Around three years ago, I had almost given up on the idea that leaving Gaza to pursue my dreams was a possibility. I had a full scholarship at Columbia College (South Carolina, USA) waiting for me. I had my student visa stamped in my passport and my bags packed. Everything was ready—everything but a permit to leave Gaza. I waited and waited. Eventually, I gave up. I unpacked my bags and put my travel documents away. I planned to pay Al-Azhar University a visit so I could register at a local college before it was too late.
Then, a couple of days later, I received a life-altering call. Israel had finally given me permission to leave Gaza through Erez crossing. I had less than 24 hours to pack my bags and prepare myself mentally for the change. Everything was rushed. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to many family members. I had this feeling in my gut; it was hesitation mixed with fear. I wasn’t sure why I would have second thoughts when my dream of getting a U.S. education was finally coming true. To help me come to terms with the mixed feelings that plagued my thoughts, my mom reminded me how hard I’d worked to qualify for the scholarship and how proud she and dad were of me for overcoming many obstacles to get such an opportunity.
I wasn’t fully ready, but I decided to finish what I’d started. Dad was going through some diabetes-related health complications, so he was too ill to come along to see me leave through Erez. I kissed him goodbye and hugged him very tightly, not realizing that was the last time I would be able to embrace him. My 33-year-old brother Ahmed had left for work, so I said goodbye to him over the phone. His 4-year-old son Adham was asleep; he wasn’t even aware of my kissing him goodbye.
My mother and brothers Ismail and Mohammed took me to Erez. When it was time for me to go through the crossing, my mom resisted her tears, but she eventually couldn’t hold them any longer. She hugged me tightly and let me go with great difficulty. “I will see you again,” she said, “but you will be a grown woman with a bachelor’s degree under your belt,” she added with a smile. We had agreed that I would try not to visit Gaza during my college years to avoid being locked in and losing my scholarship. That was the last time I held her. I remember Mohammed hugging me and telling me to “kick butt” so that I would have good graduate study opportunities.
I left, trying to focus more on the opportunities waiting for me than the sacrifices I was making and the life I was leaving behind. I didn’t want anything to change. I didn’t want my nephews and nieces to grow up. I didn’t want anything major to happen while I was away. I thought I could put my old life on pause and come back four years later to pick up where I left off,
I was wrong.
In the summer of 2014, I was halfway done with my undergraduate degree. I was missing my family so much that I couldn’t resist attempting to visit Gaza for the summer. I was determined to make it work, especially because dad had been very ill due to his Type 1 diabetes and I couldn’t bear the thought of being away while he was in and out of hospitals. I started making plans to return, but was discouraged by mom. I remember like it was yesterday that she made me promise to cancel my plans to visit Gaza, especially because I was trying to enter through Rafah (the crossing from Egypt). Because of the unstable situation in Egypt, my parents were more willing to give up spending time with me than risking me getting hurt or losing my scholarship. Dad told me that a scholarship and an entire future were a high price to pay for a few weeks in Gaza. Although I was heartbroken, I cancelled my travel plans and enrolled in summer classes in hopes of finishing my degree a semester early so that I could be reunited with my family as soon as possible.
Just after summer classes were over, the massacre began. I recalled how horrified I was during the 2008/09 Israeli attack on Gaza, but at least I was with my family. Being away during this massacre was much more nerve-wracking than being there physically. I was sleep-deprived for days. I felt guilty being in a safe place and having access to food, water and electricity while they were suffering. I wanted to be there with them. I stayed up every night watching, reading and listening to different news sources. I was too terrified to sleep because I worried that something might happen while I slept. I was so scared that I called my family every few hours to make sure they were alive. Every time I called, especially when it took them a while to answer, horrifying images would run through my head and every time, I would shake them off and keep trying until they answered.
I hadn’t talked to dad much because of Ramadan (a Muslim holiday). He spent most of his time in the mosque; it was his Ramadan tradition to worship as much as he could. On the 23rd of July, at around 4 a.m. Eastern time in the United States, I was finally able to Skype with dad. We talked for two hours. It was one of the best conversations I had had with him in months. We shared poetry and stories and had political and philosophical debates—a typical conversation for us. He told me more than once in that conversation that he was very proud of me and that I should never allow anything to limit me in the future. We even listened to our favorite father-daughter song, Ya Bayyie (Dad) by Najwa Karam and Wadee’ Al-Safi. We loved that song because it was a conversation between a father and his daughter about life and his struggle to let her go as she grows up and becomes an independent woman; it described our relationship perfectly. I realized that night I missed him more than I realized.
