I've been asked a few times if I'm scared about going to Gaza... the honest answer is no. I am not super-human brave, nor I am not being blase about the security risks, rather, I am very aware that five days as an international visitor does not equate in any way to the day-to-day experiences of the locals. I will be escorted everywhere, be driven around in armoured cars, shuttled between an international hotel and the Gaza Sky Geeks office... I won't have to think about sending my kids to a UN school that might get shelled, whether I have enough water to drink or wash with, or even what to have for tea that evening, as I'll be eating in a hotel restaurant every night.
Mercy Corps, the international development organisation that runs the accelerator programme at Gaza Sky Geeks, sent through substantive pre-arrival information. Reading through it all this evening, any lingering doubt that I might have had about Gaza being a dangerous place to go has certainly been removed... The Mercy Corps evaluation of the likelihood of "political unrest" is severe; there is a moderate/high risk of ERWs (Explosive Remnants of War) and UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances); and a high risk of military strikes. Well, I knew that last one to be true, as a couple of days before I flew out here, the Israeli military responded to a Gaza rocket attack with an unusually heavy bombardment.
The Mercy Corps waiver form I had to sign included this reassuring paragraph too...
Tomorrow morning, the border crossing will take anywhere between 1 hour and 6 hours... depending on how the officials feel, I suppose. I've read and re-read the border crossing instructions and, even though they are as clear as clear can be and include a helpful map, man, it still looks totally mind-boggling to me. As far as I understand it, first we cross Israeli border control where the focus will be a baggage scan, our passports, our Israeli visas, a gazillion questions about what we are doing in Gaza, and if past experience with Israeli border control is anything to go by, another load of questions about why I've been to Turkey so many times (my Dad has lived there for 20+ years.) Then we go through the Palestinian National Authority border control, so another passport check and baggage scan but supposedly fewer questions. And finally, we go through the Gaza government border control, as in, Hamas, recognised by many countries to be a terrorist organisation (albeit a democratically elected one.) More questions, and a thorough search of our bags to ensure we're not bringing any alcohol or pork into Gaza. In between these various border control points are loooong walks through gated tunnels; apparently we'll be walking for over a mile in total - not so fun when you have a heavy backpack, a large suitcase, another smaller backpack, and it's 40 degree heat!
Despite all of the above, no, I'm not scared about going into Gaza. I don't see the point in being scared of going somewhere where PEOPLE LIVE. I'd be far more scared going to the bottom of the ocean. People live in Gaza, let's not forget that, they lead day to day lives like you and I, or at least, that's the intention. The following is not a wholly accurate comparison, because Cuba and Peru (where I lived for 1 year and 3.5 years respectively) were not war-zones of course, but in both those places there were often huge challenges with simple day to day living (blackouts, no water, strikes, heavy-handed policy, curfews, bureaucracy...), and yet, PEOPLE LIVE. They get up, kiss their partners, have breakfast, go to work or school or university, see their friends, come home, cook something to eat, spend time with their families... sounds familiar doesn't it. You see what I'm getting at.
So, what will I be doing in Gaza?
The adventure that I'm embarking on tomorrow is a 5-day pre-accelerator bootcamp: an intensive week of mentoring and coaching for all the teams who have been selected to take part in the Gaza Sky Geeks 5-month accelerator programme.
You can read more about the accelerator programme and the cohort of mentors here. I highly recommend clicking through as it will show you that this is no hodge-podge arrangement, this is a seriously well organised and ambitious programme. It's a real honour to be taking part, and I'm so chuffed I was accepted as one of seven international coaches / mentors. Check out their bios on the accelerator page - I'm in seriously impressive company, not least because the wonderful Elizabeth Shassere is one of them! An American by birth, but most definitely a Brit-by-adoption (she's lived in the UK for over 20 years!), Elizabeth is the founder and CEO of Textocracy, one of the shining lights of tech-for-good in the North of England.
Help us out!
Turns out going to Gaza ain't all that cheap. I just bought my travel insurance to cover me from today until I leave (so, basically the 5 days of the bootcamp plus travel) and for those 7 days it was £70. Excess baggage so that I could bring out donations was around £50. Our accommodation in Gaza is £60 a night, and then there are meals to pay for on top of that... oh, and my flight was a cool £800! Elizabeth and I set up a fundraising page to help cover both our costs, and we've been so grateful for the considerable support that we've received so far - whether that's cash donations or things to bring out here. I've never fundraised before, but having worked with volunteers, I do know the considerable value that they can bring to an organisation's work (I blogged about this). Elizabeth is taking valuable time away from her startup while she's here, and I'm using up my Tech North holiday days (I hear a small violin...) so we are definitely committed (well, we're already here...) so, although it might seem a bit weird to be requesting donations for a trip to a war zone, if you are so inclined, please know that your donations really do help us out! Here's the page again: gofundme.com/gaza-sky-geeks.
Ok I really better get some sleep, it's 12:45am here, and we're getting picked up at 6:30am sharp... I'll aim to post daily updates!