It was 5:15 AM Monday morning at Newark Airport when my son Dany and I had a glimpse of Hiam, her mother, and Aida (a travel companion continuing on to Houston). They were in the luggage area and I could see they are being delayed. They had two pieces of small luggage and I thought they must have lost their luggage because of the length of the time they were at the counter.
Finally, they came out and my first reaction on seeing two girls each with a big white batch over their eyes is to lower my gaze. Introductions and the usual niceties followed some recompose. Aida is 16 years old and is heading to Houston for follow-up treatment. Hiam is 8 year old and was coming to Connecticut for initial treatment.
We learned that it was not the luggage delay but a language delay. Only Aida speaks little English and this caused them significant delay inside the terminal. I left Hiam and her mother with Dany and took Aida to another terminal for her flight to Houston. In the 15-20 minutes Aida talked along the way, she appeared intelligent and personable. She had intentionally let her hair dangle in front of her face on the left side, in what I thought was a futile attempt to cover the eye patch. Wishing Aida good luck in her treatment, I went back to pick up Hiam, her mother, and Dany.
She cried when saying good-bye to Aida, they became close in the long 14 hour flight. Both identifying with each other more than any of us can imagine. After that separation, it was striking how close Hiam clung to her mother, terrified, and silent. Her mother trying to reassure her that this is for the best, that it is OK. We had a 2 hour drive back home to New Haven so much information was exchanged with the mother. Attempted conversations with Hiam were not successful initially except when we crossed the Washington Bridge and pointing out the river and the boats, a traffic helicopter, and bridge structure. A smile and very few words came unexpectedly and seemed to fade away quickly and back into silence in her mothers arms.
In these conversations with Um Yahya (the mother) in the car, I learned that she has 15 children, that Hiam was a twin (Abir was the name of her sister). I learned that the father is now unemployed (Israeli blockades) and they depend on the goodness of others to survive. I learned that the youngest are also twins 5 year old. I learned that Hiam lost her eye to an Israeli bullet when she was trying to head home and walking across another street that appeared quiet. Two kids nearby, said that she rounded the corner towards her home when she collapsed and blood was shooting out of her eyes socket. They called her mother who held her screaming. Some young men arrived and snatched the girl from her arms and ran her to the hospital.
I learned that this is not the first loss for this particular family. That a nephew was struck by a bullet in the head and went into deep coma. He was later transported to Saudi Arabia but Um Yahya (his aunt) stated “haqiqatan shaheed maskeen” (= he is really an unfortunate martyr). I learned from Um Yahya that both sides of the family are refugees (the father’s side from a village near Lydda and the mother’s from near Ashdod). I learned that while Um Yahya was born in the refugee camp, that her parents and others told them about the horrors of the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948) and how her husband’s parents left under gunfire but also told them about the peaceful life they had in the old villages.
Um Yahya is a very religious women. She puts her faith in God. She says all of these things in a very matter-of-fact way. But occasionally you glimpse a few tears that she tries to suppress. For the last 10 minutes of the drive, we are silent.
Calling Gaza to tell her family she arrived, Um Yahya talks and listens, then hands the phone to Hiam. Hiam talks to her father, the first I heard her say complete sentences, but suddenly she hands the phone to her mother and breaks into uncontrollable crying.
We make some food but they are both tired and only Um Yahya takes a few meager bites and they both retire to sleep for three hours.
Phone calls were made to confirm one appointment (Wednesday at Yale) and to schedule anther appointment (Friday at Marino Ocular Prosthetics). Other phone calls were made including to staff at Palestine Children Relief Fund and to local activists who were eager to help.
In the evening dinner, Hiam ate better (she especially liked cashew nuts but hated potatoes) and we discussed the program for the next few days. The community response in Connecticut (& even beyond, we told Hiam that she will also get to visit New York soon) was great and everyone wants to come and help. This family is very grateful.
We are all grateful to Hiam for enriching our life and we will keep you informed.
(Dr. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is Chair of the Media Committee, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition)