Matthew Olsen carves two hours out of each day to check in on the Gaza surfing community. They are his friends. He sends messages asking if they’re OK and where they are. While most of his messages have gone unread, sometimes he receives confusing, yet comforting “thumbs up” emojis in return. On rare occasions, he gets status updates and current location. But the condition and whereabouts of his friends, the surfers of Gaza, are still mostly a mystery.
Olsen is the Director of Explore Corps, a non-profit that founded the Gaza Surf Club in 2008. He helped formalize and legitimize a community of surfers that was born in 2007 when Jewish-American surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and Israeli surfer Arthur Rashkovan liaised with Israeli surf companies to donate fourteen boards to Gazan lifeguards. Today, Gaza has an intimate surfing community that is about 30 people spread between two neighborhoods in the north of the territory.
It’s been almost two months since Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack led to the siege and subsequent invasion of Gaza. Olsen, who prior to the war was in frequent, weekly contact with many of the surfers, has received few updates. The news that he does receive he shares on the Instagram account Gaza Surf Club. He worries for his friends stuck in the daily bombardments, particularly those who he hasn’t heard from.
“Everyone I’ve heard from, which is probably five or six people out of about 30 surfers, is all sheltering in the south of Gaza at this point,” Olsen told The Inertia from his home in Washington D.C. “They’re either with family members, sharing the house with 50 other relatives, or in some kind of a shelter, like a U.N. school.”
“We did hear rumors that one family was hit hard,” added Olsen. “But we just don’t know. The first neighborhood that the IDF moved into when they cut off Gaza and came up from the south was where most of the surfers live.”
Olsen is careful not to jump to conclusions. Silence could mean anything, from the best to the worst possible outcomes. Given the sporadic access to electricity to charge phones and barrages of communication from both inside and outside the country, responding to all messages isn’t necessarily a priority for Gazans. Precious cell phone battery is likely being prioritized for finding food, water, and updates on safe routes to travel. Or, as Olsen also mentions, those living displaced under traumatic circumstances may not be willing or ready to share the details of their personal lives.
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In the sporadic moments that Olsen does reach his Gazan contacts, he urges them to move south and shares reputable information of value, such as safe corridors that have opened for travel. According to Olsen, between power outages and conflicting messages on social media and local broadcast stations, it can be challenging for those in Gaza to sift through what is true or false.
Still, Olsen has heard from several of the surfers to assure their relative well-being. But the picture they paint via their updates is bleak. One surfer, whose family was fortunate enough to have the means to rent a two-bedroom house in the south of Gaza, has 64 family members sheltering on every possible inch of the floor. Another surfer, Ali, was away from his wife and two children at the time the war broke out and has been unable to locate them since.
Olsen, whose father was a foreign service officer, grew up all around the world, with a long stint in Israel. It was there in the waves of the Mediterranean where he learned how to surf. One of his father’s assignments was Gaza, thus, as a young teenager, Olsen found himself often crossing the border and connecting with the people there. Olsen also returned to the region in 2003 in a professional setting as a negotiator during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Palestine. As a result, he is well connected to both sides, particularly the surfers, of the polarizing conflict. It’s a fine line to ride as he also checks on his friends in Israel, who also have to hunker down in bomb shelters daily as rockets continue to fly out of Gaza. Olsen also points out that the Israeli surf community has been affected. This month there was a paddle-out in Tel Aviv for several surfers who were killed in the October 7 attacks.
“I’m trying to find the balance between being sensitive to what’s happening, but also reminding people that Gaza is a real community with real people,” said Olsen. “I’m just some dude in Washington. I’ve been to Gaza scores of times, but I’m not there now. So I’ve been trying to be careful. But there are so many people sending us so much content and asking us questions, we figured we need to keep people informed about what’s happening.”
“Also, (much of the news coverage) perpetuates a myth that (Gaza) is some primitive place,” Olsen added. “That doesn’t help people relate to and understand what’s going on there. Gaza is not a hellhole. It’s actually a very nice place.”
The war came at the most inopportune time for the Gaza Surf Club. After COVID hampered much of the momentum the program had previously gained, Olsen was rallying volunteers to travel to Gaza this fall for a relaunch of the club. Since the outbreak of war, those plans have been shelved. For now, surfing is far from the center of attention. Olsen is worried about the well-being and survival of his friends living in the midst of war. He’ll continue to send his daily messages, hoping that someday soon he receives good news.