Paris police boats stopping two Gaza flotilla boats from stopping in Paris.
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I bought my ticket to Europe to meet up with the boats of the 2018 Gaza Freedom Flotilla with excitement, but also trepidation. I knew four boats were a part of this year's flotilla, two larger boats were sailing in the Atlantic around the coast of Europe and two smaller boats would be taking rivers and canals in central Europe to the Mediterranean.
I had heard that the boats would be making at least 20 educational stops in communities along the way to talk about the conditions in Gaza and offer solidarity with Palestinian support groups. I was asked to go meet the fishing boat "Al Awda" (The Return) in La Rochelle, France. It and "Freedom" are the two boats sailing to Gaza via the Atlantic. In La Rochelle, I was impressed with the local Palestinian solidarity organization and what they had put together. They were gracious hosts with a lot planned: an introduction meeting, press conference, evening community panel, a discussion and presentation, jazz band on the boat "Al Awda," graffiti artists, and speeches to the public from the boat.
The international support in La Rochelle was important. The fact that a half dozen of our team had come from the United States and Canada to support them was clearly appreciated. I could see that they felt both rejuvenated and strengthened by our presence and support -- proof that what they were doing was significant and that they were not alone. People from around the globe were with them and they are making a difference in a global struggle for the oppressed Palestinian people.
Our hosting situation was great as well; five of us were in the same house and got to know each other at meals. Having a little time to talk at breakfast or on the drive to the boat opened my eyes to who else was volunteering. Participating in the 2018 Gaza Flotilla was worth it, if only to work side by side with such amazing people. I guess I should not have been surprised that people who would come that far to give their time to such a cause would be dedicated human beings of conscience; nonetheless I was awed.
Barbara Briggs-Letson, a registered nurse from San Francisco who is 84 years young, volunteered to switch from ground crew to being the medical professional on board "Al Awda" at La Rochelle, Kit Kittredge from the state of Washington showed me pictures of her signs she has permanently attached to her fence, facing the highway in Washington state. Sherri Maurin from San Francisco, was heading off after "Al Awda's" next stop in Gijon, Spain to Afghanistan for the eighth time, where she works with school children who are as a school project regenerating soil for cultivation.
Barbara Briggs-Letson boat medic and Sherri Maurin, port crew with Blue Skies, No Borders scarves from Afghanistan.
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I got to know Sherri best of all since I had the pleasure of sharing the 3-7am shift guarding "Al Awda." I loved how she described being called in to her superintendent of schools where she teaches in California. She dressed professionally, walked in to their meeting, gave a firm handshake and asked how she could help him. She said he stuttered a little and said that he had heard that a lot of students talk about her. He wanted to know what it is she does that gets them talking. She responded that whether she is teaching math, history or any other subject she always includes examples of her experiences in Central America, Afghanistan or some other hot spot in the world.
Sherri wears a light blue scarf every day in solidarity with the children in Afghanistan. Her students always do well on the exams. The superintendent gave her a raise. She said the same situation has happened with two superintendents of schools. She also told the story how one day at the end of class she was singing a Nicaraguan song and one of the students heard her. At the end of the school day, the student's Nicaraguan parents brought plates of Nicaraguan food for her; they knew that she respected their culture and them as human beings.
Others on Al Awda shared their stories. As I was giving tours of the boat to guests, Charlie, from Sweden, pointed out a pigeon in a picture from a previous flotilla. He asked that I explain that a flotilla crew from the 2013 flotilla wanted to get video footage of the illegal Israeli military action against them out to the world despite the Israeli navy jamming all electronic communication from the boat. He said the flotilla crew put the video memory cards in a little bag and attached the bag to the foot of a pigeon which flew back to Greece where the cards were retrieved.
He also mentioned how the first time he was kidnapped by the Israeli military and taken to Israel against his will, he had kept paper in his back pocket. The Israelis confiscated everything, including the papers in his pocket: the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Charlie told me that he thought they ought to read it.
On another flotilla, the military was all excited because they found a USB flash drive in Charlie's pocket. On it were the Geneva Conventions; something else Charlie thought the Israeli military needed to know. What does Charlie do when he's not on a flotilla? He is on the crew of ships that rescue refugees in the Mediterranean that have departed from Libya in small, dangerous boats.
Then there is Zohar Chamberlein Regev, the boat leader for Al Awda. She walks with a limp from when she was hit by a bus at a young age. An Israeli Jew, she grew up on a Kibbutz and at age 7, she became aware of the Palestinian issue when a Palestinian family's home was demolished near their kibbutz. Her father had gone to visit the Palestinian family who had just become homeless only because they had built their home where the kibbutz didn't want them to be. She remembers being ostracized in school by other kids asking why would her dad go do that. Zohar's stand for her fellow human beings is evident in everything from how she approaches others, asks questions, leads her ship, and smiles. I was moved by her statement at the end of the panel discussion meeting -- she said that she knows that when they would be faced with violent action against them, she and her crew would respond with non-violence.
Awni, student from Belgium, is from Gaza. At the evening panel in La Rochelle, he expressed great concern that children growing up today might not learn the history of the Palestinian struggle and that they would think that life in Gaza is normal. He encouraged us to talk about Gaza with children to raise awareness about this compromise of human rights and values that is being rationalized Israeli and US media.
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