I always wanted to leave Gaza, but after I left, Gaza refused to let me. My heart breaks every time I see Gaza being fired upon by Israeli rockets and images of the victims settling in my mind as I sip Turkish coffee in a street cafe in Istanbul.
In late August, Israel attacked Gaza for the second time while I was not there and committed another massacre in Jabalia camp, killing five children from my neighborhood who were playing in the streets, fleeing the darkness and heat of their homes amidst war and a heat wave. My heart sank as I saw them shattered into pieces and covered in their own blood. I am saddened every time I see this continue to happen to my people and still without consequences or deterrence.
I grew up in Jabalia camp, the largest refugee camp in Gaza, which was founded by UNRWA in 1948 for war refugees and is inhabited by 120,000 people. I remember walking the narrow streets as a child and seeing Israeli tanks enter the camp when I was seven, while the children threw stones at the tanks. Jabalia camp is always known among Palestinians as the camp of steadfastness, known for its persistence and endurance in the face of the cyclical attacks by the Israeli forces who invaded the camp and bombed it so many times.
As I walked in the narrow alleys of the camp and saw families outside their homes during the war with battery operated radios, talking about their ordeal and discussing what to cook before the war boils over. I have always admired the spirit of these people and how they keep life going no matter what is happening to them or their loved ones.
My memories in the camp were always clouded by the tenacity of the war, but also by the melodies of lost songs emanating from the adjoining little gray houses. I loved the street parties, the Dabke dancers as a kid—the beautiful ladies who wear make-up and save their smiles for their loved ones as a young man, and the cafes there were filled with old songs and retired old men talking about politics and whether or not they will survive the next war. I still remember the smell of tobacco and fresh coffee in the small cafes and their loud noise.
In case you’re wondering how it goes to see your city burn while you are far away, it hurts as a fresh wound, watching the city blaze behind the screen, while I’m gone and unable to come back due to the unprecedented procedures I have to go through, in order to pass again to enter Gaza. Seeing Gaza suffer another furious attack makes my heart bleed because I have been there once and I knew how the Gazan felt, the anticipation, the loud explosions, the toll and the fear to be the next victim, and all under very severe and harsh circumstances, where power shortages still make you struggle to survive, so you spend your night under a candlelit and prevent you from taking a cold shower in the middle of a heatwave.
At the moment while Israel pretends to be accurately targeting its target, as it is committing one massacre after another, Israelis do not care for a justification, which has been highlighted in the international community. When the case is about Israel’s failures, everyone lies as if is in a deep sleep.
In case you never knew, Gaza once had an airport, located in Rafah, southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt and it was called Gaza International Airport which Israel destroyed four years after it opened. For us this airport, which was a reality in the early 2000s is a dream now, it was a symbol of our freedom and now our freedom is in someone else’s hands, dirty hands that take advantage of our suffering and milk us, and prevent us from exercising our basic right, the right to freedom of movement. And since then, we are only allowed to travel through the Erez and Rafah crossings, the former is the only crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and the latter is a crossing between Gaza and Israel.
Both crossings made the navigation of Gaza residents an unprecedented voyage of nerve-wracking expectation, humiliation, torture, imprisonment and loss. Where you go from Rafah crossing into a 12-hour mini bus ride into Cairo international airport and you meet in the way so many military checkpoints who stop you each time you come across even if you were stopped meters away.
I personally had to pay the Egyptian authorities to travel through the crossing and go on a 12-hour mini bus ride full of travelers, so hungry and dehydrated to arrive at Cairo airport directly. Egypt has prevented dozens of Palestinians from traveling through its country for various political and non-political reasons and made the life of two million people in Gaza a detention.
The harsh economic situation in Gaza had put the young under very tough pressure, especially after the unemployment rate went through the roof and reached 62%, due to the ongoing attacks on Gaza, the 15-year siege that has forced many young people to leave the city after they lost the hope that things would never change in locked off Gaza.
