Jewish humanitarian worker and social entrepreneur under fire in Gaza

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STILL LIVES: A MEMOIR OF GAZA by Marilyn Garson
Mary Egan Publishing, 21 October 2019, paperback, RRP: $35.00

‘In this moving and stunningly eloquent memoir, Marilyn Garson fulfils her promise “to tell what she saw” during her four years in Gaza as a Jewish humanitarian worker and social entrepreneur from New Zealand, living, breathing and suffering with ordinary Gazans . . . Her account is profoundly respectful of Gaza and its people… Anyone who reads her
powerful and compassionate narrative cannot fail to be changed in some way.’ – Professor Christopher Marshall, Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice, Victoria University of Wellington

From childhood, Marilyn Garson was hard-wired to recognise power and vulnerability. In 1998, she began to work with
families at the edge of conflict and war. Curious, creative and entrepreneurial, Garson worked in Asia and the Middle East,
establishing locally-owned creative and technology social enterprises for excluded communities, including Afghan
women working in their homes, and Cambodians with disabilities.

Garson’s greatest challenge came in 2011, when she was invited to move to the Gaza Strip. Rumour had it that nothing worked behind the Gaza blockade: an irresistible challenge. Garson became the Economic Director of a large NGO programme, leading an ambitious, young team of Palestinian women and men. Behind the walls of a military blockade, Garson found in Gaza a miniature, isolated world. Food insecurity was endemic, electricity sporadic. Gaza had 96% literacy and the world’s highest unemployment. In extraordinary conditions, Gazans also lived in the most ordinary of ways: striving to work, feed their
families and enjoy their leisure time. They also lived with the hope of justice and freedom.

Marilyn Garson’s Still Lives: A Memoir of Gaza gives voice to the Palestinian people of Gaza, revealing  their humanity, grit and enterprise. As Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, says, ‘Few books achieve what this one does: it allows the reader to see Gazans as they see themselves, as ordinary human beings living – not surviving – under extraordinary, unending conditions, an audaciously human society insisting on a future that is continually denied them.’

With family in Israel, Garson thought in the language of human rights. People of equal value faced wildly unequal dangers on either side of the blockade walls. As war approached in 2014, Garson volunteered to join the UN’s emergency response team, which remained inside Gaza to care for those displaced. Garson witnessed firsthand the impact of Israel’s urban assault and massive civilian displacement – the UN was prepared to shelter 35,000 displaced Gazans, but 293,000 arrived. Locked in beneath the bombs, Gazan civilians had no safer place to shelter, and nothing but the UN flag and international law to protect them.
Individuals and the land itself were altered by fifty days of bombardment. But Garson’s team remained determined to push on and launch their social enterprise. On her last day in Gaza, Garson’s final task was to tell her Gazan colleagues that she is a Jew.

Marilyn Garson’s Still Lives: A Memoir of Gaza is a powerful and humane contribution to our understanding of Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She speaks about people, rather than sides. It is also a poignant personal story about how Garson rediscovered her Jewish faith and how her experiences in Gaza challenged her thinking and revealed a truth: that what we give far outweighs what we build.

MARILYN GARSON grew up in Halifax, Canada, the youngest of four sisters. She completed degrees in political science and
philosophy at the University of Toronto, and a Masters in International Development. After completing her studies,
Marilyn travelled the world and immigrated to New Zealand, to Northland’s Hokianga, where she opened a weaving business.
From 1998 to 2015, Marilyn spent most of her time launching social enterprises in Asia and the Middle East, and working with
family businesses to create jobs in communities affected by war. Returning to New Zealand in 2015, Marilyn has spoken
locally and written internationally about Palestine-Israel. She now lives in Wellington.

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