The Fate of an Exile

Expat night shop. Brussels, September 2014.

Being a Palestinian from Gaza means you are deprived of some of the most basic rights of being human—like the comfort of family. Due to the 11-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, I haven’t been able to return home for six and a half years.

Yes, Egypt’s Rafah Crossing with Gaza has technically been open since the middle of May, but it’s not that simple. There is a waiting list of more than 20,000 for Gazans who wish to leave and are not on the “priority list” due to illness, etc. Plus, Palestinians have a very difficult time obtaining visas so they can visit most other countries; we are somehow “suspect.” As for me, I am not allowed to leave my new home in Belgium while my asylum application is considered. And even if I could, as I just explained, getting out of Gaza so I can return to university would be a bit like playing Russian Roulette.

What this all means is that I miss many special events in my family. One of them was my youngest brother Mohammed ’s wedding last year. The brother who has pretty much grown up without me.

The other day, I woke up to a message from my cousins, who also live in Gaza, with the news that I have become an aunt. Honestly, I couldn’t feel happy, because what came to my mind was, “Why I am learning about this special event via WhatsApp? Why I am deprived of sharing moments like this with my family?” I felt anger and pain fill my heart; nobody can truly understand this feeling except those who also must live in exile.

I grabbed my mobile phone and started calling each member of my family in Gaza. Unfortunately, there was no answer. Either they were all busy visiting the new baby, or their batteries weren’t charged and they were out of electricity. Gazans receive about four hours of electricity per day right now; if they get even half an hour extra, they are shocked and wonder if something is wrong. I hoped they were all busy with visiting. I didn’t want to imagine a young woman surviving the hot weather in Gaza just after giving birth, with no way to turn on a fan. Tears dripped down my cheeks. Would I ever be able to visit Gaza again like relatives are supposed to do? When will I be able to hug my new niece tightly and spoil her with toys? It is all up to the Israeli occupation and the complicit Egyptian government.

Operation Protective Edge protest. Brussels, July 2014.

I realized I was being too negative. I inhaled and exhaled for a moment. I tried to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. I imagined my parents’ shouts of happiness. I envisioned my little brother’s inability to hold the baby correctly while pretending and believing he can. I imagined the entire Abusalama clan (without me, my sisters and older brother) gathering in the hospital, making noise and ordering the nurses to fetch what is needed by mother and child. Reflecting on how patriarchal Gaza is, I cannot deny that I am happy the baby is a female. Growing up myself inside the oppressive social environment forced by the Israeli blockade, I know how lucky she is to have my encouraging and caring parents as grandparents and my little brother and his wife as parents.

I finally managed to contact my family after 48 hours. The first thing mum said was, “Our happiness is incomplete without your presence.” I have heard that sentence repeatedly in my exile. It causes painful cracks in my soul. I mostly tend not to answer when she says that; I feel obliged to show the strongest part of me to my parents so that they don’t worry. As our conversation continued, my parents mentioned the US cuts in funding for the UN agency that provides aid to the refugees in Gaza. My niece is a refugee since we are all descended from families forced out of Palestine when Israel was created. She could not be vaccinated when she was born, because U.N. employees were protesting job cuts that day. Why should a 2-day-old baby be punished because she happened to be born in occupied Palestine? Oh, beautiful baby, Palestinians grow up knowing this world is not ours. It belongs to self-centred elites who only care about their own interests. Despite this, believing in our just cause, we go on fighting.

There was much discussion about what our new family members should be named. We all agreed we wanted a name linked to our cause, so we finally decided on Elia’a. The ancient name for Jerusalem, it is a symbol of resistance. It is a message to all those trying to ignore the fact that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine.

Elia’a, I know you would never have chosen to be born in the biggest open-air prison in the world. But keep in your mind that our souls are like birds, capable of flying on the strength of our imagination, regardless of Israel’s efforts to snuff it out. I also would like to apologize for placing you in a politicized context. But you will understand this later; the world is all about power relations.

If I were there next to you, I would hold you tight to my chest and whisper in your ear, “My family will always be there to support you. You are a strong, Palestinian woman.”

Operation Protective Edge continues. Brussels, August 2014.


This article originally appeared in We Are Not Numbers and is republished with permission. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.