Sixteen-year-old Meryem Abu-Matar cannot thank Turkey enough. The Palestinian girl, who was shot by Israeli soldiers during an anti-occupation rally in the Gaza Strip, is one of the dozens of people who are receiving treatment in Turkey with the support of the government and aid agencies such as Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH).
"If I did not come to Turkey, my leg would have been cut off in Gaza due to the medical shortages," she said.
Meryem was shot in her left leg on March 30 while taking part in a rally in the Gaza Strip with her 12-year-old sister. "I was targeted [by Israeli soldiers], as I was holding a Palestinian flag on the frontline and I was an active activist." She was taken to medics for treatment by another demonstrator, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers shortly after returning to the rally.
"I was shocked in the first minutes after I was shot," said Meryem, whose father was killed by Israeli soldiers when she was only three years old. "I was feeling both a pain in my leg and also happiness over the possibility of being a martyr," she added.
For Meryem, being shot by Israeli soldiers was not something unexpected. "I thought that I might be shot there, but I did not know that Israeli soldiers were such revengeful people towards us and want to make us suffer that much. I've witnessed it up close."
In addition to her father, some of her relatives have also been killed by Israeli soldiers within the last decade. Since the Gaza rallies began on March 30, more than 150 Palestinian protesters have been martyred and thousands more injured by Israeli army troops deployed along the other side of the buffer zone.
Meryem is lucky, as many other Gazans could not receive proper treatment. Through the support of İHH, she was brought to Istanbul in April. "As you know, health conditions are very limited in Gaza," said her mother, Nasreen Abu Matar. "We have good doctors but not enough means for treatment. A miracle was needed to regain her health in Gaza."
Around 35 people who suffered leg injuries at the same demonstration were forced undergo amputations as they could not receive sufficient treatment, according to her mother.
Meryem has undergone 43 phases of surgery so far, said İHH officials. When she came to Istanbul, her condition was critical, her mother said. "One of the veins in her leg had nearly been severed." Meryem can now move about with the aid of a walker. Five days ago, she took a few steps for the first time by herself. "I cannot describe my feelings. They are beyond words. I was very happy when I took the first step," she said.
She is expected to move without any support within a year, according to Dr. Mehmet Veli Karaaltın, her surgeon, who described her wound as "severe."
Meryem said she is glad to be in Turkey. "I am very good since I am here in Turkey, both psychologically and physically. The treatment process is going very well. There has been a substantial recovery," she said. Meryem's dream is to study in Turkey and to become an engineer after making a full recovery.
"When I return to Gaza, I want to do something beneficial. I don't want to cry when I get there. What I want to do is to wipe away tears of Gazans."
The Gaza Strip, home to nearly 2 million Palestinians, has been reeling under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007. Palestinians demand an end to Israel's 11-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has gutted the coastal enclave's economy and deprived its inhabitants of many basic commodities.