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

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

Journey to freedom

Haneen Abo Soad | 19-04-2019

My new view from my new life.

Growing up in Gaza—a very conservative, traditional community, in large part due to the isolation imposed by the Israeli blockade—I didn’t have the opportunity to discover or explore my femininity. I got married at the age of 19 to the first man I had ever spent any time with (as is the custom in Islamic societies). I almost immediately found myself giving birth to two children; there was no time to figure out how to still be me as well as wife and mother.

Suddenly, I was required to ask permission before doing anything, and if my husband or an older family member said no, that was it. No means no. My mother told me, “You have to get along; there is nothing we can do to change things.”

Nevertheless, I have a strong spirit. I thought, “Why must I fit in? Why do I have to obey? Why must I do what I do not want to do? Why must I dress how others, instead of myself, like to see me?”

I escaped into dance—in my apartment, behind closed doors—as a way to express myself.  I would sing to make my own music and sway to the tunes that spoke to my soul. I also continued writing, seeking to further develop the English I first started to learn when I was 16. I longed for the freedom to voice my opinion, even when I was afraid to speak it. 

My husband sent this photo of Azoz (left) celebrating his birthday with Nana.

I was a mother too young, but the experience watered the seeds of love and compassion inside—seeds I in turn planted in my children as I raised them. Gaza may be an inhumane place, but I wanted them to know what it meant to be humane.

I hung on to the belief that a new day would come that would infuse me with its energy; I was certain, despite the many other women who advised me to “adapt to my place in life,” that I would find a way to achieve my freedom. Instead of giving in to the darkness when the electricity was out, I lit candles. Even as I was isolated in my home day after day, I donned my favorite dress, which my husband did not like, and dabbed on perfume and powerful, red lipstick. I played music loud on the radio and danced around my prayer rug. When I finished my “ritual,” I covered my hair with my hijab and kneeled to pray. I asked God for a change, to break the invisible chains that bound me.

I realized in that moment that I did not want and could not accept this life. I heard my own voice inside, after being silenced for years. My inner voice nagged me to make the change I wanted. To stop waiting and hoping. I knew what that meant: I had to leave Gaza—to make a better home for me, and my children. But how? It’s “impossible,” was the chorus.

Yet small miracles can happen, and they are often triggered by tiny ripples. The first ripple came when I participated in an event in which Palestinians in Gaza (including me) talked online to peace activists in Israel at the border with Gaza. I made two new friends through that exchange. And they alerted me to an opportunity with an organization in Portugal that was seeking Arabic-English translators to help with its work with refugees. I applied and was accepted. With the help of my cousin, I persuaded my husband Ahmed to agree. The experience and skills, I argued, would allow me to get a good job when I returned. But inside, I knew what I really hoped–to create a better life someplace else, not only for me but for our children.

Armed with the invitation letter and with the financial help of other friends, I paid the necessary “coordination fee” (bribe) to cross out of Gaza into Egypt and made it to Cairo. There, more friends helped me pay another bribe (which Egypt seems to operate on) to get the residency status I needed to apply for a Portuguese visa. Finally, I boarded a plane and arrived. It was all a blur and seemed unreal.

My challenges didn’t end there, however. My original sponsoring organization turned out not to be ready to host me or give me work. I had very little money. I could have ended up begging. But a nearby community, what Americans would call a “commune,” took me in. The 200 or so residents are working to build what they hope will be a “post-capitalist” world and they made me feel at home and secure.

And now? My short-term goal is to get a work permit, while I earn a bit of income by teaching Arabic online. My long-term goal is to bring my two children to join me, along with Ahmed. That has been one of the surprising results of the inner growth possible thanks to this journey. Ahmed has supported me as I made it to each stage; he has grown to share my vision for a better life. He has taken good care of Azoz and Nana as their sole parent in my absence. The respect I had not felt before has taken root, and—increasingly—I see him as my partner.

There is a price, of course. I miss my children with a pain that shades every experience, robbing it of the pleasure it otherwise would have brought me. But I have a dream of us all being together in a place where we can be safe and support ourselves comfortably. It is for that I strive.

Meanwhile, I call regularly and write to them every once in a while, so they can understand when they are older my reasons for leaving—as their mother and as a woman.

As Rumi once wrote, “Woman is created from the light of God; she is not just a beloved one or a creature, she is creativity itself.”

Posted: April 18, 2019

Mentor: Pam Bailey

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