it’s not out of rudeness: Egyptians value togetherness and living in the present more than punctuality. To them, time is an insignificant construct. So I’ve done some waiting, which has allowed for much-needed coffee, time to get to know the people here, and a break from life’s general grind. I’ve been able to lean into the possibility of the moment, which is something I find difficult to do back home.
When I arrived in Cairo on Saturday, the only item I had on my itinerary was getting picked up from the airport. I knew nothing of what would happen afterward. As a Type A neurotic planner, you’d think that would have sent me into a tailspin, but I found it refreshing. I once, in the time before international cell service, flew into St. Petersburg, Russia for a friend’s wedding and only realized as the plane was landing that I neither knew if someone was meeting me at the airport nor had an address to go to if not. And it was great. An adventure. I become a different version of myself when traveling, a much-needed break from normal me, who can be quite exhausting.
One of my first assignments was to distribute cash aid in a hospital in a city along the Sinai Peninsula that serves as the first stop for the worst airstrike victims. Security was extremely tight. We were a team of two Americans and one Palestinian, and, as it turns out, we couldn’t have accomplished our mission without each other. Our combined presence validated the sincerity of our efforts, and the people inside desperately needed the help we had to offer. Upon the patient’s arrival, their passport is confiscated, and when they’re ready to be considered for release, they can either return to the warzone in Gaza or remain in the hospital. That means, for those who stay, they are trapped on the hospital compound, and some have already been there for months with only the items they brought with them. While we were not allowed to enter the hospital, we were able to get our aid envelopes inside and delivered to 35 families.
Yesterday, we were invited to a lunch made by a Palestinian woman who has been assisting with some of our initiatives. She has a young child, less than a year old, and to leave Gaza, they’d walked from the north to the south. It took them nine hours. Along the way, they’d passed many dead bodies. They were able to evacuate because the woman’s husband holds both a Palestinian and Egyptian passport, but her family is still stuck in Gaza. Her father, who is in a wheelchair, is living in a tent in Rafah. Later in the day, we received word that a different Palestinian teammate’s brother had been killed. Being able to sit with these families, hold them, share the same air, and bear direct witness to their pain is a terrible honor.
Currently, I’m in a car speeding through the streets of Cairo on my way to meet up with the rest of the group. The view outside my window is so very different from the mountains I see from my living room at home. The colors, the landscape, the Arabic music playing on the radio feel like a waking dream. I’ve been communicating with my Egyptian driver, an incredible man with more exuberance than most humans combined, over a translation app, and his presence has provided levity during the many hours traveling back and forth between cases. All of us on the team have noted how quickly we felt connected to each other, as if we’ve already known each other for years instead of days or hours. The end of my week here, though not far off, is hard to imagine. How can I ever leave this place, these people behind?
By Liz Lezius
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