By Markus Williams
Every victory comes in time, work today to change tomorrow because to fulfill your life’s purpose you must answer when you’re called. On February 3, 1955 the voice of Izzeldin Abuelaish joined the symphony of voices on this earth. Decades later that voice would become a voice of change.
He was born and raised on the Palestinian refugee camp called Jabalia in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Remarkably, even though he was a child he would never taste his childhood. Life in the refugee camp was challenging, it require major effort, everyday just to survive. He along with his nine siblings and parents lived in a one room house with no water, toilet or assurance that they would live to see the next day. They lived a miserable life with a man-made war of poverty, injustice and disease. He dreamed of becoming a doctor and helping to give life where there had been death and pain. He knew that education was his only way out of such an existence.
At the age of seven he learned of a competition that required him to study the Koran and demonstrate his knowledge from memory. It came with a monetary prize for the winner and as the oldest male child he had responsibilities to help the family. He studied very hard and on the day of the competition he was victorious and he was awarded the prize of 2.5 Egyptians pounds roughly $2000.00. This small fortune was a game changer for he and his family, it would lift them out of poverty and allow him to go to school full time. He placed the check in his Koran and he began the journey home to share the good news with his family. When he arrived home to his surprise the money was not to be found. Somehow in his journey it had dropped out of his book without his knowledge. There was great sadness and disappointment in his home upon learning the news of the lost money. He would now go to school in the morning and work in the afternoon so that he could help the family. This would not be the last time he would have to persevere in the midst of sorrow.
He knew that education could not be taken away from him and that it would be his best way of helping his family. So in School he worked very hard, maintained high grades and continued to dream about becoming a doctor. His hard work paid off as he was eventually awarded a scholarship to attend medical school at the University of Cairo followed by a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology from the University of London. He continued with further study at hospitals in Israel, Italy, Belgium and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. He became the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position at an Israeli Hospital and it was in this position that he found his calling. He began to use his voice and abilities as a medical doctor to influence change in a conflict zone. He cared for people regardless of their ethnic origin, religion or political beliefs. He believed that medicine has one face and that all human beings deserved access to quality health care because in the operating room we are all equal. It was very clear to him that hate could not and should not be a response to war it must be replaced by
open communication, understanding and compassion.
On December 27, 2008 Israel launched an air strike against the Gaza strip, this was in response to rockets that had been fired into Israeli border towns by Hamas. For the next three weeks Gaza was a war zone, the air was so full of debris that day and night was indistinguishable making it impossible to leave the house. Journalist were not allowed into Gaza to report on the violence but Izzeldin knew that the message needed to get out, the world needed to have an account of the innocent people who suffered the most. Trusting that God would author the safety of him and his family he courageously made himself available to an Israeli journalist. Every evening the reporter would call the doctor live on the evening news broadcast and over the phone Dr. Abuelaish would describe what was going on in their area.
On January 16, 2009 after a lunch of duck with rice, the family drifted out of the dining room into various parts of the house. Still unable to leave the house, the youngest boy was restless. He could not understand what was going on so Izzeldin put the young child on his shoulders, he thought a little play would distract him from the situation. Suddenly there was a powerful explosion so loud that he thought that the penetrating force was coming from within his own body. There was a blinding flash of light and then it was pitch dark. They struggled to breath, kids crying in the back ground and dust and debris was everywhere. It slowly dawned on him that his house had been bombed, a shell had hit his daughters room. He ran toward their room and his life changed forever. The lives of his three daughters and one niece had been taken. Twenty one, seventeen, fifteen, and thirteen years of age. As Izzeldin looked at the aftermath something within him stirred him into action. Those who were still alive in his home needed medical attention. He looked at his son, who had just lost his sisters and he wondered would he grow up to hate the world or would he become an extremist responding to hate with hate. He remembered he still had his phone and he still had connections to the outside world. He called his reporter friend who would answer the phone live on the air and Izzeldin would tell the outside world what had just happened. This exchange has since been viewed many times on YouTube.
In the midst of his despair he deepened his resolve to be an agent of hope, peace and reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Tragedy cannot be the end of our lives we cannot allow it to control us or defeat us. He had a dream that if something good could come from this tragedy than his daughters lives would not have been taken in vain. In 2010 his memoir “I Shall Not Hate” was published and it became an instant best seller translated into 16 different languages. His message of non-violence has garnered him the title “The Gandhi of the Middle East” and he has been the recipient of many awards including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three consecutive years.
In memory of his three daughters Dr. Abuelaish established the “Daughters for Life Foundation.” The organization gives scholarships to young women of middle eastern nationality enabling them to study at colleges around the world. He wanted to see the dreams of his daughters fulfilled in others. The foundation believes that a lasting peace in the Middle East comes from the empowering of young women through education.
We celebrate you this evening Dr. Abuelaish for your commitment to your dream for a world where nonviolence can indeed exist. By replacing bombs and guns with compassion and understanding and
inviting others to walk with you towards this goal you are a shining example of what it means to be a voice of change.