As my family packed their bags, they wondered aloud why I wasn’t joining in — my suitcase still sat empty, gathering dust in the corner. I complained that I was rooted here in Gaza. Leaving would mean my paradise lost, the fresh air of Palestine no longer nourishing me. I didn’t want to leave the only home I’d ever known.
I was little more than a child when, in 2007, I moved with my mom and two siblings to the United Arab Emirates. Three other siblings stayed behind, having committed to work and attend school back home. It was difficult to leave behind the people and places that held all my memories and dreams. My heart was settled in Gaza —in spite of the ongoing conflict, it’s where I felt most at home. But for my mom, peace meant being reunited with my father abroad, and so I had to go.
A difficult journey
It wasn’t easy crossing the border; traveling from Gaza involves a lot of complications and delays. These additional burdens made leaving even harder. We had to spend a night sleeping on a bus before being let into Egypt; this was the worst night I’ve ever experienced. I felt vulnerable in my body. It was the beginning of winter, and I shook with cold and I ached. The mood on the bus was uneasy. At some point the next morning, I saw my mom waving, motioning for us to follow. I rose to my feet, finally able to walk out the door.
From Egypt, we flew to Dubai — my first time in an airplane. I remember my first aerial glimpse of the city, the dazzling lights from the buildings like twinkling stars. It was a remarkable sight. I was still sad about leaving home, but when we reunited with my father in the airport, my grief turned to happiness. He enveloped us in a hug, and I realized how much I had missed him and missed being cared for.
Difficulties with homesickness
My homesickness returned. I wasn’t sure if my unhappiness came from the boring daily routine, my loneliness or the sense of loss I felt for my homeland. It all blended together into a sense of being adrift. But I had a feeling that our situation was temporary, which is why I stopped insisting on leaving.
When we arrived, we needed to catch up on our school work. We enrolled in a private school for Arabic speakers. My twin sister and I waited in an air-conditioned room for the headmaster. The temperature was as cold as I felt, the warmth gone from my expatriate heart. Finally, my sister and I were assigned to eighth grade in separate classrooms.
As I stepped into my classroom, I couldn’t help but smile at my classmates’ warm welcome, all of them clambering to meet me. At first glance they seemed diverse enough, with plenty of people coming from different cultural backgrounds, but a sense of not belonging still overwhelmed me. I noticed how their upbringing in a rich country influenced their interests, and it seemed that no one was willing to get mixed up in talk of political conflicts. Toward the end of that first day of class, they asked me a bunch of questions: Where are you from? How do you like your new home? What was Gaza like? What does your dad do?
As they peppered me with questions, I felt homesick. I knew they wouldn’t understand the natural beauty, compassion and social cohesion in my nation. They wouldn’t understand how much Palestine has to offer, all the potential we have that’s diminished by a lack of facilities and the oppression of occupation.
Luckily, the school curriculum was similar to what I was used to in Palestine. Even though school was more or less easy, I still felt detached. To make up for it, I’d try to get my classmates to laugh, cracking jokes often. I didn’t care about scoring high marks. It made no difference so long as I was away from home. But I still tried to be open to this new world of teachers and students from different backgrounds. I knew this experience would be useful to me later on.
Still homesick, especially during Eid
In some ways, this period of my life I was a young teenager and I felt empty in many ways. But I found myself on a new journey of self-discovery through writing. I spent hours composing poems, stories and essays on a variety of topics, using writing as a way to gather my scattered thoughts. My attempts to make use of my time included watching animation, exploring the internet and joining interesting clubs where I shared my writing. Still, I sometimes felt homesick, especially during special occasions like Eid.
Eid always awakens happy remembrances, even as they mix with sentiments of loss. Eid is a refresher for Muslim souls, rewarding us with happiness in many forms, such as the ritual of morning calls, altakbeerat, which sends peace to us and touches our hearts. When my family and I were back home and had a busy social life, we wished for many happy returns. But not so much anymore.
Sick at heart about the war at home
I used to keep time with Gaza, my circadian rhythm adhering to Palestinian time (a two-hour time difference from where I was), until I eventually adjusted to my new time zone. But that meant I slept through the first attack. One morning in 2008, we woke to news of a brutal war being launched against the Gaza Strip. We were frustrated as we watched the bizarre scenes from afar. I felt lucky not having to go through it, but also heavyhearted knowing that some of my siblings and relatives were experiencing war’s bitterness. All we could do was pray and send them well wishes to mitigate their anxiety. Their war was lived inside the walls, while mine was lived outside. I was far from home, but felt again that it was only for the time being — soon, I would return.
That came to pass in 2009, when I was overjoyed to hear of my dad’s decision to finally return home. I was the first to pack my stuff, shopping for the things in my new home that I’d come to love and would soon grow to miss. The days went by fast, and suddenly our return day had arrived. I now consider that day in November when we flew back to Palestine an anniversary of sorts. Whenever someone asks, I think about that day and smile.