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Rockford group hopes poetry may stir hearts towards an end to Israel-Hamas war

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People have marched across the country and the world calling for a ceasefire since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. One Rockford group is trying another approach in their call for an end to the conflict.

“If I must die, you must live to tell my story, to sell my things, to buy a piece of cloth, and some string, make it white with a long tail so that a child somewhere in Gaza while looking heaven in the eye . . .”

The poem being recited was written by renown Palestinian poet, and academic Refaat Alareer.

Folks listened to it as part of the Palestinian poetry night and art exhibit held at Inscape Collective. The event paid tribute to the poet whose writings focused on the experiences of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Alareer was 44 years old when he was killed by an Israeli military airstrike in December, alongside his brother, sister, and nieces.

“As a poet, myself, as a writer, as a progressive Jew, I think it's really, really, important to be present in these spaces,” said Rockford Poet Laureate Jenna Goldsmith, the event’s featured guest.

Nearly 60 people of all ages and backgrounds gathered at the Rockford venue.

“When we think about war, and we think about occupation, and we think about violence, we think about the most kind of vulnerable people, in populations, women and children,” Goldsmith said. “But we also think about artists, those who are willing to speak truth to power.”

She read several poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American writer.

Folks read work from other well-known Palestinian poets , as well as original pieces.

One of the night’s poets tried earnestly to reach the mic until an adult lowered the stand.

Semir is 10 years old and in fifth grade.

“And I can kind of, you know, think of what would happen if I was them,” he said.

For another poet, the war is very personal. Ahmed Elqattawi is from Gaza and lives in DeKalb where he’s earning his master's degree at Northern Illinois University.

“And I have a family back home,” Elqattawi said, “and during this genocide, I wrote a poem entitled ‘Don't ignore me.’”

He said the situation for his family as for many Palestinians is dire.

“They're running out of food and losing weight,” he said. “They don't have clean access to water so sometimes my brother goes outside of his home to risk his life and try to bring some water back home.”

He said his father does the same - he risks his life when he leaves their home to search for flour to make bread.

According to the UN, a quarter of the population is starving. over half of the population has been displaced, and have little access to food, shelter, and clean water.

More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began of which a majority are women and children, according to reports.

Rockford for Palestine hosted the event. The organization has held protests throughout the area calling for a ceasefire and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

“We want this current escalation in violence to end,” said Magda Mohamed, one of the group’s organizers. “We want to put an end to our tax dollars being used to fund these crimes against humanity,”

The US provides over three billion dollars in military aid to Israel annually. This doesn’t include additional funding provided to the country since October.

She said while the group has marched and chanted, they hope to reach people who may have tuned out.

“I think as Americans,” Mohamed said, “we are so numb to hearing about violence, whether it's school shootings, or another war in the Middle East or the violence of a pandemic or people not having access to health care, we're numb to hearing about death and hearing those big numbers that I think that we sometimes we too easily look away.”

But she believes art is a remedy.

“I think poetry and art is something that pierces through our numbness,” she said, “and breaks our hearts back open again.”

The website Literary Hub estimates that 13 poets and writers have been killed in Gaza since October.

In addition, the International Federation of Journalists has identified nearly 100 journalists that have been killed while reporting on the Israel-Hamas war. (web only) According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists have been killed in the conflict than have been killed in another conflict in a single country during a year time span.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.