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 blue hummingbird watching over us

Omnia Ghassan | 11-06-2017

Blue hummingbird

Reincarnation is the rebirth of a soul in a new body, either in human or animal form. As a child, I never believed in reincarnation, and I know most people think of it as superstition. But just a few years ago, I saw a blue hummingbird watching over my family, and I truly believe it embodied the soul of my brother.  

In June 2013, I finished high school at the same time my sister completed her five years of nursing school. My parents took this as an opportunity to implement the decision they’d been discussing for years: to move from the UAE back to Gaza due to the high cost of living in the Emirates, where my family had been based since before I was born.

Me (far left), my mother and father

On September 1 of that year, my family and I arrived in Gaza. Two months later, my father and sister went back to the UAE to collect the belongings we had left behind and to conclude projects at their respective jobs. My mom and I believed that their journey would not take more than two months at most, and they would return the next time the Rafah crossing through Egypt opened. Yet the crossing opened and closed more than 20 times before they came back. At the time, they told us that settling their affairs in the UAE simply was more complicated than they had anticipated. What was meant to be two months turned into two years—two years of yearning, loneliness, hardship, war and illness.

Our side

My mom and I faced the 2014 Gaza war alone, in what seemed like a totally different world than the one in which I was born. This time, we were not sitting in our comfortable living room in the UAE, watching the 2008 and 2012 wars play out on TV and praying that none of our relatives would be harmed. Instead, we were part of the news. And it was my dad and sister who prayed we would stay alive.

One day during the war, when my mother and I were at my aunt’s house, I told my mom I wanted to sleep. I suffered from terrible insomnia due to the sounds of the rockets that Israel shot at us day and night. I lay on the bed with my cousin next to me. Suddenly, her husband (my uncle) ran into the room and his face was white as milk. He said one word: “evacuation.”

My uncle's destroyed home

I reached my mom in a fraction of a second and led her out of the house. I still have no idea how she ran with me, since she has suffered from spinal curvature since childhood and has trouble running. It is probably more that I dragged her.

We went to a house far away, and there we learned the Israeli military had warned they would target the house next to my aunt’s, which belonged to my other (maternal) uncle. Israel’s rockets don’t just demolish a targeted house, but those that surround it as well. We stayed put, waiting for the rocket. All of us—men and women, elders and children—were scared and crying. Fear doesn’t discriminate by gender or age.

While we sat there, my mom’s phone rang. It was my dad. What can one say at a moment like that? My mom uttered a few incomprehensible words and hung up. Dad called again. She held the phone with trembling hands and with tearful eyes and a shaky voice begged him not to call again. She turned off the phone. I wonder how he must have felt; his wife and daughter are crying and terrified, and he is far away—knowing he can do nothing but pray.

The war brought me closer to my mom, and it made me realize my own strength. As Bob Marley once said, "You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice." My mom and I went through so much in the war, especially because we were alone, but that day was the hardest.

Half of my uncle’s home was destroyed, and my aunt's house lost some stones. The war ended and life went back to “normal”—if you can call Gaza that. We restarted our daily routine of video-calling my dad and sister. Every time they called, my mom would say reproachfully, “You missed the crossing point opening again. When are you planning to come back?” And every time my dad would reply, “When we come back, we’ll tell you everything.”

There were days when my mom and I feared that we would never see them again, but we didn’t lose hope. On the first anniversary of their departure, I played an old song called “Wroud El Dar” (Garden Roses) in which the Lebanese singer, Najwa Karam, croons, “Don't cry my garden roses, continue singing in his absence. And when he returns from the journey, be there decorating his door.” We spent the night crying.
We started to notice on the video calls that my dad was losing his hair. When we asked my sister about it, she said it was due to called alopecia. My mom and I had met several people with this autoimmune condition that causes hair loss, so it seemed reasonable and was something we understood. And when mom’s eyes once caught a medical bracelet around dad’s wrist on a call, he told her it was for a blood test for his diabetes.

My father’s and sister’s absence, as well as my father’s hair loss, sparked rumors in our community. The worst ones were, “Ghassan thinks himself young, and so shaves his beard!” and “They must not be back yet because the father wants to take over his daughter’s money!” I wanted to knock on every house’s door and tell the inhabitants to mind their own business. At the same time, I didn’t know who was spreading the rumors.

Their side

There came a day in 2015 when we learned that my dad and sister were coming back. My mom and I were so happy! But the Egyptian border was suddenly closed for 40 days. My father and sister were stuck in Al-Arish, in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

Finally, on October 13, Egypt opened the Rafah crossing for three days. Two days later, after waiting at the crossing for six hours, we saw them. I cried as I never have before—not out of happiness, but of relief. A huge burden was finally removed from my shoulders. For two years, I had felt like a bird with broken wings. I was so tired of being in charge! But now I understand that if we hadn’t been separated, I wouldn’t have gained the sense of competence and responsibility I have now.

Later, after friends and family who had come by to celebrate had gone, it was finally just the four of us. I asked my dad jokingly, not expecting a specific answer, “So, you said when you came back you’d tell us why you kept delaying your return. What was the reason?” I never would have expected his answer.

Omnia's 1-year-old brother
My baby brother

Out of every 1,000 people diagnosed with breast cancer, one is a man. My dad was diagnosed with the disease after he and my sister returned to the UAE. He had remained in the Emirates for two years for treatment. He did not lose his hair and beard because of alopecia or because he wanted to feel young again; it was the result of chemotherapy.

Whenever we had tried to call them, they would tell us not to, that they would call us. We didn’t realize this was because they had to leave the hospital to call. There were times when they didn’t call for a while, and we thought it was because of problems with the internet. But it was because my dad had surgery and needed time to recover. He had both his breasts removed to be sure the cancer won’t return.

My mom almost fainted, and I cried until I had no tears left. Imagining that we might never have seen him again, that we would have welcomed my sister back to Gaza alone, was so scary. And that’s why my dad and sister didn’t tell us about his illness. If they had, we would not have been able to handle it. The shock of what we saw in the war was already too much.

On the day of my dad’s and sister’s arrival, a blue bird flew into the house. He rested on a curtain in our living room from the moment we entered until we went to sleep. We all believed the bird embodied the spirit of my brother, who we lost to leukemia at the age of one. The bird simply sat there, singing or looking at us, welcoming our reunion. His feathers were the color of the ocean, shiny and mesmerizing. I so wish I had taken a photo of him.


Posted: June 10, 2017

Mentor: Mimi Kirk

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