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

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

Thinking back: the people who made me who I am

Areej Kassab | 29-07-2019

International director's note: I recently issued a writing challenge to our members that included a series of "prompts"; each writer was allowed to choose their own. Orjwan chose this one: You are on an arduous, 5-mile walk and discover a large photograph at each mile-marker. You immediately realize that the photos are portraits of important people from your past. As you continue to walk, you offer a thanks to each person, highlighting how they’ve impacted you. Write these expressions of gratitude.​

Cairo at night is magical, but for me it was one of my life's greatest challenges

While I am watching my favorite TV series, I fall asleep. As I drift into dreamland, I find myself walking down a long road; I panic, afraid I am lost because I am alone. All I want at that moment is to be back on my cozy sofa with the glow of the TV. But then I see a photograph at the side of the road, marking the first of what seems to be several miles I need to walk before I can find my way back. It is a large portrait of a young woman. I know that face; Mariam looks plain to most—black hair and eyes, fair skin, a strong jaw for a woman and a bit of an overbite. But the photographer has caught her in full smile, and it transforms her. I used to joke that her smile could light up all of Cairo after dark.

Although Mariam is from Gaza like me, it was in Egypt where we became like sisters. Three years ago, we traveled to Egypt to study medicine. I had scored 97.7 percent on my tawjihi exam (taken during the final year of high school) and my parents were ecstatic; it is this result that determines what we can study and whether we get a scholarship.

Mariam and I, and others from Gaza, faced many challenges getting to Egypt. We waited for a year before we were allowed out through Rafah Crossing. When we finally arrived in Cairo, we were so late in the school year (Feburary) that we were told we’d need to delay our studies until the fall. The following months were magical. We all stayed together in an apartment building for Palestinian girls and we got to know each other and Egyptian culture. It was during those months that I became best friends with Mariam. We played, danced, ate and even fought together. It felt like I had gained a sister.

Then it all changed. We began university and were scattered across Egypt to different schools. For the first time, I felt homesick—so much so, I fell into a deep depression. Mariam was doing well and lived hours from my school in Cairo, but constantly checked in and visited on weekends. She taught me that friendship is one of the most important gifts in our lives and we should treasure and protect it.

When my parents saw via Skype how much weight I had lost, they finally allowed me to return to Gaza. (I attempted to join medical school there, but preference was given to new graduates. Thus, I chose English literature instead, and discovered my love for writing!) But I remain in touch, and am close, with Mariam to this day.

"Thank you, Mariam!"


I return to the long road, searching for another mile-marker. Sure enough, soon I see a second portrait, this time of Khalwa. She took over for Mariam when I returned to Gaza and became my source of hope and strength.

Picking up the pieces

Giving up on my dream of being a doctor was very difficult for me, especially when others regarded me as a failure for returning. But Khawla believed in me and my ability to start over. She said, "Areej, you are strong! You can achieve glory by studying English. I will be with you whenever you want help or support."

I wasn’t an immediate success at Al-Azhar University. At the end of the first semester, I earned a score of “only” 88 percent. But Khalwa told me that was good as a beginning after all of my stress. Now: my score is 93 percent!

"Thank you for helping me rediscover my strength, Khawla!”

My first supporter

I move on and now see the largest portrait. She is my mum. I want to thank her for being my first and always supporter in life. She said when I returned, "Areej, what happened is a life lesson. You're strong, my beautiful daughter, and you'll make your life a success. I trust you."

My mom is the one who is a strong person. Not long after my own painful experience, my youngest brother died at the age of 7. He had what we thought was just the flu; but he died, and so quickly. Yet my mom navigated through through such a tragic time for our family without complaining. She teaches me how to do the same.

"Thanks, Mum, for helping me become a better version of me!"

Prof. Abdullah

I am beginning to tire. The fourth and final portrait appears. This time it is of a man, looking at me full of pride. It is Professor Abdullah Kurraz. There’s no doubt that my teacher has had a great effect on me. But it’s not because of the two courses I have taken. He has encouraged me to pursue my dreams by watering the little seeds of confidence inside so they will grow. He predicts I'll do something great in my future. His trust makes me proud.

"Thanks, ‘Prof.’ Abdullah!"

Finding my 'writers' home'

There is one final portrait, my newest friend, the one who introduced me to We Are Not Numbers: Raed Shakshak. He has a smile you can’t help but return, with twinkling black eyes and what we call “tall” hair.

Raed once told me, "Never, ever give up until you reach what you want. You'll fail the first time, the second and maybe even the third, but it doesn't matter. Don’t give up. This is life requires hard work. Nothing comes easily." He taught me that I have a story to tell and that my story matters. By sharing it, by being honest and vulnerable, I can open doors that would otherwise stay closed. I learned, though, that I have to start with myself.

"Thanks, my friend!"

Suddenly, I find myself back on my sofa, with the TV still on. I have awakened from my strange dream, but the feeling of strength lingers. I know I can face the hardest times with a smile.

Posted: July 28, 2019

Mentor: Pam Bailey

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