Do you know what it’s like to be called a refugee in your own country, to struggle and fight for a thing that’s supposed to be your birthright? How about what it feels like to sleep with your ear to the ground, always on alert and ready to flee? This is what happens here in Gaza, and this is my story.
I wouldn’t say I grew up as a princess, but my loving family and amazing community made me feel like one. I remember my grandmother inviting the old ladies of the neighborhood to drink tea and bake bread at our place, how the house would fill with the smell of rising dough and the sound of my grandma's big laugh. It was a house full of joy, my brothers and I always running around and bothering our uncles by waking them early with our happy shouting on Friday mornings.
I also remember eagerly waiting for my dad to come back from work. I would stand in the living room, as close to the front door as I could manage, my eyes fixed on the entryway as my brothers asked my mom over and over what time it was. Every day, he came home at exactly 5 p.m. with our favorite candy in his pockets.
My father was my hero. He couldn’t ever bring himself to punish us — he filled our lives with love while leaving the task of punishment up to my mother, who was stricter when it came to our endlessly naughty behavior. But she also was the best at rewarding us when we did behave (as a reward, she used to make us an amazing orange cake).
At night, my grandpa put us to sleep by telling stories from his life before the Nakba, back when he was a teenager: stories about his parents and brothers, how they used to collect olives and make oil, roaming free and praying together at Al-aqsa mosque.
I spent each week looking forward to the weekend, when my brothers and I would pester my big uncle to take us for a ride in his car, insisting that he buy us ice cream or candy after the ride was over. I remember wondering why my aunts never visited or joined us for these car rides — did they not want to get to know us? I put the question out of my head.
On the weekends, when we arrived home after our rides in the car, my little uncle would play football with us, and I’d demand to be on his team, where winning was basically guaranteed. At night, after watching Tom and Jerry cartoons with our dad, we’d be in bed by 9 p.m., tucked in and kissed goodnight by all the adults who loved us.
Life was almost perfect until the catastrophe in 2008. I was at school, doing exercises in my Arabic class, when the first airstrike hit Gaza. All the kids were shouting, but the only thing I could think about was who would clean up the broken glass of the classroom’s shattered window. It was terrifying to make our way home in the middle of active gunfire, and I can't describe how much I cried that day. The day after that, when we were informed that my dad and uncles had been killed, I somehow remained calm. I was in shock. From there, it only got harder. After the funerals and the ceasefire, I had to go to school and face everyone as an orphan.
When the second war arrived on our doorstep in 2012, we had to evacuate our home because our neighbor’s property was under threat. When we came back the next day, we were lucky to find that our neighbor’s house hadn’t yet been destroyed. My mom insisted we stay in our home, even though the neighbor’s property was still in danger of being attacked — someone from the Israel Defense Forces had called and told him to clear his house before they bomb it. My neighbor ran outside and told us to clear the area as well, crying that he hadn’t done anything to deserve this, but now we were in danger and had to run for our lives.
That night my remaining family and I all slept all at the same room: “If we die, then at least we’ll die together,” said my mom. Although our neighbor’s house was eventually hit with an airstrike, God saved us and we lived to see another day.
By the time of the next war in 2014, I no longer felt afraid. Instead, I felt immune to the circumstances of war, having lived through them twice before. Throughout over 50 days of continuous fighting and death, the only time I felt pain was during Eid: both Ramadan and Eid took place that year during the fighting, which robbed us of our joy. My young brother's leg was broken that time, and I remember him being afraid that we’d have to leave him behind if we had to flee because he wasn’t able to run. When I babysat my younger brother and sister, I’d try to think of ways to make them feel better, but I knew there wasn’t much I could do. Luckily for my brother, the war ended without us having to flee.
Now I'm three wars old, the daughter of incalculable losses. The old ladies who used to visit my grandma are either dead or gone, their houses destroyed. After the loss of her sons, my grandma no longer smiles and laughs. I now wonder if my father never punished us, if my uncles filled our bellies with candy and our hearts with joy, because they knew they didn’t have much time with us and wanted to leave us with only good memories. I realize now that my little uncle was trying to teach us, through those countless football games, to be determined, and that my aunts did love us but couldn’t visit because they were unable to cross the border. My grandpa no longer tells us stories at night — the war and his grief have made his Alzheimer’s worse, and these days he barely remembers who he is. I realize now that my mom was strict, and became more so after my father’s death, because she needed to make sure we were strong.
This is an average story here in Gaza, and I am one among many.