A story of hope and a telescope

Palestinian astrophysicist and NASA researcher Suleiman Baraka lifts the gaze of Gaza's children.

gaza stargazing 311 (photo credit: AP)
gaza stargazing 311
(photo credit: AP)
Suleiman Baraka's journey could be measured in light years: the eldest of 14 children of a butcher, he rose from humble beginnings in violence-wracked Gaza to become an astrophysicist, space weather expert and researcher for NASA, the US space agency.
Now, at 45, he is back home with a new mission: to teach kids to look up from their blockaded, beaten-down surroundings and into the limitless beauty of the universe.
He has procured the first known telescope in Gaza, a donation from the International Astronomical Union, and plans to introduce astronomy in Gaza's three universities. He also dreams of building an observatory and a geomagnetic research station.
It seems very ambitious for a territory that has been under lockdown byIsrael and Egypt for nearly four years, but Baraka is stubbornlyoptimistic. In a region torn by political and religious conflict, helooks at what people have in common, not what sets them apart.
"There is a beautiful universe for everybody — no borders, no fences, no wall," he said in an interview.
Baraka kept his faith even after he lost his 11-year-old son, Ibrahim, during Israel's war on Hamas more than a year ago.
Barakawas at Virginia Tech at the time, two months into a yearlong researchgrant from NASA and the National Science Foundation, while his wife andfour children stayed behind in his hometown of Khan Yunis in southernGaza.
On Dec. 29, 2008, an Israeli warplane bombed the Barakafamily home. Ibrahim was hospitalized in Egypt, his skull broken.Baraka flew to Egypt from the United States, praying. He cried at hisson's bedside. Ibrahim never regained consciousness and died a weekafter the bombing — one of about 1,400 Palestinians killed in athree-week offensive aimed at ending years of rocket fire from Gaza onIsraeli cities.
Baraka was barred from entering Gaza while thewar was going on, and missed his son's funeral. With nowhere else togo, he flew back to the United States to complete his research year.
In October he returned to Gaza with a new mission, to get children excited about space and to honor his son's memory.
Onthe evening of March 12 he held his first "star party." Wearing a NASAcap, he set up the telescope in the courtyard of his son's school inKhan Younis and attracted three dozen pupils, mostly boys but also afew girls in head scarves, and some parents and teachers.
A few adults demanded to know whether space science was compatible with Islam. Baraka won their trust by quoting from the Quran.
Then the children stepped up to the telescope.
"Thisis something beautiful," said Abdullah Majaideh, 14, after gazingheavenward. "I never expected to look into the telescope and see theoutside world."
Baraka said he was moved to tears.
Experiencingthe vastness of space is a rare treat for Gazans who face barrierswherever they turn. The 360-square-kilometer strip is one of theworld's most densely populated areas with 1.5 million people, sealed byfences, walls and the Israeli navy.
Contact with the outsideworld is sporadic. Baraka invited a retired NASA astronaut, JeffreyHoffman, and the head of International Astronomical Union, BobWilliams, to Gaza, but because of the uncertainties of entering theterritory they limited their January visit to the West Bank, the otherPalestinian territory.
Baraka's fascination with space began inmiddle school. He said he grew up in a family that treasured learning,even though his parents had little formal education. All but two of hissiblings went to college.
After studying physics he went intopolitics, spent two years in an Israeli prison for belonging to athen-outlawed organization, the mainstream Fatah, and later heldPalestinian government positions. But after peace efforts collapsed in2000, he returned to academia.
He earned his master's in physicsfrom Gaza's Islamic University, a doctorate from the Paris Institute ofAstrophysics and, following a brief return to Gaza, was hired byVirginia Tech on a yearlong grant.
Baraka, his wife and three surviving children now live in a sparselyfurnished apartment piled high with books, across the street from theirflattened home.
He said he is not sure why the house was hit. His relatives had leftthe building for safety but Ibrahim and his grandmother were near thehouse when the bomb struck, he said.
He tries to pursue his research but misses the daily exchanges with his peers and faces frequent blockade-related power outages.
Baraka said his greatest satisfaction would be to inspire young people,including the university students in an astronomy class he hopes toteach next fall.
"I will show them the way," he said, "as I have been shown the way before."