I had to leave Gaza and the endless blue of its sea and go to Istanbul to work on myself, develop my skills, meet people from different cultures and wait for an opportunity to sharpen my skills as a journalist. Although I was not able to speak Turkish, didn’t know much of their culture or the country in general, still I had no choice just to leave the suffocating city that keeps choking me out, every time I think of my dreams and hopes.
While in Gaza I loved to walk by the sea at sunset and as I walked along the sea listening to the sound of the waves and contemplating how I would leave the city, the beach offered me a respite while I sat there drinking coffee, listening to music, playing games.
Leaving Gaza is not easy when you are a young man full of passion and chasing his dreams. Gazan youth who decide to travel are questioned at the borders by Israelis, Egyptians or even Palestinians who have been close to the Hamas government since it became the de facto authority in Gaza.
Following the news from outside Gaza, I was more nervous than when I was in Gaza because I cannot even travel back to Gaza and the people in Gaza, including my family, have no shelter. It’s just as disturbing as that.
Israel’s hypocrisy makes it seem that we are responsible for our own slaughter. Imagine being attacked while you are without housing, without electricity, in the middle of a heat wave, in a city where the majority are teenagers, young people and children, where there is no army in uniform. We are all targets for Israel, we are all the same in their eyes, young, old, civilian, militant, in Israel’s dictionary, there is no difference.
After Israel’s latest bloody attack on Gaza in May 2021, which lasted 11 days and killed more than 250 people, I was most nervous because it was the first time I was outside while Gaza was under attack. In August, Israel launched a three-day offensive in Gaza after attacking an apartment building and assassinating a Palestinian leader, attacked Gaza residents again amid a heat wave and an electric diet, leaving hundreds dead, thousands wounded and displaced.
It’s not that I have a better life in Istanbul, but it’s that I’m free and I can travel when I have the opportunity to work, to get trained and even go on vacation. These are all what I have been denied from Gaza. Freedom of movement, the ability to travel without being worried about my legal documents It is difficult for me to see how the city continues to lose people with each attack, how the dreams of young people are shattered in front of their eyes, how the children are killed, houses are destroyed, the real life of each individual in Gaza is a fragment of what wars leave to them.
It’s hard to see so many young people emigrating and leaving the city when they see things in Gaza are deteriorating and Israel will not stop its cyclical attacks on Gaza.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Ahmed Khaled, 26, civil engineering graduate, Jabalia Camp, who works as a taxi driver, tells me, ”I was trying to save money to pay for the coordination, part of the procedure was done by an office that Egyptian police contacted to coordinate Gaza residents’ travel through Egypt after receiving a very high paid price,.”, Then he adds, “unemployment is very high, there aren’t jobs available in my specialty, so I decided to at least make some money to live my day, rather than just chasing an opportunity in one place or wait till one rarely sees an opportunity.” He seems confused as he drives and sips his cardamom-scented coffee, he seems sad and fed up every time he mentions the name of Gaza, like he is about to explode.
Although there are no official Palestinian statistics on the number of immigrants from Gaza, media reports revealed that 35,000 left Gaza in 2018, including 150 doctors. Ali Owaida, a highly qualified IT graduate who works on a cigarette cart in Gaza, says “I am working hard to travel to a country that will guarantee my life, will grant my dignity back, that will build my future, will hold my hand to reach my dreams and that will be undermined by the poor condition in Gaza and by poverty, blockade and unemployment.”
The cyclical attacks, the 15-year siege, the unemployment, the difficult economic situation, all these are signs that immigration from Gaza has become the only option left to us as young people from Gaza. But still, if we leave Gaza Gaza refuses to leave us.
My heart smells like burning orange
since I left you.
Memories have no taste in foreign lands.
Memories cannot be called memories
away from you, My Gaza.
The clouds of the foreign land are too small
to quench the thirst of my trembling heart.
17 September, 2022