In isolated, impoverished Gaza, Mohammed Saleh remembers visits to the beach as a child.
His mother took him once each summer.
Living in the narrow and besieged strip of land abutting the warm waters of the Mediterranean, the beach was, and remains, one of the few entertainments freely available to residents of Gaza. The crowded city runs regularly without power, has few cinemas or sporting clubs and a bare handful of parks in which children can play.
The trips to the beach were signal occasions in a young life in the territory, and while the gentle waves and blue water appealed, Saleh and his siblings were forbidden from swimming.
“My mother would never let us,” Saleh tells the Guardian through an interpreter. “We weren’t allowed in the water. She wanted us to be safe, and she was worried because we couldn’t swim well.”
Hasan Alhabil at Sydney’s Manly beach. Alhabil was taught to swim by an older brother, and as a teenager became one of a handful of lifeguards employed by the municipality to patrol Gaza beach. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
He is determined to change this for the next generation of Palestinian children.
For the month of January, Saleh is in Sydney, guest of the North Steyne Surf Lifesaving Club, training to be one of Gaza’s first qualified lifesavers.
He aims to return to Palestine to establish its first surf club: the Gaza Beach Surf Lifesaving Club.
“We want to build a lifesaving club of our own, for Gazans, to keep people safe,” he says. “Even though the sea is more gentle in Gaza than the ocean in Australia, unfortunately, still many people drown because they cannot swim safely. Last summer, in 2019, seven people died.”
Saleh’s family are Palestinian refugees who fled to Gaza when they were forced from their ancestral home in 1948. For 10 of Saleh’s formative childhood years his father was in an Israeli jail; his extended family has lost dozens of members to the violence of the occupation over decades. His mother’s over-protectiveness, he says, was a response to the precariousness of his family’s existence.
“But I want children in Gaza to learn to enjoy the beach, and to be safe when they swim. I want to establish a program like Nippers to teach children about lifesaving.”
Nippers is the Australian surf lifesaving program for children, with more than 60,000 currently enrolled, beginning at age five.
But beyond the surf club’s mandate for patrolling the beach and saving lives in the water, a surf club in Gaza can provide a powerful sense of solidarity and fellowship. In a territory where youth unemployment runs at 60%, a surf club can serve as a place of community, an outlet of physical activity and shared purpose for young Palestinians.
“We want to re-create a system like [that] here in Australia, that involves the whole society. Everyone working together to make it a safe place to share.”
Hasan Alhabil, also a refugee, was taught to swim by an older brother, and as a teenager became one of a handful of lifeguards employed by the municipality to patrol Gaza beach.
“The beach is all we have, it’s the only recreation, the only entertainment for the Gazan people,” he says. “But even there we have problems. Because there is no electricity and power often, raw sewage is pushed into the sea. So that means there is less space where it is safe for people to swim.
“Here in Australia, the beach is very safe, it’s very clean and well-organised. The facilities you have here, we don’t have in Gaza.”
In a city ringed by a fortifications, and whose only exits are militarised checkpoints, Gaza’s 45km of shoreline on the Mediterranean is one of the few places to offer a sense of space and of freedom.
But even this is illusory. A bare few miles off the coast, Israeli navy ships are permanently patrolling, blockading all movement in or out.
Saleh and Alhabil are in the middle of a month of intensive training at North Steyne club, on Sydney’s Manly Beach. They will be assessed for their bronze medallion, the fundamental Australian lifesaving qualification, in late January.
The president of the North Steyne Surf Lifesaving Club, Chris Gibbs Stewart, says dozens of club members had volunteered to assist their Gazan guests.
“We feel this is a hugely important project,” she says. “Lifesaving is, of course, about keeping people safe on the beach, but it’s about more than that, it’s about building a community, building a sense of family. We are trying to teach that culture we have here.”
Saleh and Alhabil’s passage from Gaza to Sydney was far from smooth.
“We had to stay flexible, and to re-organise things,” Stewart says. “We thought they were coming and then they weren’t, and then they were again. But we were committed to making it work and to following this through.
“We want to stay in contact, and keep providing support, whether that is sending over equipment or training materials, or sending people over there to assist. We want to plant the seed that becomes the Gaza beach surf lifesaving club.”
Shamikh Khalil Badra is a member of the Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine. A fellow Palestinian now studying in Australia, he says it took the committee nearly four years of negotiations and planning – with a number of abortive attempts – to get Saleh and Alhabil to Australia. Negotiating exit permits and visas was mired in bureaucratic entanglements and refusals.
But Badra says the mission to build a surf club on the sands of Gaza beach is far larger than patrols on the sand and rescues in the water.
“This project is about hope,” he says. “Gaza suffers from so many problems, the UN said eight years ago that Gaza will become unliveable by 2020. We are in 2020 now and people are still suffering there.
“This might feel only a small thing but it is very powerful, it can bring hope to people there.”
(Source: The Guardian)