February 21, 2017
I was at school one day during my sophomore year of high school, when I asked the teacher if I could go to the restroom—only to cross paths in the hallway with my father coming to take me home. I had applied to the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, through which I would get to spend a year in the U.S. with an American host family, and I was anxiously awaiting the decision on my application. When I applied, my father and I had agreed that he would come pick me up early from school if he got news that I was accepted. I had the “American dream,” so getting accepted would be a big deal to me. Seeing my father in the hallway now made me nervous.
He waved and gave me two thumbs up. I stood in shock. “ARE YOU SERIOUS???!”
“Yes!” he said.
Random thoughts occupied my mind on the way home. How big is an airport? Are butterflies in the stomach a real thing when planes take off? How am I going to fit all my stuff in a suitcase? Is America what it looks like in movies? Excitement kept my heart beating quickly. I was waiting on pins and needles for the day I would breathe outside of the open-air prison I had been living in.
August 1, 2017
After what seemed like an endless wait, the time leading up to my departure was finally shrinking to the point that it was running out. Since my acceptance to the program, I had wanted August to come as quickly as possible, but now I wished it had never arrived.
Anyone not born in Gaza may not be familiar with the bizarre travel procedures we have to go through. No airports exist here; we cannot just pull out our suitcases and get on a plane. There are two crossings that take us to either Jordan or Egypt, where we catch our flights. In order to travel through Erez crossing into Jordan, I would need a permit issued by Israel to pass through the occupied lands, as well as a no-objection letter from Jordan. Permits are a daily requirement for all Palestinians in the occupied territories; however, no-objection letters were Jordan’s special treat to Gazans.
Now I realized we only had 12 days for permits to be issued. After all the hard work I had done, the sleepless nights, and the feeling that I was one step closer to my dream, I was not even sure if I was going to make it.
Eight more days passed, with me calling the Gazan supervisor of my exchange program every day, checking if we had our permits yet. Each time, a “No” was all I received. I was at the peak of desperation. My dreams were like sand slipping out of my fingers. I emptied my suitcase after I had spent ages fitting everything in. “It’s over, there is no point of having a suitcase anymore,” I thought to myself.
August 8, 2017
Only five days left, and still nothing. I was lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, when the phone rang; it was my supervisor! A huge smile was on my father’s face as he hung up the phone and said, “Your permits have been issued!”
As the sentence was coming out of his mouth, all feelings of desperation inside me were replaced with rays of hope.
August 13, 2017
The day had finally come. I woke up three hours before we needed to leave; we had a bus to catch that would take us to Erez crossing at the border of Gaza, where we would then continue on into Jordan. I stared at the ceiling, and a storm of random thoughts hit me. They were the same thoughts that hit me when I found out I was accepted, but this time it was different, because it was happening.
I got up, dressed, packed my suitcase and went downstairs to meet my friend who had come to say goodbye for the last time. It was easy to say goodbye because it felt too unreal to believe it was actually happening.
My parents and I hopped in the car, put on seat belts, and headed to Amideast, the place where I would meet my group to catch the bus to the Erez crossing. It was an indescribable feeling looking at everything and knowing I would not be here for the next 10 months; it was my first time traveling and I was overwhelmed by the many new feelings. I made sure we had my passport, ID, permit, and no-objection letter. After we arrived at Amideast, we got on the bus, and headed to Erez.
About half an hour later, we were finally there; a few more miles separated us from the borders between Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories. It was then time to say goodbye to my parents, which I had thought would be an easy process, but turned out not to be. I unexpectedly poured tears while hugging them tightly.
Hours later, after going through seven checkpoints and endless purposeless inspections, we made it out of the Gaza Strip. We did not know at first, until one of the supervisors told us, “Congratulations! You are no longer in Gaza.”
Between Gaza and Jordan, we passed by the parts of occupied Palestine that I had never been allowed to visit. For my entire life up to that point, Gaza was the only part of Palestine I had ever seen. Now, a glance from inside the bus was all we were allowed. To this day, I still remember seeing the road sign to Jerusalem. My greatest wish at the time was for the bus to follow the sign and cross those miles separating me from the city that was dearest to my heart in all the world. To describe the feelings hitting me at that moment would be a complicated task: happiness, anger, belonging, sorrow….
I ignored the people on the bus and tried my best to enjoy the view of my taken-away land.
Later that night, we made it to Jordan. It took us 14 hours of pulling out our suitcases, going through checkpoints, forced stops on the way, and endless paperwork. Ironically, it took us more time to travel from Gaza to Jordan than it took us to fly across the ocean. Our flight to the United States was an hour shorter, just 13 hours in total: 4 hours from Jordan to Frankfurt, and 9 hours from Frankfurt to Washington D.C.
August 18, 2017
A new day in Chicago, Illinois, USA, was a new adventure. The diversity and cultures I was exposed to made me realize that the world is much bigger than Gaza.
On the one hand, I made space inside me for new cultures as I learned about different parts of the world, different types of food, funny accents and words, music and songs and beautiful clothes. This experience evolved my mindset so that I was able to accept cultural variations more easily than I had back home, where I lived in a conservative community.
On the other hand, it was on me to educate people about my background and hometown. Doing presentations, making Palestinian food and teaching Arabic words were things I did very frequently while in Chicago. As fun as it was, I always had a hard time explaining to people where I came from.
Here’s a conversation that happened a countless number of times:
“Oh! You’re an exchange student. That is so interesting. Where are you from?”
“Oh, Pakistan! I have heard of it before.”
“Oh no, it is Palestine.”
“Yes! I know Pakistan!”
“No, no, it is Palestine. P-a-l-e-s-t-i-n-e. Palestine.”
“Oh Palestine!! I’ve never heard of that country before.”
A common misconception was that I was from the country of Gaza. People thought of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Israel as separate but contiguous countries. By correcting this misconception, I taught people that the whole territory of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the1948 territories was the country of Palestine originally; that it all belongs to the Palestinians who always fought, and are still fighting, for it and never gave it up.
Every time I corrected this misconception, I felt victorious!
Going through this experience made me realize fully what it is like to be from Gaza. Fulfilling dreams is not easy anywhere in the world, but in Gaza it takes double the amount of persistence, hard work, patience, and stubbornness. Being born in Gaza means you do not know what giving up is; if we give up, our stories will not be heard, and our dreams will be buried in our bedrooms.