It’s common knowledge that large numbers of Gaza youth dream of emigrating. Except we think of it as “escaping”—as if from prison. What is not as well covered here or elsewhere is what happens afterward—if and when Palestinians manage to make it to what they imagine will be a better place. But, too often, Palestinians are treated like pariahs everywhere they go. My friend Mohammed Shamla learned this firsthand:
Mohammed, 25, lived in Nuseirat Camp in the middle part of the Gaza Strip. The oldest son, he had three sisters and four younger brothers. I met him at Gaza City’s Al-Aqsa University, where we both were studying English. Our first time getting to know each other was at a football (soccer) match during the playoff competition among the university’s various departments. I discovered he was in love with the sport as much as me and was even better as a midfield player. He was selected to play that position and I was his backup. My other overriding image of him is his smile. He seemed to smile all the time, no matter how harsh things got in Gaza.
After his graduation last year, we didn’t get together in person much, since I live in Rafah to the far south, but we chatted regularly on Facebook. He was unable to get a decent job (like 70 percent of youth here) and was ashamed of having to take pocket money from his father. (The only offer he could get was to work for 10 hours a day at a bakery for 10 shekels—or $2.80.)
Like so many other youths, he became obsessed with traveling abroad to find a better life.
Turkey is one of the few countries willing to give Palestinians a visa without a proven scholarship or job, and Mohammed secured that without much problem. But because of the blockade imposed on Gaza by both Israel and Egypt, he could only leave the strip by paying a bribe to win a place on the exit list for Rafah Crossing. I don’t know how much he paid, but such “coordination fees” usually average between $1,000-$1,500 these days–a fortune for most Gazans. (Not too long ago, the fee was more like $3,000.) Even after paying the bribe, he was denied permission to exit a few times by the Egyptian side due to the bad relations between Egypt and Turkey. Finally, he was allowed to leave.
Mohammed’s ultimate plan was to find a smuggler to help him get to Greece. Until then, he and other migrants lived in a cheap hotel. He stayed there for 10 weeks, until April 3. On that day, Mohammed fell from the fourth floor of his Izmir hotel, cracking his skull and putting him into a coma. Today, the 12th of April, he succumbed to his wounds and died in an intensive care unit. If our only source of information was Turkish officials, it would be known as a tragic accident after the police were forced to chase him for “illegal activities.” The truth, however, is dramatically different.
One of Mohammed’s friends who lived in the hotel with him, but is too scared to talk publicly, says Mohammed and other refugees and migrants often were chased by the Turkish police despite carrying documents allowing them to be in the country. The purpose was to exploit them by making them pay a bribe. On April 4, the police raided some of the hotel rooms using teargas, forcing Mohammed to attempt to escape to another room via the balcony. He slipped and fell to the ground—landing on his back. While he lay there bleeding, the hotel’s owner was just meters away, eating and drinking beer, paying no attention.
In his last post on Facebook before leaving Gaza, Mohammed wrote a message to his mother. But it could have been written by any other youth in Gaza:
“Dear mother, I can’t bear the pain of leaving you and making you worried about me day and night. But Mother, I’ve graduated from university and I have no job…I have no future here and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Gaza is so dark; life here seems to be slow death. I don’t seek to travel to find joy or happiness; I’m going because I can’t forgive myself for being 25 and still taking my pocket money from my father. I just want to have a decent job. I’m fleeing Gaza because I’m hopeless and helpless.
“Dear Mother, I heard a song once that said I shouldn’t feel humiliated when I am in my homeland. But is there more humiliation than this life? Please forgive me for going far away to try my luck at finding a better life. But I will lose nothing except your smile. Pray for me. I love you so much.”
Mohammed used to call Gaza the “grave of dreams.” Luck was his only hope. His story is the story of many and will be the story for many more unless the so-called “international community” acts on its empty promises of humanity.