Peterborough to Gaza: How a chance talk led to a 30-year friendship

In 1990, Canadian artist Heather Spears met a paramedic-in-training in East Jerusalem — sparking a relationship that would help shape a community
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Jun 17, 2021
On October 15, 1990, Heather Spears drew Said, who has a degree in physiotherapy, as he tended to a patient. (Used with permission of Spears’s family)

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In 1989, Heather Spears travelled to Palestine to draw children who’d been injured in the First Intifada. Over six weeks, the Canadian artist and writer made hundreds of drawings. They were eventually smuggled out of the region by a diplomat and became the exhibition Drawn From the Fire. In 1990, Spears returned to the region, this time intending to draw Israeli soldiers, but she soon witnessed an event that changed her purpose. 

On October 8, 1990, Israeli security forces shot and killed at least 17 Palestinians and wounded at least 150 more at a holy site known to Muslims as Al-Aqsa compound and to Jews as the Temple Mount. Palestinians injured more than 20 Israelis, according to the United Nations Security Council. At Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, Spears watched as the casualties were brought in. She drew everything she saw. Later that day, she crossed paths with a young man covered in blood. A paramedic-in-training, the man had rushed to the site to help collect and tend to the wounded. Spears asked whether they could talk. That conversation gave rise to a friendship that would continue for more than three decades. 

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“Heather was more than a mother to us,” says Said, 56, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, in a phone interview in late May from Gaza City. (He spoke both in English and, through a translator, in Arabic.) “There’s not a moment of my life that she is not aware of.”

four line drawings of wounded people
“I found my way down to the basement corridors and drew among the wounded,” Spears wrote in 2018, of her experience on October 8. “Sometimes I had to help – hold an IV – or get out of the way.” (Heather Spears’s blog. Used with the permission of her family.)

At first, the pair communicated by letter, then later, by Skype, email, and phone. When she could, Spears sent packages, and followed along as Said married and as he and his wife welcomed eight children. For more than a decade, Spears and several of her friends have found ways to send funds regularly to Said’s family — becoming, in some ways, their family abroad. 

Spears would also share their message with the world, Said says. Every year, Spears returned to Canada from Denmark, where she’d lived since the 1960s, to do readings — of such poems as “The Word for Sand,” which won a 1989 Governor General’s Award. Sometimes people would picket them, calling Spears an anti-Semite, recalls Spears’s long-time friend Margaret Slavin, an 82-year-old activist, writer, and clerk at the Quaker meeting in Peterborough. “She knew that she wasn’t,” Slavin says. Married into a Jewish family, Spears had considered herself “pro-Zionist” until she met Palestinian refugees in Denmark in 1987. Toward the end of her life, Spears told Slavin that she no longer saw herself as “neutral.” By witnessing what she had, Spears had “lost her objectivity — she didn't lose her love of Judaism or her family,” Slavin says.

Slavin is responsible for many of the logistical details of the fundraising. Through a “family-to-family” campaign, a core group of supporters take turns making contributions and raise additional funds through a GoFundMe page. Each month, Slavin sends the funds from a dedicated account at a Peterborough credit union. About 9,000 kilometres away, in Gaza, the funds go towards food, water, clothes, school supplies, and health-care-related expenses.  

Last month, Slavin took to the group’s GoFundMe to share a difficult update: Spears had died. She was 86 years old and left behind four children. 

“Some of you donate partly because you appreciate [Spears’s] 86 years in this world,” Slavin wrote. “We hope you still will, if this family survives the current terrible attacks. They need us.” 

photo of a standing man and seated woman in a restaurant
Said’s experience on October 8 became a part of a paperback book Spears published called "Massacre."  (Courtesy of Said.)

On May 10, a war began between Israel and Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since seizing power in 2007 (and which Canada lists as a terrorist organization). Hamas’s military wing, which said it was responding to Israel’s actions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem — where some 300 Palestinians are facing court-ordered removal from their homes — and “harassment” of Palestinians at Al-Aqsa Mosque, fired rockets into Israel. Israel fired back, destroying, among other things, the Hanadi Tower in Gaza City. Over the next 11 days, Israel Defense Forces killed around 245 Gazans, including 63 children, and, according to the U.N., destroyed or damaged more than 450 buildings, including six hospitals, nine health-care centres, and a desalination plant. Hamas killed 12 people in Israel, including two children

“It’s very bad and scary,” Said wrote in an email to Slavin on the second day of the bombardments. “[The] shelling continues. [The] kids are crying … This is my first time [it’s] ever been like this.” 

