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Cori Bush’s Gazan SOTU Guest: Congress Is “Complicit in the Murder of My Family”

Intimaa Salama attended the State of the Union while mourning for 35 family members killed by Israel in Gaza.

Rep. Cori Bush holds a press conference with other representatives in front of the Capitol to call for a ceasefire and end to the Israeli attacks on Palestine in Washington, D.C., on February 29, 2024.

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Intimaa Salama, a 27-year-old dentist from Gaza, attended last week’s State of the Union address at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Cori Bush. Though she said she felt honored to join Bush in demanding an immediate and permanent ceasefire and full restoration of funding for humanitarian assistance through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), she said she’s now clear she’ll never go to another State of the Union.

Salama will graduate from St. Louis University’s Master of Public Health program with a focus on global health in just two months. Her plan was to earn her degree and return to Gaza to help build out Palestine’s public health infrastructure. Cholera, starvation, the crisis of amputations and the less visible fallout from Israel’s massive bombing of civilians have only increased the urgency of that project, Salama told Truthout. But she literally has no home to return to, and her family has been decimated by Israel’s war.

Intimaa Salama, in a gray sweatshirt that reads "GAZA", stands in front of a white board upon which many drawings and words are written.
Intimaa Salama, a 27-year-old dentist from Gaza, stands in the lobby of the Center for Global Citizenship at St. Louis University, where she is currently a master’s student, the day after returning from the State of the Union in Washington, D.C.

On October 27, 2023, Israel bombed her extended family’s compound in the Nuseirat refugee camp, the second-most populous camp in the Gaza Strip. The attack leveled the home where 23 family members from three generations had all lived together since her parents built it by hand decades ago. Like so many others from central Gaza, the family then fled south to Rafah. But instead of the safety they’d been assured by Israel, they were carpet bombed with munitions supplied by the U.S.

It fell to her father, who survived the airstrike, to bury 35 family members, including Salama’s grandmother, two of her brothers and their families, and three of her uncles with their families. She doesn’t know if her relatives’ unmarked grave sites can be found again, if she will ever be able to recite the Surah Al-Fatihah prayer at their resting place. With Israel’s invasion of Rafah imminent, Salama’s surviving family members returned to what remains of Nuseirat, where they’re living in tents near their former home. They’ve returned with an infant, Adam, Salama’s newest nephew. Adam was born on the open road where, against all odds, his mother survived a cesarean section without anesthesia and a recovery without painkillers. Unvaccinated and vulnerable, the baby has no birth certificate, while bombs continue to fall on Nuseirat.

Salama’s mother, fearing for her daughter’s safety, did not want her to attend the State of the Union address. At the event, a Capitol guard hassled Salama to remove the kaffiyeh she wears as a headband, a gift from her father from before she left Gaza. Fortunately, a journalist sitting nearby asked the guard to let it go, and he backed down. Salama said she was left with the thought: These people feel free to hurt and dehumanize us in all these different ways.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Intimaa Salama discusses why she attended the State of the Union address, describes her own experience with UNRWA, and articulates the message she wants to share with Western leaders.

Frances Madeson: After everything your family has endured and continues to endure, fate brought you into the same chamber with President Biden, the very person who could stop the killing in a heartbeat. Your restraint and grace under the circumstances are truly moving. What was it about the experience you found most disturbing?

Intimaa Salama: I felt the power the United States has over the Middle East. I felt it. That power the United States has to veto a ceasefire, when it could reach a peaceful solution. It makes me disappointed, makes me ask: Why? It’s not like Biden does not know what is happening, so he’s an accomplice in this genocide. But in so many ways, he makes it worse — a lot worse; you can’t drop aid and weapons at the same time. No kids should have to look up at the sky wondering if this is going to be his death or food for tonight.

And the way it was dropped, they killed five people. And you’ve seen the flour massacre? My people are not just dying from bombs. They’re dying trying to survive.

Why you are spending so much of your tax money on hurting our people when it can solve so many problems for your own people?

The thing that kept coming to my mind was an interview I saw of Joe Biden talking about how much he loves his kids and how much he loves his grandbabies. And that made me think: What if these were your kids in Gaza? What if they were your grandbabies? Would you be okay with them not being healthy? Losing a leg or a hand? Being starved? In constant fear? Would you be OK with them being traumatized?

I’m sure he would not.

So it’s just hard, you know, seeing that nothing is happening, that all these people are being killed and it’s only getting worse.

By getting worse, do you also mean the public health dimensions?

Yes, in my research on heavy metal contamination from human conflicts, specifically military attacks, we see a deterioration of child’s health in terms of fetal development, in terms of cancer, in terms of nutrition and growth.

