Tell me about your arrival here, in the U.S.
My arrival was a bit of a trip: how I arrived in *** is a story. Nobody gets out of Gaza easily. The two borders are controlled by Egypt and Israel, but they are the only from which we can get out legally. When I left (2013), Egypt wasn’t even an option. The only way to go out was through Israel travelling by land, then crossing Jordan, and from that country flying here. But you can’t move without permissions and it usually takes you plenty of time –from three to six months at least – to gain them. The worst risk is that they are not granted for everyone.
I applied for the program of the *** organization. They offer Palestinian students access to higher education in the U.S taking them from all around the world. They defined my student-profile to find an American partner college which could offer a good financial aid-packet for my studies. We couldn’t afford to attend college like this with our standard of living.
After they gave me the scholarship, the first thing I had to do was getting my Visa at American Embassy in Jerusalem, so I had to go from Gaza to Jerusalem. When I was going to my interview, I went to the border, but I was told by the Israelis authorities to return another time. I was denied.
They don’t give you any sort of explanations. I was part of a group of four people, but they stopped only me. Two days later, they called me back. Your permission lasts only one day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the drive to the Embassy is three hours, so you can just go and then come back.
What happens if you don’t gain the permission in time?
They start looking for you. They can blacklist you and your family. Due to security reasons, there was a car of the Embassy taking care of me. This helps me to get the permission easily as they could know somebody would look after you.
Then I had to apply for the Jordanian visa. The problem with the Israeli permission is that you don’t know if you have it or not until the day of your travel. You don’t book a flight from Gaza because you don’t know if you are allowed to go to Jordan. So you can book it only once you are there. Imagine the price we’re talking about, if you book a flight only three days in advance to come across the whole globe.
The checkpoint at the border is under the control of al-Fatah, the second government of Palestine. The government in Gaza is Hamas, but they don’t have any relationship with Israel, so is the second government the authority which controls the border and do communication. The gate only opens if you are approved when al-Fatah talks to Israel. Nobody but me, in that case, was allowed to be at that point.
There you must say goodbye. I remembered to have told my dad: “Don’t worry, I’ll be right back”. As I was denied once I felt very pessimistic about my chance to travel. I went inside, I told my name, they started speaking Hebrew and five minutes later they said: “Her name is in, she can go”. And I said, “wait, I have to go back and say goodbye”, but I couldn’t. I just went, went through the gate, and walked that half-kilometre alone with my luggage. I had to face very careful inspections, and you can imagine the treatment as well… At one point, I just sat and cried because I didn’t say the proper goodbye I had thought to my dad.
The American car took me immediately to the Jordanian border. There, you find a gate for Gaza people (there is one for Western Palestinian and one for Israeli people, too). You pay for crossing it, you keep paying. I stayed in Jordan three days, until somebody of the organization was able to give me a ticket to the U.S.
You could say that you, Palestinians, are trapped in your country.
Yes, we are. We have no airports, the sea is on the west side, Israel built a wall surrounding both the east and the north of the strip and the south is under the Egyptian control. I was very lucky to be able to cross Israel. Nowadays, my parents have been trying to go to visa’s interview. For six months, they’ve been denied the permission. They’re not going to make it for my graduation. Living in Gaza means living in a prison.
What do people say, when you tell you come from Palestine?
The reaction could generally belong to three different kinds of groups of people. The first type says: “Oh that’s nice”. And they usually thought it was actually from Pakistan, not from Palestine, where I come from. And that’s it when they come to the question: “Where is that?” and I must usually give up when I see they don’t even know anything about the conflict. This type of people just doesn’t know anything about it.
You usually see that people know when they ask you “Are you from Gaza or from the west part?”
But the third kind of group just replies “Oh”. And you understand that they know, but they are not pro-Palestine. I heard also the joke “Oh, you’re going to bomb me” referring to the image of Palestinian terrorism. Sometimes people surprise me, for how much they know. But for the greatest amount… they just have no clue.
Are you planning to go back home one day?
It’s a question I struggle do it a lot. My fear is coming back there, and then not being able to come back here again. There’s nothing I could do there. No economy, no jobs, people are desperate and poor. Here where I am I see potential (I was not able to change that word with a more fitting one, grammar sometimes has to move for feelings). To go back in Gaza would tight me up, to go back would mentally destroy me. Moreover, what would I do? But, my family is still there, and I haven’t seen them for four years.
Four years. The longest years of your life, I suppose.
And it has been and is continuing. Who would ever have believed that the last goodbye I told my grandma would be really the last one? A lot of events have happened in four years, and you are far away and you can’t do anything about them. But if I returned home, and I wasn’t able to leave, the honeymoon would be maximum a year, if not a single month…and then, what?
How was your childhood in Gaza?
Things got worse and worse as I grew up, but I lived a very happy childhood. I didn’t have a computer until very late. I had a simple life. You can still find joy in simple life. Streets, trees, nature, school… we live in a beach. We don’t go swimming because it’s dangerous and dirty, but we can play with sands… my siblings and me, we had to grow up very fast. For instance, before coming to the U.S. I had already experienced two wars. My younger brother, who is currently 8, he has experienced three wars. I’ve been lucky that nobody of my family was affected, but it is all around you. You see people dying, you hear the F16 flying on your head, you see them drop and you hear the piercing whistle of the fall. And then you know, someone, somewhere. You just hope isn’t the turn of anybody you know, you hope isn’t one of your family members, you hope that your dad wasn’t getting bread.