On May 14, Said sent Slavin an email listing recent news stories about Gaza — as he usually does. “I am glad to receive this because it shows you are still alive,” she wrote back. Two days later, she wrote to him: “Today, there were demonstrations all across Canada in support of Palestinians ... many friends are writing to me and asking whether I have heard from you.” 

“It was murder in the streets,” Said tells TVO.org. “There was no mercy for a human or a stone in this last war.” Rockets would drop for 40 minutes at a time, he said, and could be heard throughout the entire district. 

drawing of a young person in bed
Heather Spears specialized in drawing children and babies. She often asked her subjects to write on her drawings. According to a translation on Spears’s website, this drawing of Adil reads: “An intifada victim. I was shot in the abdomen and they removed my spleen and one kidney.” (Courtesy of Lesley Morrison.)

After the May 21 ceasefire, Said took his 14-year-old daughter for a walk in their neighbourhood. There was not a street where at least one or two homes had not been destroyed, he says. “We started crying, just seeing all the destruction,” he says. As they walked, his daughter, who suffers from severe mental illness, grew panicked, pointing to the obliterated homes of neighbours whom she knew were not affiliated with Hamas. And the ceasefire is fragile, Said says: “At any time, there might be another war.” (On Wednesday, Israel resumed air strikes in Gaza, following Hamas launching “incendiary balloons” into Israel, the Washington Post reports.)

Adding to the destruction, mounds of garbage are piling up everywhere, and water is in short supply, Said says. “Imagine, today that it is 37 degrees in Gaza and you cannot, as a human, have a glass of cold water to drink. There is no water,” he says. (According to B'Tselem, 97 per cent of Gaza’s supply is unsafe to drink.) “You can’t even take a shower because the prices of water have gone up because the electricity isn't working.”

Lately, they’ve been getting two hours of electricity every two days, which is worse than usual shortages, Said says. (In recent years, Gazans have often had as little as four hours of electricity per day). “Imagine that you have two children with mental-health issues and it’s always dark — all you can do is light a candle,” he says. “We are completely cut off from the world.” 

Before May, Israel had conducted what Human Rights Watch calls “three large-scale military offensives” in Gaza since 2008, in the context of hostilities with armed Palestinian groups. The most recent was in 2014, during which 1,462 Gazan civilians, including 551 children, and six civilians in Israel were killed, according to Amnesty International. (The recurring disparity in deaths between the two is, in part, a result of Israel having a formal military with highly-sophisticated weaponry, which Hamas does not have, and defensive infrastructure, such as an anti-missile system, which Gaza does not have.) 

woman holds two signs reading "wage" and "justice"
Margaret Slavin, the clerk for the Peterborough Monthly Meeting, says that Quakers, who are also known as the Religious Society of Friends, are concerned with “listening to one another and finding common ground.” (Courtesy of Margaret Slavin)

In 2008, Slavin wrote her first email to Said. At the time, Spears had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and Slavin was wondering what she could do to help her friend. “Why don’t we write to that family in Palestine?” she recalls thinking. “I sat myself down and said, just a minute, let’s look at how big Gaza is,” Slavin says. “It is from where I am sitting here [in Peterborough] to Lindsay … I began to understand why it’s called the ‘world’s largest outdoor prison.’” 

Not long after, Slavin and several other supporters organized a fundraising event to help Said purchase a small house in Gaza. They hosted a Palestinian dinner in a church basement — their local Quaker meeting paid for the food — and 90 people came. “I know there is support here, even though we are in a conservative kind of a community,” Slavin says.  “And it includes an enormous amount of concern about the all the trauma that is left over from the Holocaust.”

Slavin also set up a structure to collect regular donations: among a core group of supporters, each member contributes $200 USD on a rotating basis. Of the group, which now numbers 12, nine members live in Peterborough, one is in Ottawa, and two are in the U.S. Half are Quakers. The system was set up so that, if any member died, “it would be one person to replace instead of the whole thing capsizing,” Slavin says. Someone local has already volunteered to take Spears’s spot. Slavin — or Hallie Appel, another core supporter — remain in contact with Said nearly every day.

