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Immersive exhibit puts Gazan living conditions into perspective

The traveling exhibit presented interactive activities, a memorial wall and a personal testimony

<p>As they emerged from the last station, some wept, stood in silence or held each other in mourning.&nbsp;</p>

As they emerged from the last station, some wept, stood in silence or held each other in mourning. 

More than one hundred visitors gathered in Newcomb Hall Saturday evening to attend “Spotlight on Gaza,” an immersive exhibit brought to the University by the Virginia-based dawah organization, The G3nerations. Open to the public, the exhibit presented attendees with tactile, visual and auditory displays meant to illuminate the current living conditions in Gaza.

The exhibit honored the “pain and suffering experienced by Palestinians” in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. On Oct. 7, Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing about 1,200 people and capturing about 240 hostages. Israel responded with a formal declaration of war, prompting its military to lay siege to the Gaza Strip. As of Jan. 26, the death toll in Gaza had exceeded 26,000 people.

The G3nerations hosted the exhibit in collaboration with the Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, a Charlottesville mosque. In small groups, attendees were led through a fifteen-minute tour consisting of six stations — “Identification,” “Displacement,” “Deprivation,” “Memorial Wall,” “Sounds of Gaza” and “Personal Testimony.” Each station was operated by two MSA student volunteers, who introduced an activity related to the station’s topic and provided information on the perspective of Palestinians in Gaza.

Abdullah Jamil, founder of The G3nerations and “Spotlight on Gaza,” said he designed the exhibit to make information more impactful, particularly for people who may feel detached from online media.

“My goal with this exhibit is to connect people to certain situations in a different way,” Jamil said. “I have information, but what do I do with it? How do I live by it? How can I connect people with it by their hearts, not just by their ears?”

Jamil explained that when Palestine came under global scrutiny following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, he sought to curb the spread of misinformation about Gaza. He and his colleagues launched the exhibit to give a voice to those in Gaza who cannot speak for themselves.

“After October 7, a lot of Muslims and even non-Muslims woke up,” Jamil said. “They started seeing the facts. They started reading a little bit more.”

Working with the nonprofit organization Islamic Relief USA, Jamil brought the exhibit to mosques in Northern Virginia and schools in West Virginia before coming to Grounds. According to Jamil, the University is the fourth institution to host the exhibit.

At Saturday’s event, no food and drink were allowed inside to call attention to Israel’s cutting off of food and water into Gaza. Upon entering, attendees could hold out their hands to be stamped — a reflection of how Palestinian families have inked children’s skin so their bodies may be identified if they die. At the following stations, attendees were given the opportunity to experience the weight of a displaced person’s belongings, the sight of unsafe water, a memorial with pictures of the deceased, an audio recording of violent noises and a University student’s testimony about life in the West Bank. A trigger warning was given before the audio recording, and attendees were free to leave the exhibit at any time.

According to Kaukab Rizvi, MSA president and fourth-year College student, one objective of the exhibit was to educate students who may not feel personally affected by the Israel-Hamas war or who may not be directly involved in student activism surrounding the war.

“There's only so much you can learn from a book or a statistic,” Rizvi said. “Actually getting to visualize things and hear the sounds and feel the feelings, even if it's the smallest bit of what's happening in Gaza right now — that's the purpose of the event. As people disconnected from the crisis, we hope that students understand what exactly is happening.”

The exhibit appeared to have its intended effect, moving many attendees. As they emerged from the last station, some wept, stood in silence or held each other in mourning. Adam Barghouti, a visitor not affiliated with the University, said the exhibit simultaneously sobered and energized him.

“It's a very somber experience,” Barghouti said. “It’s a fraction of the pain that the people in Gaza are experiencing. But it’s a good way of challenging the status quo.”

“Spotlight on Gaza” also allowed Barghouti to gauge other people’s reception to the Israel-Hamas war. Witnessing University students’ interest in learning about Gaza, he said he foresees the exhibit building momentum in the near future.

“Not just for the Palestinian cause, but for Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and anywhere in the world where there is oppression — this is the litmus test,” Barghouti said. 

For some students, the exhibit already sheds light on other populations engaged in global conflicts. Third-year Commerce student Razan Elhag described how the sounds and visuals of the exhibit, while dedicated to the loss of Palestinian lives, reminded her of her firsthand experiences in Sudan.

“I just started crying because all the videos and pictures and sounds — everything that I've been watching for the past years — came back to me in full force,” Elhag said. “And we have the luxury to say, ‘Well, I cried about it’ and move on. But they don't [in Gaza]. They don't have the luxury to just turn it off.”

For Elhag, “Spotlight on Gaza” demonstrated the importance of remaining educated on global matters. She urged others to attend events like the exhibit, emphasizing a need to look past societal divisions and towards a common sense of humanity.

“We might be different colors, different religions, different tongues, different languages, but we're all human,” Elhag said. “We all have human empathy.”

Attendees left the exhibit clutching papers from the “Memorial Wall” station. According to Jamil, each paper contains the name, picture and story of one of the Palestinian dead — a memento for people to keep in their thoughts and prayers.

As the exhibit is also slated for presentation in Tennessee and Kentucky, Jamil expressed hope that his message will spread to a larger audience. 

“I want to reach a broader spectrum and see people of different faiths walk in,” Jamil said. “It is not a Muslim issue. It is an issue of humanity.”

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