How local organizers for Palestine are holding onto hope

click to enlarge Protestors face off with pro-Palestine signs and an Israel flag.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
An Israel supporter chants back at Palestine supporters during a protest held by the SJP on Jan. 24, 2024. An IDF soldier was speaking near Pitt's campus.
In 1948, Karim Alshurafa’s father had to grab what he could carry and flee his home. His family lived in Beersheba, and Israeli soldiers were occupying the city. They traveled on foot to a nearby town, not knowing that they would never return home, and that this was the start of the Nabka, and their own displacement.

“They were truly fearing for their life and didn't know where to go at that point,” Alshurafa tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “Ultimately, they got their hands on some grain to feed the family and to continue their pilgrimage, essentially, to Gaza.”

On the way there, Alshurafa’s father lost his three-year-old brother to illness. “They didn't have any medical supplies. They didn't have access to doctors,” he shares.

Alshurafa was born in Gaza, and has lived in Pittsburgh for eleven years working as an engineer. He tells his family’s story at local demonstrations for Palestine. Much of his family is still in Gaza, and he says that he is able to contact them sporadically, but only those who have obtained an Egyptian SIM card.

“They have to be close enough to the Rafah border, which is the very southernmost part of Gaza, to catch a communication tower from Egypt, in order to communicate with us,” he shares. “The situation is very dire, especially in the north of Gaza, because there's been tremendous destruction in the center strip. It’s basically isolated people from the north and the south.”

Over twenty of Alshurafa’s family members have been killed since the Israeli bombardment began.

“Most people, when you lose an uncle or a grandfather or an aunt or a cousin, you’ll get condolence letters, stay at your home, spend time with family, maybe go to a funeral. It gives you an opportunity to grieve over those situations,” Alshurafa says. “Palestinians are not given that luxury. They're not given that opportunity. They're not given that time for grieving.”

Alshurafa shares that he does not particularly like speaking in public, but he wants Pittsburghers to hear from a local Palestinian. “There's a sense of responsibility that kind of overcame my fear,” he says. “A sense of duty to try to educate as much as possible, and provide a second side to the story — the Palestinian side of the story.”

He says that interacting with the community has given him hope. “It’s incredible how many people are starting to realize what's going on, and how many people feel passionately about helping,” he remarks.

click to enlarge Protestors in masks hold a banner with names and sign proclaiming a pro-Palestine and Lebanon stance
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Palestine supporters protest on the grounds of the University of Pittsburgh on March 29, 2024.
Alshurafa is joined at many protests by Pittsburgh’s Jewish Voice for Peace, the Pittsburgh Palestine Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine, a chapter that formed on Pitt’s campus.

Alexandra Weiner, a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Voice for Peace, grew up in the Tree of Life Synagogue. She says that her relationship with her faith has been marked by both her visit to Israel and the 2018 attack on Tree of Life.

“I don't think anyone can go to Palestine and not come away changed,” she says. “Seeing the border wall around the West Bank, and Israelis can drive through and go on either side of the wall and drive on the roads and Palestinians can't without passing through checkpoints.”

“And then, of course, a few months after I got back from Israel, there was the shooting at Tree of Life,” she recalls. “I had a hard time going to Tree of Life for a long time after that.”

For the past six months, she has been planning demonstrations with JVP Pittsburgh as well as organizing anti-Zionist Shabbat dinners. She says that there is a strong overlap between the anti-Zionist Jewish community and the queer Jewish community.

“So finding that community has been really so beautiful,” she remarks.

Weiner is trans, and Oct. 7 is the same day she started hormone therapy. She says her transition has been a source of strength during an intense time.

“My transition journey is really intertwined with my Palestine activism journey,” she tells City Paper. “And I’m really fortunate for that, in that, I’m able to channel so much of the joy that I’ve had from transitioning, and so much of the optimism and hope, into my work.”

click to enlarge A person with long hair covered by a bike helmet mounts a Palestinian flag to their seatpost tube
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A protester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza fastens a Palestine flag to their bike before riding through Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, and the Strip District on Feb. 10, 2024.
JVP Pittsburgh is currently focused on protests to call for a permanent ceasefire, arms embargo, and immediate aid into Gaza, and is working to inform the public about Pennsylvania’s investment in Israel bonds. The group has multiple committees, including a messaging committee, direct action committee and a mental health committee.

Weiner says the mental health committee is important, “to make sure that we have time and space to talk about the events happening, and their effect on us, as people.” She explains that caring for one another is essential in organizing work, in order to sustain their efforts in the long-term.

“A ceasefire is what we need, but a ceasefire is not going to be the end of our organizing,” she says.

Maria Zarour is a co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine on Pitt’s campus. Being Algerian, she says her own country’s struggle has called her to action. “There's nothing that I'd rather be doing,” she remarks.

Since the fall semester, SJP has organized across the city and even traveled to Harrisburg, collaborating frequently with other local groups and activists. One of their recent demonstrations with JVP Pittsburgh took place on March 5, and garnered a crowd of nearly a thousand. The group marched through Downtown, stopping several times at buildings like BNY Mellon Center to bring attention to corporate involvement in the siege on Gaza.

Judy Kanafani, a Palestinian American and the group’s co-president, says she’s been encouraged by the turnout. “It’s good to see people who aren't being directly affected by this still take time out of their day and their work to come help us protest,” she shares.

“There’s actually been a couple protests where the weather's been really bad. And it was freezing and raining, and there were still a lot of people there.”

The student group has also been fundraising for families in Gaza through banquets and art sales. Zarour says that, after reaching out to the community, she came home to find her porch filled with donated art.

“Local artists here in Pittsburgh came together and made stuff for free and just dropped it off on our porch for us to sell,” she shares. “There's so many people that are willing to support in any way possible.” She believes it's a testament to how anyone’s talents and abilities can be used to help the cause.

SJP, in conjunction with Pitt’s Muslim Student Association, has raised over $50,000 for Islamic Relief USA.

click to enlarge People lie in an intersection with signs and Palestinian flags.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Pro-Palestine protestors block the intersection of Forbes Ave. and Bigelow Blvd. on the University of Pittsburgh's campus on March 29, 2024.
But these successes haven’t come easily. The student group says that they’ve dealt with hostility from Pitt administration while attempting to organize. “They’ve made it pretty clear that we're a problem group for them,” says SJP board member Alex Phillips.

Elyanna Sharbaji, the group’s vice president, is involved with other clubs on campus. She says that SJP is treated differently, even just when trying to reserve rooms for meetings.

“I wanted to book a room for my other club, and it only took like two minutes. And then an hour later I called again, to book a room for our club, and that's when they started asking me so many questions,” Sharbaji explains. “They put me on hold like two or three times, and then their supervisor was asking more questions.”

Regardless, SJP says they’ll continue their work in the community, and they urge others to join them. “Everyone is always welcome at all our events and all of our protests,” Zarour shares. “Show up, keep posting about Palestine, don't stop talking about Palestine. Never normalize the genocide that is going on.”