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The unbearable heaviness of finding freedom outside Gaza

‘I have developed a strange belief that things might go wrong. I am afraid that I will be questioned or stopped. I am seriously unable to believe that I have the right to move.’

By Salsabeel H. Hamdan

A Palestinian family sits in their destroyed home in the At-Tuffah district of Gaza City, which was heavily attacked during last Israeli offensive, September 21, 2014. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian family sits in their destroyed home in the At-Tuffah district of Gaza City, which was heavily attacked during last Israeli offensive, September 21, 2014. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

For a Palestinian, Gaza is a place from which escape is nearly impossible. Israel has, for the past 13 years, denied all but a tiny number of applicants the right to travel outside the congested, blockaded strip of land that is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison. For those fortunate few who manage to attain a permit to depart, the extreme shock of life outside Gaza is almost unbearable. Freedom is painful: it triggers the release of long-suppressed emotions, and the realization that a lifetime of unending psychological trauma has rendered them unable to normalize the understanding that their lives can be free of fear, scarcity, and helplessness.

Aamer Arouqi, 26, a Palestinian journalist, said that finding asylum in Belgium felt like being released from prison. “It was my first time ever to see, talk, and touch other human beings outside Gaza!” During his first six months in Belgium, Aamer suffered from intense culture shock, as he grappled with his emotional pain. He was haunted by what he described as “a scarcity mindset,” or the inchoate sense that he needed something he did not have. “I still feel the blockade around me, and a sense of limitation, even in my thinking.”

“The first time I heard the sound of a civilian plane I thought it was an Israeli warplane coming to bomb Gaza,” said Aamer. He was sleeping at the time; the sound jerked him awake, screaming as though from a nightmare. After that, he found that his whole body seized up every time he heard a plane flying overhead. Eventually, he moved to an apartment that was further away from the airport.

Ahmed Almassri, 25, won a scholarship to study in Australia. His first experience of seeing a civilian plane shocked him with the understanding of how deeply his life in Gaza had distorted his perceptions. “For me [the plane] symbolized death, but for others it meant a new life,” he said.

The memories, the shared traumas and worldview anchor these young people in the home they have left behind. “It deforms you and your perceptions forever but you can’t help feeling attached to Gaza, especially if you have family and friends there,” said Ahmed.

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Like most of his peers in Gaza, Ahmed acquired thick emotional armor. “In Gaza, when bad things happen you just get on with your life and don’t feel much. But when you finally leave, the numbness melts away,” he said. Ahmed’s theory is that people in Gaza have become indifferent to current events as a form of self-protection. Even a year after arriving in Australia, he is unable to react emotionally to crises that are deeply important to the people around him, like the global climate emergency. “I feel unable to develop a sophisticated level of caring now, after all the crisis I have seen in my life,” he said.

Nor is Ahmed able to rid himself of his “blockade mentality.” He was unable to plan a summer vacation abroad, because he fears border crossings. “I have developed a strange belief that things might go wrong, and that I might not be able to return to Australia. I am afraid that I will be questioned or stopped. I am seriously unable to believe that I have the right to move,” he said. He suffers constantly from a feeling of being physically confined, he said, and also questions any feeling of happiness — even while he is experiencing it.

Samar (Summer) Alkhdour, who won an academic scholarship that allowed her to build a new life in Canada, says that her survival strategy as she enters the process of post-Gaza self-healing is to “cut off negativity.” Within a year of arriving in Canada, she deleted all the news networks and Facebook pages that have to do with politics or the situation in Gaza. For Samar, this was the only way to maintain her sanity, particularly as a mother. Despite all her efforts to forget, though, the sound of ambulance sirens or helicopters flying overhead trigger intense flashbacks of the bombings and corpses she remembers while living through three wars. “I am 34 years old now and I can’t erase what I’ve witnessed,” she said.

Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 18, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 18, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Mohammed Hammouda, 23, moved to the United States in search of a better life, but the first years were a struggle. He was homeless for a time, but eventually found his way. Like Aamer, Ahmed, and Samar, Mohammed found that the transition to a new country blew the lid off the psychological trauma he had suppressed in order to survive. The sound of a plane flying overhead triggers fears of F16 bombers, and when he comes home at night to a dark apartment he wonders for a moment if the electricity has been cut off — as it very often was in Gaza. “My first moment outside Gaza I felt like I was traveling from one planet to another and I had a hard time grasping it,” he said. It took him a long time to internalize the understanding that he was free. “I am really astonished by the amount of freedom outside Gaza. Living a normal life, eating healthy food, drinking clean water, not being afraid of being arrested for something I said or did!”