Five years ago, the group launched a GoFundMe, which became necessary as Said’s family grew, but it was also meant to help them develop an income stream. Funds were raised to buy a donkey and a cart, which one of Said’s sons used to sell fruits and vegetables. Last year, the cart and donkey were destroyed in an accidental explosion in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp. “We feel very sorry for ourselves and other people[’s] loss. Love you all,” Said wrote at the time. (In the past month, the page has raised $700, including donations from a retired Unitarian minister in Peterborough and a retired Trent University professor.)

four drawings showing injured people
“I was at the hospital when the dead were brought in. I watched the shouting and mourning,” Spears wrote of October 8, 1990. (Heather Spears’s blog. Used with the permission of her family.)

With its economy hamstrung by the longstanding Israeli blockade, 80 per cent of Gazans rely on humanitarian aid, and the unemployment rate hovers around 50 per cent. Despite two bachelor’s degrees, Said has been unable to get a job; in Gaza, doing so often requires being affiliated with Hamas, he says, and he isn’t and doesn’t wish to be. Following the recent bombardments, funds will likely go toward housing expenses, Slavin says. Over the years, however, much of the money has gone toward health care: medication for Said, a neck surgery for Said’s sister, and mental-health care for his 14-year-old daughter. 

“There’s no truly public health care system in the Gaza Strip,” says Tarek Loubani, an emergency physician at the London Health Sciences Centre, who normally spends several months a year working in Gaza at al-Shifa Hospital. Families can buy insurance and get care in the public system, but delays mean that many people opt to pay at private clinics. “Where does that leave the patients in Gaza right now? I think the most realistic description is: without a medical-care system,” Loubani says. “We can do the most basic surgeries, we can do the most simple treatments, and we can reverse the smallest illnesses, but if somebody has a kidney problem and they need dialysis, they're probably going to die.”

The primary barrier to providing health care in Gaza is the blockade, Loubani says. Since 2007, Israel has controlled the entry of all goods into Gaza and blocked items that it considers “dual-use” — as in, potentially useful for offensive purposes. Medical supplies routinely get delayed for months or years and are kept in poor storage conditions while awaiting entry, Loubani says. 

Said’s daughter has lived through four wars. She has developed schizophrenia and has auditory and visual hallucinations. “She is in very bad condition after the last war,” Said says. “A lot of times, she will tear her clothes. She has attempted suicide so many times.” 

Because there’s not a pediatric psychiatric hospital in Gaza, Said says, they’ve needed to leave the strip to get treatment for her. To be permitted to leave, however, Gazans must acquire a permit from Israel (unless crossing into Egypt); 66 per cent of patient permit applications were approved in March 2021, according to the World Health Organization. Two years ago, Said and his daughter received permits to go to Jerusalem for her care, but his wife’s application was denied. 

woman in headscarf standing in front of rows of art
In March 2020, Spears’s work was exhibited at My Beautiful Gallery in Rungsted Kyst, Denmark. (Aline Talatinian/Facebook)

In Gaza, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t fit the experience of many, because their trauma is continuous, explains Mohammed Shaheen, former dean of Al-Quds University’s Faculty of Public Health in Jerusalem, who researches Palestinian adolescent health. “There is no sense of peace and or sense of security inside.”

Shaheen has also studied the benefits on children of a Palestinian program that provides money directly to impoverished families. “[Families said] it gives us some hope, something to rely on,” Shaheen says. “Cash is really important for very needy, severely needy families who really have no income — so they can manage in a creative way how to use this money for their own survival,” he says. Within the world of international aid, the practice of providing financial support directly to families, known as cash transfers, is becoming increasingly common. And a growing body of evidence is showing that it’s highly cost effective — more so than in-kind aid

But for Said, the Canadians’ support, particularly from Spears, was far more than financial. “Heather used to be with me on the smallest details of my life,” he says. “When I heard that she was sick, I just wanted to get out of Gaza and go sit by her side. After I heard that she had passed away, I spent two days crying because I felt like an orphan.”

With translation by Serene Husni, a founding member of Dalaala, an English-Arabic translation collective.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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