I held my little niece’s hands and we ran, ordered to evacuate our building at midnight. Warplanes hovered over our heads, children screamed, and the ground shook as if it was dancing. Our neighbor had received a call from an Israeli occupation officer, ordering him to evacuate his home along with the rest of the residents in the building, including us. Before fleeing, I took one long, last look at my room, remembering how I had just made it my own a couple of years ago.
On April 17, 2021, my other house, the one in which I was born, burned down. The boys had been playing with fireworks, and sparks blew through my window. More than 65% of our space was burned, and my room was turned to ash. It took us a year and a half to rebuild our home. I never thought we’d lose it again, less than two years later!
We lingered in the street for an hour, unsure where to go and unable to fully leave our beloved home. The warplanes circled continuously over our heads, and I told the little kids to cover their ears. I wet my clothes, I was so afraid of dying. Everyone on the street looked at each other as if it would be the last time.
But the sun rose, and the time ticked by, and nothing happened! “I am going to my home. If they want to bomb me, at least I will be home,” my mom said. I begged her not to go, but she insisted. Finally, we gave in and escorted her back to our home and fell into a fitful sleep, praying we would all live to open our eyes again.
Just three hours later, we woke to the sound of heavy shelling. At the same time, all our phones (mine, my mother’s, father’s and brother’s) received many recorded calls saying, “Gaza residents, you all must evacuate your area as it is a zone for Hamas terrorists.” Everyone we know in the neighborhood are civilians, so we initially thought it was just a threat meant to scare us. But my brother checked and everyone in our area had received the same notice. We were certain then that we had to evacuate immediately. It was terrifying!
We called my uncle’s family and fortunately, they welcomed us into their house.
We gathered as much of our belongings as we could and called a car to pick us up. Meanwhile, the shelling and bombing continued intensely around us. When the car arrived, we called my uncle again and learned that my mother’s five cousins had been killed when the home they shared – just three houses away from him – was bombed. We hesitated a little out of fear, but my uncle said, “No, come! Then even if we die, we will die together, and none of us will grieve or mourn the other.” We all got into the car, but had to wait for my father. As soon as we finally began to move, a house just ahead was bombed. If we hadn’t been delayed those two minutes, we would have been among the shahids (martyrs)!
On the way to the second “home”
On the road, we continued to pray for a safe arrival. We were scared, crying and reading the Quran, until we reached my uncle’s house. There, we found his whole family gathered on the ground floor, everyone babbling in fear. They shared the story of how they had attempted to help my mother’s cousins, to no avail. They were now just pieces.
We spent the next few days worrying about what would come next. Were we going to be bombed? Would we be the next victims? And if so, would we be identified by our bodies, or from a few remains?
I tried desperately to get an internet signal so I could contact my friends and family who are abroad. When I finally got online, I saw a message on WhatsApp. “Mahmoud Al Naouq was killed alongside his entire family by the Israeli occupation.” I felt as if I had been stabbed in my chest. I refreshed my screen about 10 times to be sure I was reading it correctly. Mahmoud? Killed? No way! He had just returned from his dream trip to Malaysia! I called as many people as I could to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Maybe I was experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia and was seeing things. But it was true. Mahmoud had joined the growing list of victims of the terrorist state of israel. No, I didn’t spell that wrong. Mahmoud taught me to spell israel with with a lowercase “i” because it is an illegal country.
Mahmoud Al Naouq was (!!) one of the most passionate, loving, likable people I knew. I met him through We Are Not Numbers, where we both volunteered at the time. We began as acquaintances and gradually became friends as we did more projects together, even though he was a bit timid with female co-workers. He was one year younger than me (25), but in many ways 50 years older. He taught me so much. I remember telling him that I was afraid I would never be able to pursue my dream of studying in the U.S. or somewhere in Europe. He told me that if I kept thinking about failing to do so, my fears would become reality. But if I believe in something, it will come true.
Still, he shared my fears. One day, he confessed how depressed he’d be if he wasn’t able to pursue his master’s degree abroad like his older brother, Ahmed, did in the UK. He was desperate to leave the Gaza Strip after losing his mother to cancer and his oldest brother to the Israeli occupation forces in the 2014 war. I reminded him of his own advice, and we mapped out the steps he’d need to take. At the same time, he was hesitant. “Maram, I can’t leave my family. They are the only thing I have,” he’d say.
When he finally earned a scholarship to purse his master’s in Australia, he jumped for joy. And then… Israel killed both him and his dream.
Later that day, I was sitting on a couch in my uncle’s living room, the “safe” part of the house because it faced away from the Gaza border (just 3 km away). I was reading a random book to distract myself from the sadness and fear. I dozed off a little, until I woke up to a whining sound and a stabbing pain in my back. An Israeli airstrike next door had shattered the window, scattering splinters of glass! My wound wasn’t serious, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were now lying under the rubble.
The same night, I felt as if I had a hole in my heart. How would I die? Would I be in pain? Would I be trapped in rubble and caught on camera, part of this televised genocide of my nation? I read some verses of Quran and fell asleep.
I was surprised to wake up to the sound of birds tweeting. I was still alive! I was still here! My phone rang.
“Finally, Maram, you answered! I tried to call you but every time, the line dropped! Where are you? Are you safe? Do you know what happened?” a panicked voice said. She was from my neighborhood. I assured her we were okay. But what did she mean by “do you know what happened?”
“The neighborhood h-h-has been bombed.”
I interrupted her: “But are the towers still standing?” (We lived in two twin buildings.)
“Yeah, they are, but..”
“Then it’s okay; at least our towers are safe.”
“But, Maram…Your home was…was entirely destroyed. I’m sor…” I abruptly hung up the phone and leaned against the wall.
My tears flowed, my heart feeling like it was going to beat its way out of my chest. I ran to my mom, wailing. She held me to her chest. “It’s okay, my dear. It’s okay.” I realized that she already knew. Everyone in my family knew. But they hadn’t told me. We had lost our beloved home a second time. It wasn’t only a house. It was a shelter, a place to develop aspirations, a nurturer of hope!
I told myself that the loss of a home wasn’t comparable to the loss of beloved people.
But I was lying. To me, my home was like a beloved person! It is where I buried my disappointments and anger. It is where I became the woman I am now. I painted the walls pink and purple, and covered them with Marilyn Monroe posters. I piled my bed with teddy bears for comfort during my blue days.
I wish I had thought to take our photo albums when we fled, so we could remember what it looked like to be happy, or to be kids. It’s like we are suffering from a loss of memory. It’s too sad to remember.
The third displacement
We never had a chance to feel settled in my uncle’s home. Israel bombed the entire square behind it (and four days later, his home), forcing us to leave once again and walk two hours to escape. While fleeing for lives, we saw the remains of people, their blood covering the street. Homeless once again, we headed to my sister-in-law’s, where we are sheltering until we have to run once more.
We are all going to be killed by Israel. This is what I feel. I have lost four of my friends so far, along with my home and my homeland. We are out of food and water. Many days when we go to sleep, we are hungry. I have had to flee so many times I don’t have clothes or the personal stuff women need! I have to “borrow” from my cousin to cover my body!
I’m angry, frustrated and afraid of adapting to the sight of my people being killed and displaced. I don’t want to hear anyone preaching about humanity, values and peace anymore. Humanity is being murdered.
I am not a number. I am a person with dreams and feelings. I dream of the day when I will become an English professor or a human rights activist.
Please remember me if I die. My name is Maram.
Postscript: Israel is doing its best to wipe us out. But we always always find a way to resist. As my dearest Pam told me in her effort to keep me going: “Today is one day toward a better future.”