Egypt – Shuels story
There are experiences that make me smile or feel good, but there are others that make me feel powerless, and that is when I remember why I set up SDFF.
I once spoke to a Palestinian doctor named Shuel in Cairo. He told me about an image that was burned into his mind forever. One day, when he was about four years old, the army had given everyone the chance to leave a building before bombarding it. Everyone ran out of the building.
There was an enormous explosion, and the building was completely destroyed. The people were forced to shelter in tents; within minutes their lives had been destroyed and they were left with nothing but each other and the clothes on their back. Everyone was in shock; children cried, women screamed and others were searching for family members who had not been able to get out of the building in time.
Shuel saw a man standing beside a mass grave. He was making a sign that said: one year, one month, one day, a few weeks. He asked the man whether that was how long these people had lived. No, said the man, family members had told him that was how long they had been happy in their lives. Some had only been happy for a few hours, some a little longer. At that moment he realized that life is nothing more than a fleeting moment, and he lived in continuous fear of what the future would bring him and his family. He grew up in poverty, without money, without enough to eat, and without hope.
The deep-seated conviction that no-one would accept or trust a Palestinian made Shuel feel powerless and alone. He often thought about the mass grave, about never feeling truly alive, because you never knew what the following day would bring or whether you would even still be alive. Life was indeed nothing more than a fleeting moment.
I was deeply moved, but did not know what to say. Especially because I could see that he was reliving everything. I saw the pain in his eyes and thought about his wife and children in Palestine. During those few moments of silence each of us were deep in our own thoughts until he spoke again: “And then you came, your foundation, and I saw the way you interact with people, what you do for children. You have given me hope that you will also be able to do something for children in Palestine. You who accepts me as I am, and loves me for who I am, and the friends I have made: all of this has given me a new lease on life. I feel alive again, and if I cannot get across the border, then at least I will have lived and known this kind of love.” He was due to leave Egypt the next day and return to Palestine. But he didn’t know if he would make it home safely. The Gaza strip was about to close for one month, and if they were not allowed through they would have to sleep on the street.
I didn’t know what to say. I felt helpless and angry at the same time about everything he had told me. It is my belief that everyone has the right to a safe place and the right to love. The pain I witnessed gave me the strength to continue fighting to ensure that my SDFFoundation could also accomplish something for the children of Palestine.
Laila, Sheila’s little princess
One day I woke up early in my little apartment in Cairo. I was nervous, happy and impatient because I was to meet Laila that day! My friends Rasha and Speedy came to meet me and we went into the city to buy clothes for Laila. When we finally set out to meet Laila I was nervous. How was she? Would she still recognize me? Laila, my little princess. The first time I held you in my arms, my heart melted. So small and vulnerable, both physically and mentally handicapped, you were found abandoned in the street. I thought you were an angel. You held out your tiny hand and pulled at a strand of my hair. I was wearing a headscarf, but you pulled out a strand of hair, played with it and smelled it, and gave me a beautiful smile. I immediately fell in love. I was suffused with a warm feeling of love and helplessness. Everyone around said it was a miracle “Usually, Laila doesn’t respond at all.”
I felt overwhelmed. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I never wanted to let go of this little princess. I cannot let go of her because she chose me to love her and care for her.
How was she doing? I anxiously stepped inside and everyone recognized me and called out: “Quickly, Laila’s mama is here. Laila, mama Sheila is here!” They placed Laila in my arms. That radiant smile! And again she took a strand of my hair, sniffed it and began to play with it. My heart jumped. My angel, you are still here and you still believe in me. When I told you that I would come back, that I wouldn’t desert you, I felt you were listening to me, and when I sang for you, you became dreamy-eyed and sleepy. And now I’m singing for you again, and you are looking at me lovingly. I melt, amazed at what we share.
I can and will not let go of my little princess. I want to take you with me to Holland and find the best doctors for you. I want you to be happy. I continue to dream, fight and argue on your behalf. There is a possibility that I can take Laila with me. I call home to tell them this story, but the home front is not happy about this. They think I am going too far, that I shouldn’t bring Laila back to Holland to take care of her there, where she doesn’t belong. Defeated and confused, I hang up the phone. I feel like a house has been dropped on my head; I am tired, lonely and empty. I feel helpless and enraged. Laila begins to cry softly, and I cry along with her. I won’t give you up, my angel, I won’t abandon you. I will continue to fight for you. She puts the strand of my hair in her mouth and falls asleep with a smile on her face.
Until tomorrow my angel, my princess. I will keep fighting for you. No one can prevent me from fighting for you and loving you. The world will come to know you through my eyes and my stories, and you, Laila, will come to know the world through my stories and my love for you.