I’m looking at the silent aftermath of the war and trying to call for action. We always think about the current situation and its human cost, but we often overlook the hidden things that can stay in the soil and sand and water and can affect people in the long run.

At this moment, I’m kind of losing faith in what I’ve been learning, because with a global health concentration, you get to learn a lot about the Geneva Conventions, international human rights laws that were made to protect civilians and to prevent a public global health crisis. But look how the world is turning its back.

Where’s all the big international health care organizations — why aren’t they doing anything to call for a ceasefire? Even in my department, there’s not a single professor talking about what is happening right now, though it’s closely related to what we’re learning.

I understand it in some ways — people are afraid to lose their jobs, but even so, it is a hypocrisy. If you can talk about what happened in Ukraine and assess what health interventions to do, for example, an environmental cleanup after the invasion, but you’re not talking about Gaza because we’re Palestinian, it’s a double standard. One that should scare the world — today it’s happening in Palestine but you never know what can happen next. Even people in the U.S. have to fear the power that Israel has over them.

Why did you and the congresswoman add the restoration of funding for UNRWA to your demands? In what ways is its work important to Gaza’s viability as a functioning society?

I’m a Palestinian refugee because my grandparents were displaced during the 1948 Nakba. With this status, since the day I was born until the moment I left Gaza in 2022, I got all my education and all my health care services from UNRWA for Palestinian refugees.

So I would describe myself as a product of UNRWA, and without its services, I would not be here today, healthy and well-educated. Our literacy rate in Gaza is over 97 percent. Both my parents are UNRWA teachers; they taught for generations, more than 40 years. So when the U.S., knowing how much UNRWA services are a lifeline for us, decided not to fund it based on Israeli lies, they added a layer of suffering to Palestinians.

When you support UNRWA, you’re investing in health, education and future generations.

How are you getting through the days, especially concentrating on your studies?

I’ve always done well in school. So I have to keep it that way.

My family is always on my mind: What are they doing right now? Are they starving? Are they cold? I’m in a constant state of fear. There’s a lot of stress, and you never know what’s coming.

As for my grief, the Palestinian-American community here has been really supportive, really sweet, and they’ve helped me a lot. They’ve become my family here. They make me feel at home.

Some speak Arabic, which helps because sometimes it’s hard to express feelings in English, in a language that is not your language. All my life, English was a side subject, so I still have the language barrier because I don’t know all the precise words.

I spend a lot of time with the Palestinian-American families. It makes me feel safe and comfortable being with people who understand what I’m going through, who connect with me, and who wouldn’t judge me anyhow. Palestinians have strong community bonds — it’s in our way of life, in our identity.

I can tell you it is traumatizing trying to survive a genocide, even from afar. Not just for me, but for all of them too.

Are you buoyed by the demonstrations on behalf of Palestinian life in the U.S.?

It’s beautiful. People are doing everything they can do, all they can think of.

Aaron Bushnell, the person who set himself on fire and said, “Free Palestine…. I’ll no longer be complicit in a genocide.” He was an active member of the Air Force. He deserves to be honored.

Even some Israelis are protesting in the streets, especially after the flour massacre. They know what their government is doing is wrong, that it’s beneath them and an abuse.

Overall, the problem isn’t with the people, it’s with the Western governments who are complicit in this genocide and who remain silent. You don’t have to fight for Gaza or send weapons, but you can pressure the Israeli government with imports and exports, and other economic levers. What are you waiting for?

If magically, the president’s mic had floated up to you in the gallery and you’d had the floor, even for a moment, what might you have said?

I would tell the Congress members: “You’re complicit in the murder of my family. My grandmother Fatima, killed just shy of 75 years old, a science teacher, a wonderful storyteller, the sweetest woman we all loved so much. Her blood is on your hands.”

How many more pictures of mothers burying their children or fathers carrying the remains of their kids in plastic bags do you need to see? How many more children have to hold press conferences in English until you hear the cries of your victims? How many more doctors and nurses have to be shot by IOF [Israel Occupation Forces] snipers before you stop this?

And why, why you are spending so much of your tax money on hurting our people when it can solve so many problems for your own people?

Are you sorry you went?

For me personally, yes. I feel I have to cleanse from being there. But I felt the moral responsibility to be a good representative of my people, to be a voice for the millions in Gaza. So I decided that I needed to be there for them. I needed to be there for my family and for my friends who are being killed and injured and starved.

If I’m ever invited to the State of the Union again, I would never go. What I heard there was so disappointing.

Do you feel pessimistic? Do you feel optimistic?

Pessimistic. If people do not take the right actions, then the world is going to witness a lot more bad things.

Is there room inside that pessimism to dream of having children of your own one day?

Yes, I think that would be beautiful, because it’s nice to have more Palestinians.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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