You are experiencing a world of peace here. Has it ever happened at home?
I remember the first summer I came here, a war burst at home. It was probably the worst period of my life. I wished I was at home so much because, if anything had happened while me being here... I couldn’t keep living with myself. How would I? Moreover, in the Arabic world the group mentality does matter. We are extremely close: your family is your life. Being here and realizing that in one second all your life could be destroyed… You ask yourself “What am I doing living?” It is not just about guilt, it is also about what I am going to do with myself only. My parents are my motivation.
How do you keep in touch with them?
We do Viber or Skype calls. When is possible, of course. In Gaza we have electricity only for seven hours a day. It’s been always like that, we’ve never known what 24 hours of full electricity mean. If it had ever happened, we would have been surprised of how awesome it had been. Moreover, the time lapse during which we can have electricity usually changes and you never know what the right moment is.
How was growing up as a woman in Gaza?
Most of us are Muslim, but my mum’s generation could go around with shorts, skirts, and long hair. You would have said it was a very western country. However nowadays, with the current government, things are different and they’re stricter. My dad did very much for me. He knew how much I love riding a bike, but, as a woman, I was not allowed to do it. He used to take some hours from his job time in order to take my brother and me riding when other people were all engaged at work, so nobody was around the city. He taught me how to swim, because girls are not supposed to swim. By certain age you are looked upon if you’re in the water, and your clothes are tight on you. He taught me how to hold the drill. He understood the position so strict of the society, but he wanted his daughter to live as free as a man. He acted as a shield for me, and the society would hit him: it’s your dad that is weak because he wasn’t able to raise you. When you grow up then you understand that you don’t want to put a bad record on his white page just for wearing tight jeans. When I grew up I saw the blurred line of the society... sometimes you don’t agree with them, but you bear them anyway. Generally, I have no complaints about Palestine: we have more women educated than men are, we can drive, practice advocacy, work in living organization and cover some roles of responsibility.
However, lifestyle is under restrictions. Gaza is a prison, not only mentally, but intellectually. They have nothing to empower but being religious, because there is no economy, no trade. It’s a way to feel the power. We are so close-minded, we don’t see any perspective, we are just us among us: and that is where the conservative thrives. Which is a reason more why I couldn’t go home. My ideology has been shaped, I’m open to the debate and I’m not sure how much I could import of this freedom of behaviour over there. It takes me very long to kick out all of the negative influences of that culture and taking all the positivity being simply who I am really.
Do you usually read Palestinian literature?
It seems that recently the intellectual curiosity and its general level has been going down in the Middle East. We have less people speaking about current events, analysing the actual time from various intellectual scholar ways. It’s hard to find any source of information. By coming in the U.S, it has been revealing easier for me to discuss about my culture. And I learned about my country, my language, even my religion from another perspective, as a learner. I also started to do research about my country, which made me able to re-explain facts to people who don’t know much about. Many people didn’t know that Israel was not a country before 1948. I tell them that my grandpa hadn’t been always living in Gaza, but he was there as he was kicked out from Masmeya. My grandma had given the keys of the house in Masmeya to my dad, when she passed. My dad is very passionate of this heritage and he created a map of the village, with the position of every house in which every family used to live there. Coming from the same village means being relatives.
The same country that helped you escaping from Gaza is helping the Israel army to fight against Palestinian rebels. How do you deal with this contradiction in yourself?
Coming to U.S. knowing how they consider my identity is definitely a conflict. But when you have been living the life I grew up in, you realize that there is absolutely no future for you. When the depression burst in the U.S. in 2008, the unemployment was only 8%, but the U.S. government was going crazy. Currently in Gaza, the unemployment is 42%. (according to world bank statistics, unemployment is 58% among youth population, and it is the highest in the world). And it is not just for a temporary depression, it has been the same serious situation for years. People have been keeping losing their jobs, going at school isn’t even worth the bother. Maybe, once you’re outside, you can open your eyes on the world, as I did. And that’s what matter. Maybe the whole country won’t wake up one day and won’t know everything, but every small change starts somewhere. And I feel like spreading my voice around, to let people know.
Do you feel hate for what has been happening in your country?
I don’t know if it’s only my case or not, but my family brought me up with virtue of forgiveness. It’s my religion too. If you really know my religion, you should know is a religion of forgiveness and peace. My family told me to take a few breaths when I’m angry. They taught me always to go back on the problem when mind is clear. I rarely feel hate. I don’t point the finger and blame but I prefer to think about the action.
Is the Palestinian identity still alive?
I can’t think about another stronger purpose to fight than is the one of preserving who we are. You grow up and you tell what you want. But people get tired to especially at home, being beaten over and over. And no one cares about, and you keep losing battles for which you fight a lifelong. People lose job, people don’t have food. Sometimes we get food through the tunnels. And how are we paying for that? How can you afford to eat? To raise children? To get married? There is no life. My parents are struggling too. I have four siblings: I need them to get educated. I will also sacrifice my life for them. The circumstances, as bad as they are, made us very strong people. Fighters. It’s not easy to be in a foreign country for four years all by yourself, being a bit older than a teen, and I’m not the only one. This strength we have, this is how you know it is still alive.