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 people missing from my breakfast table

Ayah Abushammalah | 14-04-2019


From the left: Abdalrahim, Mohammed and Huthayfa, plus Mohammed's wife and daughter

I wake up every morning feeling something is missing. I know what it is: It’s my family and the happiness of knowing we are all together. That sense of togetherness left my life six years ago and I still struggle to accept this change.

That’s when my five older brothers and sisters began leaving Gaza to travel to other countries. We used to eat breakfast together every morning, chatting about the day to come. There is only about a year between each of them, so they are all nearly at the same age. But I am eight years younger than the next oldest, so they are my role models. I used to listen to them discuss their agendas and experiences, including their struggles in college and quarrels with their friends. I stayed silent and just soaked it all in. They seemed so sophisticated and independent! These morning gatherings shaped my personality, teaching me how to deal with whatever life in Gaza threw at me. (I do have one sibling younger than me, a brother named Hamza, age 17. But we are not close to each other because he's not a sociable person, always sitting alone in his room playing games or studying. And thus, I feel lonely.)

My older siblings traveled from Gaza to Canada and other countries after many failed attempts to find jobs at home that could support themselves and also help our family survive. After working so hard at their studies, depression settled in. They felt useless, sitting at home and endlessly chatting with friends on social media.

Mohammed graduated as an industrial engineer. He couldn’t even find work in Gaza as an unpaid trainee. He escaped after “meeting” a Palestinian living in Canada on Facebook. They fell in love and became engaged. I was in high school at the time.

Abdalrahman earned a degree in journalism, but instead ended up working as a cashier in a restaurant. So, a year after Mohammed left, managed to obtain a student visa so he could join his brother in Canada. He sought asylum at the airport.

Huthayfa learned from their experience and traveled as soon as he finished his studies, also arriving in Canada via a student visa—just four months after Abdalrahman. He earned a degree in accounting.

My brothers intentionally chose Canada for their new home because they heard people of all types are respected there, with little racism. There, they can live in peace and freedom, unlike Gaza and our earlier home, the UAE. Gaza lives under the ever-present risk of war and in the UAE, we lived with the prospect that the government could kick us out at any time. Palestinians are not wanted anywhere!

However, my sisters Maryam and Somaya chose Australia. They both married Palestinians from there, and once they moved to their new home, Maryam became a lecturer and Somaya a nurse.

Maryam's two daughters, Reema and Toto. I long to see them!

I want to be with at least one of my siblings so badly, but I'm happy they have found a place where they can develop their potential.

But perhaps I should back up and start at the beginning of the story. My father was born in Gaza, but he too could not find work, so for 25 years he made an income for his growing family in the UAE as an Arabic teacher. When he retired, he decided it was time to return home. He missed his relatives and his country, and the UAE didn’t want us anyway.

It was only a matter of time before his own children began to make the same decision he did as a young adult. The Gaza Strip then and now is a literal open-air prison. Our economy is strangled by the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, contributing to an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent—the highest in the world. Every young person I know wants to emigrate to create a better life. But once they’re gone, Palestinians are afraid to return even for a brief visit. Sure, it's possible to re-enter Gaza, but they risk getting stuck and not being able to leave for months. Consider the case of another We Are Not Numbers writer: Her fiancé had a reliable, well-paying job in the UAE, but after he returned to Gaza so they could marry, they could not leave. They were delayed so long that he lost his job and then his UAE residency permit. They have been stuck in Gaza ever since, often without employment. We live in a melancholy and weird place.

I cope by reading books every day in my quiet room, escaping into another world in their pages while drinking a cup of tea. It’s a source of strength and calm to which I regularly return—although physical books are hard to come by in Gaza, so I have to settle for older books online.

At college, I'm sociable and have a lot of friends. But whenever I try to imagine my future, I feel an inner sadness. In Gaza, there are so few opportunities to earn an income, even if you're very skilled. It's rare nowadays to see graduates immediately find a job—if at all. If they do, it’s typically for a low salary.

I believe in the saying "no pain, no gain," even though in Gaza the truth is more like “all pain, no gain.” Still, I use the words as wallpaper in my room, so when I tire of working hard, they catch my eye and inspire me to keep going. I spend time every day studying for the IELTS, the exam required to prove that my English is good enough to study abroad.

Of course, my parents’ support and affection also make me happy. I love their smiles, warming me as I go to college in the morning. They are my role models and pillars of strength, encouraging me every day to work hard to achieve my dream of following in my brothers’ footsteps. I'm studying English literature because I love language, and writing is such a powerful tool to describe and share the human condition.

One of my favorite novels is "Mornings in Jenin" by Susan Abulhawa. It's hard for me to think of it as a work of fiction because it resonates so much with my own existence. I cried as I lived through both sad and happy moments with the characters; on every page I felt as if I was experiencing my people’s struggle again and again.

Stories like this also give me strength. They remind me that although being a Palestinian, especially in Gaza, means heartbreak, it also makes me a strong person. I have learned from Gaza and am still learning—how to persevere and how to find and see the silver lining. One day I know I will thank God for these lessons.

Meanwhile, before I go to sleep, I often talk with my brothers and sister by Skype or Facebook.  Using video, I try to feel they’re with me even if they are not. Mohammed and Maryam have daughters. That means I have 4 nieces; I talk with them regularly to let them know they have an aunt in Gaza. I believe one day I will travel to see them. This hope is what drives me forward.

Posted: April 13, 2019

Mentor: Deborah Root

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