I'm a young Palestinian woman who lives in Gaza alone. Until August, I was not been able to even see my parents for two years. You may wonder why left my parents to travel in the first place. Didn’t I know I’d miss them? Of course! I knew I’d miss them every day, and I do. So why didn’t I visit them, you might ask?
My father is originally a refugee. He is from بئر السبع , now called Beersheba, and was forced to leave his family’s land in 1948 when Israeli soldiers attacked while my grandparents—his mother and father—were comfortably at home, in the house they had built themselves, stone by stone. Yes, they were aware of war for control raging around them, as other Palestinians were pushed from their land to create the new state of Israel. They could hear the explosions. But they had never imagined it would reach them as well. That year now is known as the Nakba (catastrophe). Suddenly, they were expelled, running through the streets with no shelter, food or clothes or than what they wore. Suddenly, there were forced to start a new life in Gaza, hoping that one day they could return to their original land. They never waived their right of return.
When my parents were married, they decided to leave Gaza for the United Arab Emirates because they were convinced by relatives that a bright future awaited them there. They could earn a higher salary and own their own home and car. They could, they figured, return for family visits whenever they felt the urge. Little did they know the sadness of living in a country that isn't yours, with no family surrounding you. So, now you know I was born and raised in the UAE.
In 2017, I was 17 and had just finished my senior year in high school. It was then that I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. University fees are very expensive in the UAE—more than my parents could comfortably afford. So, I decided to return to Gaza, without my parents, since they couldn't risk leaving their jobs. But again, we figured they could visit. We did not know the borders would rarely open and that a permit from the Israeli side was so difficult to get. If my parents had visited for a month visit and then got stuck in Gaza for another month as they waited for their names to show up on the permit list, they would have lost their income security.
This is now my third year in Gaza. I lived my first two years with my brother, who is also a university student, in our parents' old house. The only way I have been able to see them is virtually, through Skype video calls. The first year without my parents was the toughest since I was overly attached to them. I still miss their voices, reassurance and even our quarrels. But mostly, I miss their hugs whenever I want to feel safe and loved. It was particularly hard for my heart to bear when times were tough at school or the Israelis bombed and they weren’t around to comfort me. I miss our small fights and working to make up with a cup of coffee. This had always been my tactic to restore harmony. My parents would forget the argument and would demand to know my secret for such a good brew. Obviously, all I did was follow the tips my mama had taught me herself. But I just said, “It’s made with love, and because I prepare it with love, it tastes better and yummy.”
Living alone at university is what I had dreamt of since a very young age. But I find it difficult to deal with the many challenges I face in Gaza. Every once in a while, there is an Israeli attack, that is the toughest time. There is no one to whom I can escape so I feel safe. In the UAE, Mama makes sure to keep an eye on the news and stays updated with whatever is happening in Gaza, so if there's a chance Israeli soldiers will strike, she informs me. I usually sit with my brother or force myself to sleep, since I have no other escape. Israeli soldiers usually strike at night, when everyone is at their most vulnerable. There is nothing that helps during these times, because nothing can erase the explosions from my mind. I just turn off the lights and pull the curtains closed, because the dim light from my room could make me the next Israeli target.
Last summer, when I finally managed to travel out of Gaza after being rejected more times than I could count, I couldn’t believe my luck. Because everything we do is controlled, I didn’t over- react or get too excited; I kept reminding myself that once I arrived at the Gaza-Egypt border, the authorities might order me to go back home as they frequently do, killing all my dreams and plans. Once I reached the border, a feeling of strangeness and unreality occupied my mind. I was prepared to be refused, but, luckily, I wasn’t. Crossing the border was like a dream becoming reality. I wanted someone to pinch me to assure me that it was real. I was afraid of waking up and returning to my bitter reality.
It was much easier to travel when my family first left Gaza for the UAE. We simply booked tickets, and all that concerned us was arriving at the airport on time without missing our flight. It was a four-hour journey! But this time, the trip to the UAE required 36 hours! Gaza’s only airport was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 2001, so now we have to make it to Cairo over land. The journey was long and mentally and physically tiring. When the plane finally landed in the UAE, I was emotionally drained and tearful.
Every time I think of the moment when I was reunited with my parents, I wonder what made me cry so hard. Was it because we finally could hug? Or was it because I finally felt safe? Or was it because Palestinians are continually struggling and suffering even when they travel, while others can travel just to enjoy and explore different places and make new memories.
People say home is where your loved ones are, and I finally found and reached my home, my family. But I also cried because I recognize that while I had my parents by my side, the UAE is not my country, Palestine. I don’t know when we will finally be able to live together in our own land. This understanding was the reason behind my tears.
Visiting Palestine is difficult, leaving it is even harder, and staying there is nearly impossible. Yet we have no true home other than Palestine.