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U.S. Artists Fly To Gaza To Create Murals About An Unnoticed Part Of The Conflict: Water

In its most ambitious undertaking since launching their Water Writes campaign last March, artists from the Oakland-based Estria Foundation (joined by those from the Olympia-Rafah Mural Project) headed to Gaza last month to paint murals on elementary schools housing water filtration and desalinization units, and publicize its need for clean drinking water and upgraded sewage removal.

In its most ambitious undertaking since launching their Water Writes campaign last March, artists from the Oakland-based Estria Foundation (joined by those from the Olympia-Rafah Mural Project) headed to Gaza last month to paint murals on elementary schools housing water filtration and desalinization units, and publicize its need for clean drinking water and upgraded sewage removal.

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“We brought little backpacks of clothes and giant suitcases full of spray paints and art supplies, and left everything [there],” says Nancy Hernandez, Estria’s Water Writes Mural Series Coordinator. “The local artists couldn’t believe the amount of colors we brought. They’d gotten so good with the limited colors and brands they had there.”

Estria empowers disadvantaged children and illuminates critical human and environmental issues through education, art projects, and community events around the globe. Its interest in Gaza sprang from findings from Ewash.org, a Gaza-based water rights advocacy group: well damage from the ongoing conflict with Israel, a 90 to 95% water contamination rate, and a 30% underconsumption of the World Health Organization’s recommended daily water use.

On this trip, the nine visiting artists conducted children’s art therapy workshops, where they listened to their views about water, then turned those ideas into images. They then spent the next week painting 10 murals–some as large as 1,000 square feet–with the help of dozens of children, local artists, teachers, and community members.

On this trip, the nine visiting artists conducted children’s art therapy workshops, where they listened to their views about water, then turned those ideas into images. They then spent the next week painting 10 murals–some as large as 1,000 square feet–with the help of dozens of children, local artists, teachers, and community members.

On this trip, the nine visiting artists conducted children’s art therapy workshops, where they listened to their views about water, then turned those ideas into images. They then spent the next week painting 10 murals–some as large as 1,000 square feet–with the help of dozens of children, local artists, teachers, and community members.

“When you ask American kids about the significance of water in their lives, they talk about water slides and swimming pools,“ says Hernandez. “In Gaza, they talk about water tanks on tops of houses that don’t have running water, and sewage being pumped into the sea where fisherman catch food. Kids were concerned. They drew pictures of fish in sewage water.”

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The artists’ choice of where to paint the murals–as well as what to paint–further highlighted the message about Gaza’s water situation. “The desalinization units were the community’s response to the lack of access to clean water,” says Hernandez. “Israel has denied Gaza permits to import the necessary supplies to update their sewage plants, so they don’t have the capacity to manage their amount of sewage. We wanted to paint a symbolic barrier around them, and to call attention to the issue, the conditions of the people, and creating a solution with their own hands.“

According to the Israel Ministry of Justice, Gaza is responsible for maintaining its own water supply and sewage systems. “Israel’s position is that it allows humanitarian supplies and supplies for economic infrastructure to go to Gaza as long as they cannot be used to build weapons to attack Israeli civilians,” says Alan Elsner, executive director, Americas, of The Israel Project, an Israel advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “Our organization has counted 472 missiles and rockets fired in this year from Gaza into Southern Israel.” An Israeli Ministry of Defense memo noted that, between August 18 and 21–despite Gaza-based terror organizations firing 147 missiles and rockets into Israel–Israel allowed 80 truckloads of food and construction supplies into Gaza.

Meanwhile, the artist’s mission came close to aborting. Although they had applied for permits nearly a half-year earlier, the artists had to spend two days at the Israeli military facility’s Erez Crossing checkpoint at the north end of Gaza waiting for final approval. The two main coordinators were never able to obtain permission, so the remaining nine went alone.

Once in Gaza, they worked alongside Mona El-Farra, a physician and director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance Maia Project, which raised money for the water filtration systems, and representatives from the Afaq Jadeeda (New Horizons) Association, which offer creative workshops for children. “People feel empowered by the project,” El-Farra said in a press release. “It is a strong durable bridge of solidarity that will encourage resiliency.

The artists were consistently reminded of ongoing danger. Last week’s shelling of a Popular Resistance Committees home was in Rafah, one of the towns in which the artists painted. “One time, I was able to count 55 battleships out at sea from my hotel window,” says Jaime “Vyal” Reyes, a Los Angeles graffiti artist. “Another night, I heard bombs going off in the distance. I looked out of my window and could hear the explosions, but couldn’t see anything. Amazingly, people in the streets were just going about their business. There were even a couple of weddings going on. The next day, we found out that Israel had bombed a Hamas training center.

”The people we worked with definitely understood we were out of our comfort zone and facing risks, and didn’t have to be there,“ he adds. “They really went out of their way to make us feel appreciated and loved.”

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Not to mention invisible hazards. Hernandez contracted giardia from the drinking water. “At least I can go to the doctor and have access to medicine,” she says. “There, it’s a constant thing.”

Like Estria’s other mural projects in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Philippines, and El Salvador, Hernandez, hoped the Gaza children would translate their experience into a feeling of accomplishment and solidarity, and the artists, a stronger empathy with a challenged community.

“For most citizens, the TV news reports from the rest of the planet can seem like statistics,” says Hernandez. “We’ve now built relationships with these people and seen them in their day-to-day lives. The murals are a reminder that they’re on our minds. They symbolize the process of people collectively working on something that’s not just about one person’s artwork, but a collaboration of local and international artists striving to create something bigger than any one of us can do on our own.”