My life, like many of us who live in Gaza, is marked by separation, loss and endurance. It is a story that has repeated itself over generations.
My late grandfather shared many stories about his childhood and life on a farm in the Palestinian village of Kartya. In 1947, Kartya was an agricultural town located northeast of present-day Gaza, just northwest of al-Faluja and bordered by the villages of Hatta, Iraq Sweidan and Beit Afa. The village does not exist today; it was seized by Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and its 1,300 residents were forced to abandon their homes along with more than 700,000 other Palestinian Arabs who either fled or were expelled from the region.
Rajab Abdelfattah Maghari, my grandpa, was 15 years old when he and his family were forced to leave Kartya. “We did not take much money or clothes with us with the belief we would come back when the conflict was over," Grandpa told me. “But it never really ended.”
I was a young adult before I understood why he talked so often about the importance of land ownership and his love of farming. His family became refugees when they left Kartya. Grandpa was ripped from his childhood home as a teenager. Throughout his entire life, he never stopped pining for home.
Today, if you visit the 48,000-square-meter area where the village of Kartya once stood, you will find rubble, a ruined cemetery, and fields of grain tilled by the residents of Israeli settlements that now reside there.
A second expulsion
After the 1948 Nakba (the Palestinian exodus from their homes for the creation of Israel), my grandpa and his family settled in Kuwait. They established a new life there. Grandpa married and raised his children, including my father. Eventually both my parents met and fell in love in Kuwait.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, some 200,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. My parents were forced out of the country where they had lived their entire lives, just as had happened to their parents in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Gulf War ensued and many families became separated as they sought entry to different countries where they could re-establish their lives. Ultimately my grandparents and parents settled into a new life in a refugee camp in Gaza.
My sisters and I were born in Gaza. Life here has always been difficult, but the Israeli siege has made it even harder. The travel restrictions we must endure have separated us from our relatives and loved ones. My father was very close to his siblings before he was forced to leave Kuwait. They were his best friends, and his eldest brother was like a father. Eighteen years have passed since he has seen any of them.
My mother also suffers. She has not visited with her family for 23 years. When she learned her mother had died, I realized how agonizing it had been for her to be separated from her family.
A third generation of suffering
I remember the first time I personally felt tormented by the blockade. In 2018, my uncle Sameer passed away in Iraq. My family never had the chance to say goodbye. I cannot forget how long my father wept that day and the deep resentment I felt about being trapped in Gaza.
I have always longed to spend time in person with many of the relatives I have been separated from by the border closures and Israeli sea and air blockade. Dearest of them all was my cousin, Ramzi Maghari. The first and last time I met Ramzi was about 15 years ago. I was 10 years old and he was just a baby. My Uncle Muhammad, Ramzi’s father, and his family visited us in Gaza. After they returned to the U.S., they were never allowed to enter Gaza and see us again.
Ramzi was born and raised in America. Thanks to modern technology, we chatted frequently through Facebook, Instagram and Zoom. He was like a brother to me and our relationship was so close that our physical separation seemed to disappear.
I recall the last time Ramzi and I talked via Zoom. He was telling me all about his new motorcycle. ‘’Perhaps one day I’ll visit you in Gaza and teach you how to ride a motorcycle,” he said.
"No silly,” I replied. “You're not going to visit us because I'm afraid it might be your last destination since you won't be able to get out again." We both laughed so hard we cried.
This past March Ramzi died. My beloved 17-year-old cousin was instantly killed in a motorcycle accident on his way to school.
I never expected Ramzi would go like that, without me having a chance to say goodbye. It was devastating.
How to go on?
Losing Ramzi filled me with a general fear of loss, of losing anything or anyone I cannot reach out and touch for the last time. I was overwhelmed by grief and thought I would never feel normal again. I kept wondering, are we as Palestinians doomed to live with pain, loss and separation forever?
Recently, my mother caught me in the garden, thinking these dark thoughts. When she asked what was on my mind, I responded by asking her questions: “How did you endure the sorrow of losing your mother? How were you able to go on with your life, separated from your family?”
“I didn’t,” she declared. “I just simply continued to live, because this is what life is. No matter how painful, we must continue to live. I know, my dearest, that you are sad, and perhaps the circumstances that we are being forced to endure in Gaza have made it even worse, but you need to be strong and keep breathing. If you don’t, you will be stuck in the past and all its unpleasant memories. You have to keep moving forward so you can live!”