When I met Islam Barbar in a Gaza restaurant in 2012 while on a human rights mission, I was impressed with her cheerful demeanor but taken aback by the hopelessness that she felt. Although Barbar was publishing media reports, running her own media training center and active in women's rights issues, the one place that she was dreaming to go to was the occupied West Bank. Not only had she not visited other parts of Palestine, but at 26 years old she had never left the besieged Gaza strip. The report that the International Press Institute issued after our visit stressed the need for freedom of movement between Gaza and both the West Bank and Israel.
For my part, I succeeded in getting Islam to Cairo in 2013 to attend the Aswatona community radio conference that I was involved in. The attending radio practitioners exchanged ideas of how to set up, manage, and fund a community-based station. A popular idea discussed was to start with an online station and then to move into the FM sphere. Energized by the potential of being involved in broadcasting, Islam returned to Gaza, and set her sight on creating a radio station that can focus on women's issues.
Within a year she was able to secure a small grant from the UK-based Community Media Solutions, through Qarya Media Institute, a Palestinian NGO which also gave her technical support. Nissagaza.com was launched on April 30, 2014 out of her Gaza city media center with local women's organizations and women activists and local leaders from all walks attending. Islam was most excited on launch day with a musical jingle that was created for the new women's station by a male supporter. She uses this story and the presence of men and women at her station to drive home the idea that gender issues are not the exclusivity of women.
Barbar who comes from a progressive family in the Jabalya area north of Gaza started to spend extensive hours in the studio/office. Volunteers had to be trained, radio programs had to be supervised, and modest sponsorships had to be found. She felt she had to train the women in technical and journalistic skills as well as raise their awareness about basic social challenges. Within months of going on air, the station was buzzing with people and ideas. In record time she and the station became known, plaques and other certificates of appreciation adorned her office and studio. Program ideas, calls for cooperation and partnership ideas started flowing.
Fourteen separate radio programs mostly produced and presented by volunteers were aired this summer's Ramadan season. While the broadcast was still online, she was pleasantly surprised to see the numbers of active listeners go up. "Initially when a program reach 500 listeners I celebrated." Since then our two leading programs haki sabaia (girls talk) and dunia nisaa (the world of women) had reached 2,000 listeners" she said. Reactions on social media was also exciting and uplifting. The station was written up by major Arab newspapers as a Gaza women's success story.
The biggest complaint she was receiving came from listeners who wanted the station to broadcast on FM so that others can also enjoy the programming and the music which she personally supervised. Haki sabai which Islam was presenting included four young women who would chat about day to day issues of concern to younger Palestinians. Dunai Nisaa was geared to a slightly older generation and dealt with issues such as honor killing, violence at home and divorce.
During Ramadan, one of the popular episodes dealt with the nervousness that Palestinian men exhibit because of the long fasting hours. Research about divorce had produced an interesting fact. Khula' the right of women to divorce their husbands was apparently possible in Gaza, although few women knew that they had that right. and fewer actually used it.
NisaaGaza never had a chance to inform their audience of this important discovery.
On Monday August 25th Islam worked till 7 pm. Before leaving , she supervised a medical program presented by a medical nutritionist Dr Mohammad Hamodeh who along with two women announcers Hiba Zaqout and Isra Baba tried to provide health tips to their radio audience. She also followed up with one of her colleagues about the report that would be broadcast on Dunia Nisaa the following day informing Gaza women that they have the right to khula (divorce) if they choose to use it.
Back at home, Islam followed the news that Palestinians in high tower buildings like the one she worked in have been evacuated following calls from the Israelis that their building is targeted. Everyone knew that the war on Gaza was about to be over and it was clear Israel wanted to improve its negotiating hands. Islam was worried about the evacuation of her building but figured that this was a precautionary move and that if anything a specific office might be hit.
Islam wasn't worried; her radio station was not political and is unlikely to be the target.
The entire 13-story Basha building was the target. At 4 a.m. Israel fighters delivered high explosives that brought the tower structure down turning it into rubble.
Islam was devastated.
Islam visited the rubble site and tried in vain to find any of the remains of her dream. Not a microphone, not a paper and not any of the awards and plaques that were given to the young station. Islam participated in a few protests but for weeks was in depression.
But Islam's hopes have been revived when friends and colleagues met together and have started a crowd funding effort using the indiegogo application with the hope of raising enough funds to go back on air. This time, Islam, says her dream is to go directly to broadcasting in FM. In the meantime, Islam's other dream is to visit the West Bank, even for a few days still has not been reached.