Migrating through seven different countries in pursuit of a safe, and hopefully lasting, new home sounds like a daunting task. And Umm Mohammad, a Palestinian mother who wandered through that very journey, would agree. Her story hits close to home for millions of Palestinians who have not been able to return home for generations.
Her story begins with her birth in a Gulf country, where her Palestinian family had migrated in the early sixties. Having been raised in the Gulf, she led a prosperous life and she met her husband, a Palestinian migrant from the Gaza strip, along the way.
Everything seemed like it could not have been going any more smoothly, until she and her family were forced to witness the Gulf War of 1990-1991. “Most of the people living in our building had fled the country, leaving us with the company of only a few neighbors,” she says. “We taped our apartment windows to protect ourselves from potential bullets coming our way and stayed in the basement where we took shelter on the most difficult days.”
Following the war, Umm Mohammad’s family was forced to relocate, as her husband was not able to renew his residence visa due to the political tensions surrounding Palestinians at that time. It was only then that she decided to emigrate to a Western country, in hopes that she and her family would go back to leading normal, emotionally healthy lives. However, to avoid staying illegally in the Gulf, they first moved to the only country that provided them with residence visas at that time under certain conditions: Bulgaria, where they stayed for almost a year.
But she could not get too comfortable too soon, and that was the lesson Umm Mohammad had to learn repeatedly in her journey. “My father-in-law called my husband and informed us that he received a letter from the immigration service of a North American country, stating that they wanted to interview us to complete the immigration process. However, our lawyer at the time advised us to conduct the interview in Tel Aviv and that was our next big step.”
“You, but not your kids”
By any standards, travelling to another country for an interview with an embassy seems fraught enough, but in the case of the Umm Mohammad, it was nearly impossible. Neither her Palestinian husband nor her four children had passports. All they had at the time was a Palestinian identification document also known as a “Wathiqa,” notorious for conveying that as a Palestinian, you are essentially a nobody, and therefore you deserve to be hampered in your movements to most countries around the globe.
She was the only member of her Palestinian family with a passport. This further complicated her journey to Tel Aviv as she had great difficulty in her transit through several countries where she alone would be given clearance to enter, but her children, who only held Palestinian Wathiqas, were not.
“Why do you think we wanted to move to the West?”, she asked. “Because we were being helped by no one. Imagine asking a pregnant mother to abandon her four children at an airport purely because of their identity. My oldest was only seven years old.”
Having to pull connections
Since being human was not enough of a reason to grant exhausted Umm Mohammad and her little ones a straightforward path to the Tel Aviv embassy interview, she used personal connections as a means of gaining clear entry into several countries despite her children’s lack of a “recognizable identity” (and travel documents), leading them back to Palestine.
“We finally got into Gaza after that, and I was so relieved. My husband was already there as he passed from Bulgaria through Egypt and into Gaza long before we arrived. The whole situation was just so complex that it felt like we were drowning in the middle of the ocean gasping for air. Crossing into Tel Aviv from Gaza, we finally got to the interview!” Despite her optimism, little did Umm Mohammad know that her journey to the West would need far more endurance than she had originally anticipated, as her father-in-law was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. This unfortunate circumstance propelled Umm Mohammad’s husband to stay with his father in Gaza as the older man was transferred to and from treatment in Tel Aviv (which was possible for Palestinians in Gaza at that time, decades ago). Umm Mohammad left for Jordan with her children, obtaining temporary two-year valid passports for her family, again only through connections.
Her story continues to grow lonelier as she describes her struggles as a mother living in another country without her partner by her side. “In Amman, I gave birth to my fifth child, a beautiful daughter who I had to raise along with four others, all alone. There was not a single piece of criticism I did not hear during my stay there. Many of my relatives were angered by the notion that I had to endure all this, but I always responded with, “If my husband is not righteous in his treatment of his father, then his treatment of me will not be righteous. And besides, I have Allah, Exalted and Glorified is He, by my side. That is all I ever needed really.”
Almost a year later, her father-in-law passed away, and while caring for her children all alone was hard enough, Umm Mohammad did not hesitate in sharing the weight of her husband’s loss upon their reunion in Jordan. It was only later that year that they finally received approval to emigrate to the West, and for the first time, found themselves reunited and travelling as one family unit.
However, Umm Mohammad’s story takes an unexpected turn only four years after their immigration. Despite finding a new home and obtaining citizenship and passports from their new country in the West, her husband could not find a job in his field and thus had to settle for precarious work. This led to their decision to move back to the Middle East where he could potentially find better career opportunities with the family’s newly found and more importantly, recognizable, nationality.
While this move seemed like a good idea, Umm Mohammad’s children suffered as they were severely culture shocked. “My kids were suffering from a loss of identity. Moving to and from environments of different cultures and languages was not easy on them. A year later, we booked our flights back on September 13, 2001, and shipped all our furniture. But the events of September 11, 2001, caused all flights to North America to be cancelled, and we took it as a sign to stay in the Middle East.”
Ever since, Umm Mohammad and her family have been safely residing in the Middle East with their Western passports providing them with the freedom of movement and security of residence every human being should have the right to enjoy. But the significance of these rights continues to be overshadowed by the family’s longing for return, as Umm Mohammad is reminded when, over twenty years later, she wakes up to her husband singing old Palestinian songs late at night.