23 November 2013, Sydney Morning Herald
by Ruth Pollard, SMHAn intrepid Australian offers an oasis of calm in a land of conflict.
In Gaza, the beach is everything – often the only release for a population of almost 1.7 million living mostly under siege in the tiny coastal strip.
Looking across the sea towards the horizon, Jean Calder notes, with characteristic understatement: ”It is beautiful, isn’t it? I just wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
The 77-year-old Australian is marking her 18th year in the war-torn Gaza Strip with her two (unofficially) adopted Palestinian children (another died in his 30s five years ago) and her 32nd year working in conflict zones in the Middle East.
Her extraordinary journey has taken her from her home town of Mackay in Queensland to the brutal war that broke out after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, followed by 12 years in Cairo and then, finally, in 1995 across the border into Gaza.
It was here she established a rehabilitation centre under the direction of Yasser Arafat’s brother, the late Fathi Arafat, who was head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
Calder is a world leader in physical education and structured play for children with disabilities – a difficult job in any situation, let alone in the Gaza Strip, where the electricity is out for hours each day and conflict is always bubbling beneath the surface.
We are lunching in the enormous Light Beach restaurant in Khan Younis in the south of Gaza, and the main topic of discussion among the waiting staff is Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, a Gazan.
His victory prompted jubilant celebrations throughout Palestine, but no one was prouder than the residents of the nearby Khan Younis refugee camp, where Assaf grew up.
Calder shares their delight in Assaf’s success. ”He sings very well, doesn’t he?” she says to one young waiter who is almost exploding with pride, then she turns to me: ”Did you see him? Just wonderful.”
As the minutes stretch into an hour and our food is yet to arrive, Calder allows herself a discreet eye roll about the kitchen, which, post-Arab Idol, is having a little trouble focusing on the job at hand. ”Poor babies, they are trying,” she says.
Then, suddenly, a mountain of food arrives. Chicken with zaatar, grilled fish served with chilli and spices, hummus, bread, chicken scaloppine and a spicy Gazan salad.
We wash it down with an icy, fresh lemon and mint, by far the most delicious drink in the Middle East, and the talk turns quickly to politics.
As we eat the fish caught by Gazan fishermen, Calder laments the fact that Israel has significantly reduced the Oslo Accord-designated 20 nautical mile fishing zone (it says it has done so in response to rocket fire from Gaza), destroying the livelihoods of many families reliant on fishing.
”Everything has been restricted by the occupation and now by the siege on Gaza – you are dealing with it all the time, you are seeing people’s lives basically being destroyed,” she says quietly. ”I think it is very difficult for people outside to really understand what is happening.”
Earlier in the day I arrive at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s Al-Amal City Centre for Ability Development, an oasis of calm in the south of the bustling Gaza Strip.
Calder is the director of the centre, and as she strides through its long corridors past wide, open windows, it is at times difficult to keep up with her.
It’s the final day of exams for her students, who are at the end of their four-year degree in special education and rehabilitation. She is sure they will get snapped up, as her previous students have been, by international and government agencies.
Just three years shy of 80, she is showing no signs of slowing down.
Does she plan to retire in Gaza? ”Oh, I don’t know, I’ll tell you when I’ve thought about it.”
It’s impossible not to like Calder and her embrace of life on the front line of one of the world’s longest and most vitriolic conflicts.
And to meet her extraordinary Palestinian family – ”they adopted me”, she says of Dalal, 37, who is blind and has a master’s degree in special education and rehabilitation, and Badr, 30, who has cerebral palsy and works at the centre – is to see the difference that love, education and opportunity can make to the lives of people with disabilities.
When Calder was in the US studying for her PhD, she met students and academics working on the Palestinian issue and knew that was to be her future. ”But I wasn’t sure what I could do – I wasn’t a medical doctor or a nurse or anything useful like that.”
In mid-1978, still in the US, she attended a screening of the film The Palestinians, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave – it gave her the answer she was seeking.
”It was then that I first saw the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in action … there was a scene with a little boy in it, showing how even in such a terrible situation Palestinians were taking care of the disabled,” Calder says. ”He rolled over in the cot with a big grin on his face, and I thought, ‘He’s got cerebral palsy, maybe there is some way I can help.”’
She returned to the University of Queensland as a lecturer in the school of human movement studies and conducted research into the role of play for children with disabilities.
But her heart was elsewhere and by January 1981 she was in Beirut as a volunteer for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, working at the Haifa Rehabilitation Hospital in the Burj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, established by the UN in 1948 for Palestinians who fled from the Galilee in what is now Israel.
There were two children in particular whom Calder was asked to work with. One was Hamoudi, a boy of seven or eight (his birthday was unknown) who was severely disabled with cerebral palsy.
When he smiled, she recognised him instantly – he was the child Calder had seen three years previously in The Palestinians.
”I said to him, ‘You are the reason I am here!”’
Calder says for the rest of his life, Hamoudi provided both her and her students with constant inspiration. ”They called him the professor … everyone learnt so much from him.”
The other child was five-year-old Dalal, who is now an accomplished academic and the director of continuing education at the College of Ability and Development in Gaza. She travels for work both independently and with Calder.
Calder has vivid memories of the 1982 Lebanon war and the threat to the Palestinian children in her care.
”We were in some hairy situations,” she recalls. ”We were moved at least half a dozen times in Lebanon, we were at gunpoint during the massacre – I had a group of kids with disabilities with me and I was able to at least give some protection to those kids.
”When you are going through those situations you just deal with them, but when you are away from them it just hits you like a hammer.”
After lunch we travel the few short blocks from the PCRS centre to Calder’s home, which she shares with Dalal, while Badr and his wife live in the apartment downstairs.
Against all odds and through several wars, Calder has kept her adopted family close by, and it is clear their home is their haven from the extraordinarily difficult life in Gaza.
Despite the electricity shortages, the contaminated water, the outbreaks of war, the challenges of the Hamas government, the constant buzz of the Israeli drones and the severe restrictions on travel, Calder loves Gaza.
”I don’t know,” she says, struggling to answer a question she has been asked many times before, ”I just really like what I am doing.”
Has she ever thought about leaving? ”It wouldn’t even come into my head.”
She is momentarily undone by personal questions, laughing when I ask whether she ever married. ”I didn’t ever get time for that – I’ll try that next time round.”
And the tight grip on Gaza maintained by both Israel and Egypt, which prevents students from attending universities abroad, families and friends from visiting each other and the sick from accessing healthcare?
”You get frustrated with the difficulties, you get angry that people are cut off from so many opportunities – I just can’t make any sense of any of our wars and conflicts.”
Calder’s position at the centre – although based firmly in civil society – is directly affected by the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
She is no longer able to leave Gaza to travel through Israel – ”I guess they think I am some kind of security risk” – and must now rely on the rarely open Rafah crossing into Egypt. She has not been allowed to go to the West Bank – an important area of her work – since 2006.
But she knows her experience is, by comparison to the Gazans she lives and works with, relatively easy.
”Gazans are tired, they have been through so much – people cannot leave, students lose scholarships. People die a little inside every time.”