KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza – Yusuf Tayem is a victim, yet he is ultimately a story of inspiration. In some ways, he's a victim of his environment – both Palestinian rhetoric and Israeli occupation – which encouraged him to throw stones at Israeli soldiers. All the kids did on the way back from school. In America, kids may ride a skateboard home. In Gaza in 2001, kids threw stones.
One day, the stone-throwing turned especially nasty and an Israeli soldier fired back, shooting Yusuf, who was 12 years old at the time, through the neck, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. That's when we first met him – lying in his bed, pale and weak, saying, although I didn't believe him, that he was glad he could make this sacrifice for Palestine.
|VIDEO: Revisiting Yusuf - a young man in Gaza|
That was then. Today, he's also a victim of the Hamas government. He told me that because his family supports secular Fatah, Hamas refused him batteries for his electric wheelchair, although they gave them to their own disabled people.
And that's why Yusuf wasn't able to join the fun at Gaza's border with Egypt, which Hamas fighters blew open a week ago. As many as 700,000 Gazans, half the population, crossed to breathe some freedom, and to go shopping, but Yusuf wasn't among them. He couldn't propel his wheelchair through the sand of the Khan Younis refugee camp.
He's got five wheelchairs, one a donation by an American businessman, another given by a charity organization. They're silver and shiny and very recent models. But Yusuf doesn't have any batteries. So he uses one of his three manual wheelchairs.
His biceps are pumped, but his legs are thin and white. His father took out a tape to measure his calves. He does that often, and tries to persuade Yusuf to get up and try to walk. It is futile. Yusuf has given up on his legs, and doctors have told him it is pointless to try.
But he hasn't given up on life – far from it. Every day, Yusuf, who is now 20 years old, wheels himself across 20 yards of sand and dirt to reach the tarmac road that runs through the refugee camp. There he puts his head down and wheels himself two miles to the university, where he studies sociology. His goal is to get his degree, then go to Cairo for his Masters.
Another goal has been to get married, and he pestered his father for two years. His father, Muhammed, who sets a new standard for parents devoted to their challenged children, set about this latest challenge.
Two months ago he found a bride and Yusuf fulfilled his dream. He and his father proudly showed off the wedding video on the computer. Luckily we visited during one of the few hours when they had electricity in their home. In the video, his friends dance and sing and laugh and hoist him in the air as he clings to his wheelchair. His father smiled with pride as we watched the video.
As his father accompanied us to the street, back to our car, he asked us to visit again, because we made Yusuf smile, and he said that doesn't happen often.