When a large group of cyclists rode into Sultanahmet Square cheering and chanting, they were also crying tears of joy and exhaustion. They had just biked 360 kilometers in three days, starting in Bandirma and ending in Istanbul on October 25th.
Cycling4Gaza, a UK-based group, gathered 33 people from around the world to bike around the Sea of Marmara to raise £200,000 (577,700 TL) for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a UK-based charity that has provided healthcare services and medical training in the Palestinian Territories and refugee camps in Lebanon for more than 30 years.
The course was challenging. Jon Bawn, from Biking in Turkey, mapped out the ride and guided the group. Despite it being the most difficult ride the group has ever participated in, Bawn said, “The overriding feeling was one of pure determination.”
Cycling4Gaza endured the mountainous terrain to raise money for three projects run by MAP: a training programme for midwives and social workers for maternal and child healthcare in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; primary trauma care and non-medic training services in Gaza; and a mission to reduce stillbirths or new-born deaths in Gaza.
“The money that will come in from Cycling4Gaza will go towards training doctors and nurses, it’ll go towards training the community leaders to respond to [trauma],” said Sara Halimah, a program officer for MAP. “I think without the funding from Cycling4Gaza, certain aspects of these projects wouldn’t be able to go ahead.”
Tamara Ben Halim helped found Cycling4Gaza in 2009, shortly after the 2008-2009 Gaza War, or “Operation Cast Lead” as it is known in Israel. The first participants in Cycling4Gaza saw a dire humanitarian need in the strip and biked from London to Paris to raise money for emergency relief.
“It snowballed into something much bigger than we could have ever imagined,” Ben Halim said. “It went from five friends to six, seven, 10 and then we had 27 people ready to get on their bikes and ride the London to Paris challenge.”
Now, having completed its fourth cycle for charity, the ride has become an annual event. Previous challenges in Italy and Jordan were well received, but participants said support was unmatched in Turkey.
“Every single Turkish person I’ve come into contact with about the project has been giving their absolute support,” Bawn said. “There’s a great support for the Palestinian cause generally in Turkey, and an empathy and understanding with what these riders were doing. There was support from everyone — from the police to the hoteliers and people that we met on the way.”
That support, the beautiful scenery through Turkey’s rolling hills and along Marmara’s seaside, and the greater cause pushed the riders to complete the challenge, and they were received in Istanbul with cheers and chants of “Freedom for Palestine.”
Since Israel sealed Gaza’s borders in March 2007, MAP’s operations in the region have become more complicated.
“We recently actually refurbished a unit at Al-Nasser hospital and we are unable to get our beds that we’ve brought – they’re sitting in the West Bank right now,” Halimah said. “We can’t get them through the barrier.”
Halimah said the blockade of Gaza has had a significant impact on health, including mothers, children and pregnant women. Furthermore, some 90 percent of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD because of their living conditions.
“How children are raised in Gaza, not having seen anything other than wars and military occupation, and many of them seeing their family members die in the Gaza War, all has had a huge psychological impact on children,” Halimah said.
These are among the many reasons Cycling4Gaza chose to support MAP and its projects in Gaza and refugee camps. The goal of Cycling4Gaza is to support sustainable and long-term projects that will give Palestinians self-sufficiency under difficult circumstances.
By focusing Cycling4Gaza fundraising efforts on projects that provide training and developing skills, Ben Halim said, they take “vulnerable Palestinian communities who normally always have to rely on some kind of donor or foreign aid, [and] try to use fundraising in a clever way that actually focuses on their independence and self-reliance.”