Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

The dilemma of the exile (Chapter 1)

Khaled Al-Ostath | 07-09-2019


With the children in my "Reading Stars of Gaza" group

No one has the luxury of deciding when to travel; you wait prepared to travel whenever the border is open, which could be today, tomorrow or next week or three, four months from now.—Izzeldin Abuelaish, “I Shall Not Hate”

At a table for four at my university campus in Turkey, I met with some fellow students for a post-class discussion about summer plans. One of my colleagues at Istanbul Aydin University, where we both are pursuing a graduate degree in English language and literature, asked if I would visit my family in Gaza during the break.

“You have three months off. You can spend some time with them,” he pointed out.

I smiled, but inside it hurt.

I am from the Gaza Strip. I was born in a densely packed refugee camp in the southern part of our small territory. Most people “outside” don’t understand what is really going on in Gaza or what it means to be Gazan.

“I would love to, but I can’t,” I said. Then I tried to explain.

The gulag that is Gaza

Since Israel seized control of Gaza in 1967, the Strip has rightfully earned the title of “the world’s largest open-air prison.” There are only two routes people can try to travel into and out of Gaza: Israel’s Erez crossing and Egypt’s Rafah gate—both of which look like military fortresses with their checkpoints, fences, surveillance cameras and armed soldiers. Government permits are required for transit, and trying to get one (especially if you are a Palestinian trying to leave or an international attempting to enter) is sort of like playing the lottery.

The crossing out of Gaza into Israel

Don’t even think about traveling by boat or airplane instead. Israel has not allowed construction of a seaport; in fact, the Israeli navy opens fire at any fisherman who approaches the arbitrary limit (which varies, by whim, from three to 12 nautical miles). In 2010, when a ship of foreigners—part of the “Freedom Flotilla”—tried to sail into Gaza, Israeli soldiers killed 10 of them. As for flight, there was a brief period, 1998-2000, when an airport actually existed in Gaza, but Israel demolished it after the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 and has not allowed it to be rebuilt.

How does one become one of the lucky few permitted to walk out of Gaza? Israel has imposed a restrictive permitting system that allows us to cross for only for very specific reasons (medical treatment, trade-related meetings, religious pilgrimages or study abroad) and even then, rejection is common. Traveling for vacation is simply not allowed.

Moreover, Palestinians from Gaza are not typically allowed to stay in Israel or the West Bank, and Israel’s Ben Gurion airport is off limits. That means we must go instead to Amman, Jordan, and fly to their ultimate destination from there. But to do that, another permit must be sought, from Jordan—which often is denied unless you can find the right person to bribe. Even Gazans’ own government makes leaving difficult, requiring a permit to exit and restricting the number approved.

So, is leaving via Egypt easier? For the average Gazan, no. Egypt’s government closes the crossing for days or even weeks at a time, and when it is open, an exorbitant bribe (a “coordination fee”) is typically required if you can’t afford to wait indefinitely.

The tortuous journey to D.C.

Consider the situation I faced a couple of years ago: I was accepted into a summer internship in Washington, D.C., with a program called New Story Leadership, which brings Palestinians and Israelis together to share their personal narratives with each other, members of Congress, etc. My “project for change,” required for acceptance into the program, was called Reading Stars of Gaza, an English literacy class for orphaned children. My team and I taught the children the English alphabet and simple reading and writing. But the first year I tried to leave, Jordan turned down my permit request three times. I tried to leave through Egypt, but the border was closed, and Hamas and Egypt each required a $2,000 bribe to set me free.

I asked my friend, somewhat rhetorically, “Do you know how that felt?” For me, it was a devastatingly deep depression. It drug me into a pit and never let go. No matter how much others tried to help me—how strong or how long a rope I was thrown—something I would plummet back down. I cycled in and out of the hospital when the stress seemed to close off my ability to breathe.

Me and my New Story Leadership friends in the UN building

Nevertheless, I tried again the following year. Fortunately, and unlike many scholarships, the internship was still available. This time, I got the necessary permits—but only after many people made calls, wrote letters and prayed. My departure even required the intervention of the office of U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland, home of the woman who was my We Are Not Numbers mentor and would become my host mother. I had to obtain four permits: from Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (which governs the West Bank) and Hamas. Each entity had its own political agenda; by the time I left, I had completed 10 applications to try to travel. Finally, on June 22, 2017, I left Gaza and Palestine for my internship in D.C., where I interned at a progressive theater company.

Turkey is no refuge

When I lived in Gaza, I thought that being "outside" would automatically make everything easier. But the life of an exile is anything but. After the internship was over, my visa was about to expire, so I had to leave the United States. Turkey was the only alternative home I could find that would allow me in; Palestinians, it seems, wanted hardly anywhere.

Fellow students in Istanbul

Still, I thought Turkey would be a welcoming home for a few years, one where I could pursue a graduate degree in peace. Instead, I found another country riddled with racism and discrimination against Arabs, including—despite the rhetoric of President Recep Erdogan—Palestinians.    

It has been two years since I left my home in Gaza. I miss my family and friends more than I know how to express. But if I return, would I be able to leave again? I’ve heard of people who go back to Gaza and then are “stuck.” Sometimes my family talks about trying to visit me abroad, but would they be able to get visas? No country seems to welcome Palestinians these days. And my family could never afford the bribes.

I don’t know when I will be able to see my family again—maybe after five, 10 or 20 years? I have no idea. Seeing others travel to their home countries to see their families leaves me with a gnawing pain where my heart should be.

In my daydreams, I often see my little brother, who is still sure I will be back soon. I imagine family and friends going in and out of our apartment, excited to welcome me after the years abroad. I see my parents’ tears of happiness. And then I snap back to reality. Will I ever feel at home again?

Posted: September 6, 2019

Mentor: Zeina Azzam

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