Monday 21 October 2019

Give peace a chance? They've built a wall round Bethlehem

Comedian Deirdre O'Kane visits war-torn Gaza for a first-hand look at the daily ordeals of Palestinian refugees

Gaza gaze: Deirdre O’Kane meets young mother Shayma Shafee, who is holding her daughter Nadia (17 months) and her son Said (2) in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza.
Photos: Mark Stedman
Gaza gaze: Deirdre O’Kane meets young mother Shayma Shafee, who is holding her daughter Nadia (17 months) and her son Said (2) in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. Photos: Mark Stedman
Deirdre O’Kane at a mural on the separation wall in Bethlehem. Photos: Mark Stedman

I hopped in a cab this afternoon and said, "Bethlehem, please". I was so grateful to be in a cab and not on the back of a donkey. And even more grateful not to be pregnant on Christmas Eve!

But while I was excited about where I was headed, I was also conflicted and sad about what I had just left behind.

I had spent the last couple of days in Gaza. Gaza, you say? Were you telling jokes, Deirdre? No, they won't let you in to tell jokes. In fact it's extremely difficult to get in to Gaza at all because of the blockade.

But I was privileged to gain access with Trócaire. Thanks to Comic Relief's fundraising efforts at the 3Arena on Paddy's Day, we were able to give more than €180,000 to support a much-needed project in Gaza.

Arriving in Gaza feels very much like entering a prison. High walls, barbed wire, cameras, all the usual paraphernalia.

Once you've passed through border controls, Gaza is an assault on the senses. The heat, the smells, the overwhelming poverty and the obvious scars of war and oppression.

The unemployment rate is the highest in the world and four people in every five rely on humanitarian assistance.

We headed straight to the project, which is in one of the largest refugee camps in Gaza. More than 80,000 people are living here.

There is a long list of problems facing these people every day, but water is right at the top of it.

After three major bombardments by Israeli forces in the last decade and a crippling economic blockade, the water infrastructure is on its last legs. It is undrinkable and a serious health hazard. Water borne diseases are rife, and in this camp 60pc of the children are suffering with intestinal diseases.

We arrived at the clinic to see our project in operation. It was packed with mothers who had been queuing since 5.30am to be sure their child would be screened and treated. Several of them asked me to keep supporting them, which moved me more than I can say. I could see the relief in their faces that something was being done.

I then went to the home of a young family and met 17-month-old Nadia. Her parents had so little and they have suffered much. Their home had been destroyed in the 2014 war.

Baby Nadia had been very sick in recent months. She was so weak she was unable to walk. The clinic diagnosed her with anaemia and intestinal worms. By the time I got to meet her she had been receiving treatment and was now thriving.

To say I felt proud I had contributed in some way to this child's transformation is an understatement. I wanted to hug every fellow comic who had turned up to tell jokes at the 3Arena and every punter who had bought a ticket! The project will treat 5,000 children in total.

Onwards from Gaza to Bethlehem. I thought I would look for somewhere in this holy land to say a prayer for Gaza. But what greeted me on first sight was an unholy mess… they have built a wall around Bethlehem. Enough of the walls already.

Dear God, can we give peace a chance?

To read more about Trócaire's work worldwide, visit

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