I didn’t have the chance to talk to mom for more than a few minutes, but I had talked to her every day before. My brother Ahmed came on, however, and said hi; I hadn’t talked with him much either, so I was thrilled to see him. I actually could sleep that day.
Later, I woke up late in the afternoon. I was checking the news when my friends from Gaza started frantically messaging me wondering if my family was okay because there had been a bombing in the neighborhood. There was news of four deaths, no names. It wasn’t our house that had been bombed, so I assumed that none of my family members were hurt. I called them. No answer. I called again and again. I called everyone’s cell phone. Nothing. I called my married sisters and finally got an answer from one of them, Elham. Her voice was shaking and she told me she thought two of my brothers were hurt.
While Elham was trying to get to the hospital with her husband, the call disconnected. I called back. No answer. I collapsed. I waited for a few minutes. I called again and again and no one answered. I was too scared to check the news. I wanted someone to answer my call and say everyone was OK. When I called my sister again an hour later, her husband answered the phone and I could hear crying in the background. He said, “Iman, I am so sorry to tell you this, but we lost your dad, Ahmed and one of your nephews. We are still trying to find out about the rest.” I thought he was lying. I started screaming at him. I wanted him to stop talking. He said my other brother-in-law was at the hospital and that I should call him, and I did. I didn’t think it could get worse, but it did. I was told that my mom was gone too and that Mohammed had fought to survive but didn’t make it.
I hung up. I couldn’t bear to hear more. I wasn’t sure what to think or how to feel. There was no hope left to get me through that moment. I remember thinking to myself, “My life is over. This is it,” and then trying to convince myself that it wasn’t real. Just a few hours before, I had been on Skype with them. They were very much alive. They couldn’t be gone. Not right now. Not like this.
Then, there was silence and suspension of thought. A couple of hours later, I realized that I had no idea what had happened to the rest of my family. “What if I lose more of them?” I thought to myself. I called again, and I was told that my little sister was fighting for her life in intensive care and that most of my other family members were hospitalized too. I couldn’t bear losing more family members. I wasn’t sure if I had enough energy to grieve the loss of the dead ones and pray for the injured ones to survive and for the healthy ones to be safe. (Read my brother Ismail's account of what was going on at home.)
Perhaps the most difficult thing we had to endure was to tell my 13-year-old sister, Alaa, who was asking for my parents when she woke up, what had happened. We had to wait until she was stable enough. I hated that I couldn’t be there to hold her then. I hated that I couldn’t even attend my own family members’ funeral or kiss them goodbye before they were buried. I considered leaving everything behind and attempting to go back to Gaza. My plans were, of course, discouraged by siblings, as they reminded me of my promise to mom and dad. They reminded me that the best thing I could do to help was to finish my education and return with a degree. That’s when I, with the help of my Columbia College professors, put together a plan to compress my remaining two years of classes into one so that I could go home and help support my family as soon as possible.
Months passed by and I started to realize that I only lost my mom, dad, Ahmed, Mohammed and Adham in the physical realm. Thoughts of mom and dad specifically, along with the tremendous strength and support of my remaining family members, helped me through my last year of college.
It is almost one year since I lost them, and I cannot deny the emptiness that I feel every time I need to call or hug them and then remember I can’t. However, the thought of my family also keeps me going. I will not let losing them hold me back; rather, their love will guide my way. I will use everything they taught me to help others in Gaza through my new nonprofit Youth For Change-Palestine. I am formng YFCP to help enable young Palestinians in Gaza to take matters into their own hands and start speaking up and solving problems in their local communities. I will begin developing YFCP as well as join the We Are Not Numbers team upon my return to Gaza in the middle of August.
One moment changed my entire life, changed all of my future plans and made me a different person. One moment was enough to add my family members, along with hundreds of other Gazans, to the list of “collateral damage.”