Wow. What a crazy week. Prior to my departure for Egypt to attempt to film in Gaza for “Shake the Dust,” I was a little worried that it would be a challenging trip for me to be “going it alone.” Surely at this point I’m accustomed to traveling all by my lonesome… but at times, depending on the place and circumstances, it can be incredibly taxing emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc.
I must say though that given the challenges I’ve faced in the last 7 days, I have remained mostly centered and optimistic. I am, of course, aching for friends and family (my sisters are currently with my parents in Michigan along with my niece and nephew). But busyness has often been my ally. Sitting in a hotel room rotting away is the worst thing to do… and although I’ve faced some enormous frustrations here, I’ve also felt culturally immersed, fully present, centered, and optimistic.
The situation in Gaza is dire. The blockade that has existed since Hamas was voted into power in 2006 has strangled the 1.6 million that live there. And their own government has done little to help. Routine kidnappings (mostly by Islamist extremists), violence, and the constant potential for violent skirmishes with Israel make it a dangerous place to go, and the US does everything in it’s power to keep US citizens out. Once there, there are no resources to get back out if something goes awry, and understandably the US government doesn’t want an international crisis if an American civilian were to get hurt, stranded, or worse.
That being said, my commitment to creating stories that shed light on even the furthest and darkest parts of the planet is not something I take lightly. I never recommend anyone (photographer, aid work, whatever) to go into a place like Gaza rogue, with no plan, connections, etc. And I don’t do that myself. The process of attempting to work and film with Gazan break-dancers has involved every resources possible, and I’ve had friends in Gaza, across the Middle East, and across the United States working on my behalf to see that I enter safely and remain safe upon my arrival and until my departure.
However, safety is a relative thing. And whenever I travel somewhere (Haiti post-earthquake, Sana’a, Yemen) I do so with wisdom, prayer, and as many resources as I can muster. But one of the deepest convictions in my life is to do what I can to lend a voice to people whose voices are being silenced.
There are obviously groups in Gaza that can be classified as terrorists, and certainly there are extremists that have ill-intent and bad motives for the violence and havoc they wreak. But there are far more children and innocent families that are starving for education, food, and redemption from an ongoing cycle of violence and poverty.
I have been barred for the second time in 2 years from entering Gaza. I head to Uganda this Friday for a week and then return to the US to continue processing paperwork to ensure that I get in this summer. It has been a discouraging week. But my experiences on the border in Rafah are simply a tiny taste of what Palestinians around the region deal with on a regular basis.
I consider my passport to be my most valuable possession. First of all, it is a diary of the last 7 years of my life. Something that I would love to pass on to my children – as a symbolic representation of the scales that have slowly fallen from my eyes with every new stamp. But my passport also represents something profound and humbling – mercy and freedom. I did not choose where I was born, but because I have a US passport, I have tremendous privileges across the globe. My place of birth has offered me the freedom to earn a good living, and the freedom to travel and see things that have and will continue to shape my perception of reality.
In 2010 after 6 crazy days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the earthquake, I was ready to be out. I went to the airport and found hundreds of desperate Haitians prying at the gates of the airport – begging for entrance. They had seen hell. And to them, the airport meant freedom from that hell. I raised my passport out of my pocket, and was pulled by a US soldier through a crowd of the most starved, impoverished people I’ve ever experienced, and was led to the tarmac where a private jet whisked me away to American soil.
I tell this story, because it has haunted me regularly ever since. It has torn at my conscience and clung to me whenever I get on a plane for a far off place.
People ask me if I’m patriotic. I say yes. But not in the same way that many Americans view the term. Am I proud of America? Not of everything she’s done over the centuries. But I consider myself to be blessed to be an American. And having now traveled to well over 40 countries outside of her borders, I feel this even more deeply then ever. But with that realization has come a deep conviction that pushes me to fight loneliness, food poisoning, exhaustion, and bureaucracy.
It has been my philosophy that truth and beauty are inseparable. And truth can be found anywhere – however seemingly God-forsaken. And to see beauty is to see light.
Below are some images I’ve taken during some of the down time I’ve had here and there. As I said before, when dealing with loneliness, culture shock, and exhausting bureaucracy, it’s good to get out of my hotel room for a few hours here and there.