Abeer was excited when I called her today.
"It's my time, Jen!" she told me breathlessly. "The baby might come today or tomorrow-any moment now!"
Last time I saw Abeer, a year ago, she had shown me pictures of her fiancé, a teacher, and last time we spoke, months ago, she told me she was pregnant. But I had no idea how far along she was and that she was about to give birth now.
Now, of all times.
Abeer lives in the Gaza Strip. She has been waiting for her water to break the last four days as missiles rained down, killing over 380 Palestinians.
I wanted to express whole-hearted joy. This will be Abeer's first child, her parents' first grandchild. But I felt panic at the news. Gaza is enduring the bloodiest, most vicious attack in the over forty years of Israeli occupation. I couldn't imagine Abeer, whom I've known since she was fifteen years old and visited many times in her cramped home in Khan Younes refugee camp, giving birth to the sound of explosions in the background.
Abeer expressed some trepidation herself. "I'm frightened," she told me. "The situation in Gaza is really terrible. And bringing a child into the world is such a huge responsibility. How can I guarantee my baby's safety?"
I was also concerned about Abeer's safety. What if air-strikes came as her contractions increased and it was time for her to go to the hospital? And, even if she could make it to the hospital safely, would they have room for her? There are 1500 hospital beds in Gaza public hospitals and perhaps another 500 in private clinics, but the bombings of the last four days alone have left over 1,900 Palestinians injured on top of those already admitted. Assuming there is space for Abeer, what kind of medical care will she receive? Doctors today are forced to operate without surgical gloves, anesthetics, even gauze. Even before the bombardments began on Saturday, the medical system in Gaza was devastated by the sixteen month ever-strengthening siege of the strip's 1.4 million inhabitants. Now, according to Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, it is on the verge of final and total collapse.
I was reluctant to mention my fears to Abeer. If she wasn't already worried herself, what good could it possibly do for me to raise them? A thin and wiry 24 year old woman with dark, smoldering eyes, a warm voice, fierce laugh and a tight hug, Abeer is, above all else, extremely strong. This wouldn't be the first baby in the world born with bomb blasts in the background. It certainly wouldn't be the first baby born with no guarantee of medical care for baby or mother during or after delivery. Chances are, Abeer will give birth to a healthy baby and be fine herself.
The reality Abeer knows she's bringing her child into-that's the truly terrifying thought. The potentially life-threatening shortages of food, electricity, water, cooking gas, car fuel-and on top of it all, relentless, inescapable, pointless violence. Abeer is right. She cannot guarantee her baby's safety. No place in Gaza is safe.
Another friend's sister, Nirmeen Elsarraj, is a mother of three children. Nour is fourteen, Adam is nine and Ali is three. Today Nirmeen wrote from Gaza City,
"My children cannot sleep and I cannot help them. The feelings of helplessness and guilt (which always accompanies your inability to protect or at least comfort your children) are stronger than those of fear and horror. Adam is asthmatic and he uses a ventilator. Due to the stress and the pollution resulting from rubble, he is getting more frequent asthma attacks and there is no electricity for his ventilator. Each time he has an attack, we have to put the generator on for him and then put it off. There is not enough fuel to keep the generator on and we have no idea till when this is going to continue. Ali has no idea what this is all about. All he does is scream in fear whenever there is a bombing and when it is over, he uses his imagination to tell stories about 'qasef - bombing'. We spend our days and our nights in one room with my sister in law and her daughter. You feel the stress and fear. You can see it on everyone's face."
It was difficult to end my conversation with Abeer. I didn't know what words to leave her with. "Stay strong," or "I'll be thinking of you," felt horribly inadequate.
"You're going to be such a great mother, Abeer," I finally said. "This baby will be surrounded by so much love."
Abeer laughed quietly. "I hope so, Jen."
I told Abeer I would call her in a few days and asked her to try to get me word if she delivered before then.
As the grim news from Gaza continues to pour in, I keep thinking about Abeer and her unborn child. My closing comment was honest: Abeer will be a wonderful mother. Her strength, her warmth, her fierce intensity will all be harnessed in the service of caring for and protecting her infant. In the midst of the terror that is Gaza, there will be the joy of a new, precious life.
I find a measure of comfort in knowing how much Abeer's baby will be treasured, and yet, this is not enough. It doesn't compensate for what Abeer's child, for what all children in Gaza lack. Beyond the humanitarian disaster that is Gaza Srip, beyond the rubble-strewn streets and the constant fear of new assaults, there is this horrific reality: no matter how precious Gaza's children are to their mothers, they are the helpless pawns of all those who execute, support and benefit from the continuing violence.