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Growing strong roots of understanding

One day at the little Wairarapa primary school I attended in the 1960s, I made a choice that set me on a course to be a reader for the rest of my life.

As all the kids rushed outside for playtime, I asked our teacher if I could stay inside and read in the little library at the back of our classroom.

The teacher agreed and a new practice was born in my life that would bring me not only enjoyment, but also literacy and knowledge.

Later, as an adult, I made another important choice – to use reading to be informed about the world. There were so many histories, conflicts and events that I did not fully or even partially understand.

I decided to start by reading about Palestine. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was often in the news, but I knew nothing about the history.

The first book I read was The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. As immersive as a novel, it is a non-fiction account of the two families that occupy a house in a Palestinian village over time – and the enormous historical events that shape their lives and perspectives.

One is the Palestinian family who build the stone house, on Palestinian land, and plant a lemon tree in the backyard – but are later forced to leave [on foot] by the Israeli militia, along with the other occupants of the village. Their lives from then on are characterised by a longing known as ‘The Right of Return’.

The second occupants of the house are a Jewish family who survive the holocaust in Europe and emigrate to what is becoming known as Israel. They settle in the apparently abandoned house and start to build a new life there.

Personal stories like this speak to many of us. Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa is a novel that spans four generations of a Palestinian family living in a refugee camp through major upheavals. I Shall Not Hate by Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish tells of the death of his beloved daughters when a Israeli tank destroyed part of their house in Gaza in 2007. And Still Lives: A Memoir of Gaza by Canadian-born Kiwi Marilyn Garson describes her four years running a large social enterprise in Gaza and enduring two wars.

When Garson spoke at WaiWord last year, a key message I took from her presentation was “Hamas is not Gaza and Gaza is not Hamas”.

Many of you will have watched with shock as the current war in Gaza has unfolded and escalated. Unprecedented in its intensity, ordinary civilians, health workers and first responders have been hit with white phosphorus, sniper fire, carpet bombs and missiles while in their homes, refugee camps, hospitals, schools, churches and mosques, UN facilities and so-called ‘safe zones’ – and as they have tried to flee in their cars and donkey carts.

The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. At the time of writing, half the residential buildings in Gaza have been destroyed and over 15,000 Palestinians have died – many of them children and women – while thousands are missing, buried under the rubble.

One of the things we can do to directly help is donate towards emergency aid. With this in mind, I have set up a fundraiser on Givealittle – it’s called Be a lifeline for Gaza’s children. The aid will be distributed by the Palestinian partner of a NZ-based charity called Kiwi Trust For Palestinian Children Relief.

This charity is volunteer-run and has no admin fees: every dollar donated goes to the families who need it. At the moment their focus is on food and emergency supplies; longer-term they support education, wellbeing and the creation of opportunities for children and young people in Gaza.

Anne Nelson is an avid reader and huge fan of the Wairarapa Library Service. She has worked in communications and as an editor for most of her adult life. She lives in Carterton.

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