Malak Mattar, a Palestinian painter who moved to Turkey with her sister, now finds it easier to manage her time and be productive. Just 19 years old, she now earns a living from her art, which has attracted considerable critical acclaim. In Gaza, the constant crises made it impossible to create a productive routine, and so “I wasn’t able to create in Gaza,” she said.

Adam Masood, 25, a photographer who was prevented from leaving because he had documented the wars in Gaza, finally managed to obtain asylum in Belgium. Like Malak, Adam found that the unending crises in Gaza had made it impossible to establish a stable routine. Now that he has a home in a conflict-free zone, clean water to drink, unlimited access to electricity, and a job, he said, “My mind can be free to dream bigger than the ‘basics.’”

Almassri said he finds it difficult to comprehend that Israelis seem completely unaware of the emotional pain he feels so intensely. “Are [they] living in a parallel universe? It feels so weird how they can’t realize our reality when we are right next to them.” With summer now approaching in the southern hemisphere, his colleagues, who include Israelis, are traveling to visit their families. “And I,” said Ahmed, “Don’t even have the privilege to dream about that.”

Salsabeel Hamdan, or Sal, is a young Palestinian freelance journalist who first started writing for We Are Not Numbers in Gaza, but today lives in Dubai. She has written for several other publications including Local Call, Washington Report, and worked with the award-winning journalist and filmmaker Jen Marlowe while she was in Gaza.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Alkhdour is a single mother.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      It sounds like these people are a lot happier outside of Gaza. Perhaps we should help more people leave Gaza? That seems to be the most humanitarian thing that can be done.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        A tacit admission that the accusation is true: the real strategy of Ayalet Shaked’s Israel is to purposefully make make life in Gaza and the West Bank so miserable that it forces its people to leave. In other words, slow ethnic cleansing. And a tacit confirmation of the heartless Israeli parallel universe in which Shaked and her ilk thrive.
        This must be Tacit Admission and Confirmation Week in the right wing blogosphere, a carnival week in which they let their hair down and let it all hang out.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      Yes, it is obvious that Gaza’s Government has succesfully destroyed their own country.
      Well, at least the Hamas leadership continues to reside in their affluent villas, jetting 1st class around the World and staying in 5 star hotels.
      Hamas officials know how to fully utilize their huge Swiss bank accounts !

      Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      Just an admission that life in Gaza is bad and unlikely to get better and those driven by humanitarian impulses should be trying to give as many Gazans as possible a better life.

      Your impulses are certainly not those. You’d rather they suffer indefinitely if it serves your virtue signalling hatred of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “ Your impulses are certainly not those. You’d rather they suffer indefinitely…“

        A charge as baseless as it is cynical.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Roger

      I have sypmathy with those who live in Palestine. History has been unkind to them.

      For objectivity though, the article ought to acknowledge that this part of Palestine has a land border with Egypt and that if escape from the area is nearly impossible, it must also have something to do with Egypt. It can’t be solely Israel’s fault.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        Roger – yes, Gaza has a land border with Egypt but Egypt is a minor player in regard to the capacity of Palestinians from Gaza being able to leave Gaza.

        Keep in mind that it it Israel that still maintains control of the Palestinian People’s Regeristy and it is only Israel that can provide travel documentation or passport necessary for a visa to allow entry into another State. Despite attempts to paint Gaza as being under self rule, neither Hamas nor the PA have the authority to issue passports. If Israel refuses to grant any Palestinian travel documents (which Israel usually does) then they cannot leave.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Yes, Egypt..
          is a minor player
          does not count
          has no agency
          is a pawn of Israel anyway
          follows Bibi’s lead
          is too weak to stop Israeli policies

          Yes, the Israelbashers follow their own pro-Jihadi agenda.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            A rare moment of truth out of Afula. Yes, Israel is the occupier.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            I see Ben is still stuck in his eternal lie mode.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Like I said, a rare, fleeting moment. Already gone.

            Reply to Comment