This wasn’t 12-year-old Ibrahim Hammad’s first war, but his parents said it was the first war he’ll remember. The youngest of five children, Ibrahim was born in Gaza and has never left. Outside of narrow exceptions, Gaza residents are unable to leave the 140-square-mile territory. Ibrahim has Down syndrome, and his disability is apparently not worthy of an exception. There are therapies and services outside Gaza that Ibrahim cannot access.
I’d never met Ibrahim before we spoke last week, but his face was familiar to me. Down syndrome is one of the most common intellectual and developmental disabilities. His round face and almond-shaped eyes are characteristic of the condition. He looks very much like my friends’ children, siblings, uncles, and aunts with Down syndrome. When we spoke, his hair was freshly cut and combed, parted the same way as his father’s. He loves to imitate his father, a professor at Al Aqsa University Palestine named Abd Al Qader Hammad. Sometimes, Ibrahim will go on Zoom and even pretend to give university lectures. When Ibrahim smiled at me and waved, I couldn’t help but smile and wave back.
I spoke with Ibrahim and his father the first morning of the cease-fire, their words translated from Arabic to English by Ibrahim’s cousin, Nour. Like many people with Down syndrome, Ibrahim struggles with speech, but he excitedly listed his friends for me—Hussein, Karam, and Nabeel—and told me he loves video games. His favorite is a multiplayer battle royale called PUBG. When he grows up, he said he wants to be a professor just like his father, or perhaps a movie director or a businessman. “Obviously this is not yet possible in Palestine, but you never know what the future will look like,” Hammad told me.
Almost everywhere Hammad goes, Ibrahim goes, too—to parks, to the university, to weddings. “Everyone in Gaza knows Ibrahim well.… I refuse to see anyone looking down on Ibrahim just because he’s a child with Down syndrome,” Hammad said. He noted that his attitude is still uncommon: “Unfortunately, the society is not yet accepting of people with disabilities and people with special needs as a normal part of the community.”
Beyond stigma, it is difficult to get adequate medical treatment and disability support in Gaza, according to a 2020 report from Human Rights Watch. Bombs destroyed or damaged 17 hospitals and clinics and interrupted the already strangled importation of medical supplies. Health spending is significantly lower in Gaza than in Israel, and there are few specialists. It is difficult to provide relief work. One NGO I spoke with was worried that if they helped me find a source, they might be prevented from entering Gaza, where they provide some disability services. “Gaza lacks people who are specialized in treating and helping people with Down syndrome,” Hammad said with his arm slung over Ibrahim’s shoulder. Ibrahim watched him speak, occasionally smiling or sticking out his tongue.
Ibrahim’s parents pay for home schooling. It’s expensive for the family and a completely unaffordable option for most families in Gaza. Ibrahim receives some speech therapy as well as a “Palestinian curriculum” in Arabic, English, and other academic subjects. When we spoke, Ibrahim had not seen any of his tutors or therapists in weeks. “That stopped because of the war,” explained Hammad.
Another change from the war: nightly bombings. For 11 days, Israel bombed Gaza, leveling buildings and killing more than 200 Palestinians, including a disabled man in a wheelchair, his pregnant wife, and their 3-year-old child. The explosions terrified Ibrahim. “He went through so many panic attacks so many times. We did not know how to calm them,” Hammad told me. “He couldn’t breathe through the panic attacks.” At first, in an attempt to soothe him, Hammad told Ibrahim that the bombs were fireworks. But Ibrahim knew better and understood that their lives were in danger. “The bombing was so heavy that the house was shaking all the time, and it felt so many times that the house might actually collapse on our heads,” Hammad said. During one attack, Ibrahim clung to his mother’s legs and cried, “I don’t want to live here anymore, I don’t want to live here anymore.”
Hammad called doctors in Europe and the Palestinian territories for help. “We tried playing very loud music through headphones to distract [Ibrahim] from what was going on,” following their advice, “but unfortunately it did not work all the time.” The last night of bombing before the cease-fire was the worst, according to Hammad: “I think that we would have lost him that last night if the bombing went on for another minute, because he couldn’t take it.” Hammad gripped his son tighter, and Ibrahim was no longer smiling.
“All of my family were born in Gaza,” Hammad told me, “but my father and mother were born in Ni’ilya.” Ni’ilya is one of the many Palestinian villages destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948, during what Palestinians call the Nakba, or the Catastrophe. During the Nakba, Israeli soldiers razed hundreds of Palestinian villages, so their former residents would have nothing to go back to. Approximately 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes. The land where Ni’ilya once stood has since been subsumed by the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
But after the most recent war, Hammad and his family have been considering what had previously been unthinkable: Leaving Palestine behind. It isn’t clear if or how long the cease-fire will hold, and nothing about the final status of Israel and Palestine has changed. The region is no closer to peace. Israel will likely drop bombs on Gaza again, and Hamas will keep launching rockets. Ibrahim’s family aren’t yet certain where they will go. “We are connected to [Palestine]. This is our homeland, in a very emotional way,” Hammad told me, his face serious, “but Ibrahim’s safety comes first.”