World

'I Wake Up to Read Messages of Horror:' Living the Gaza War From the Outside

Hundreds of Palestinians have to fear for their loved ones’ lives from afar.

A Palestinian woman mourns during the funeral for those killed in heavy Israeli bombardment of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 21, 2014
Photo Credit: AFP

Tales of terror, trauma and heroism flow daily out of the Gaza Strip, but behind the headlines are an unknown hundreds of others who have been forced to fear for their loved ones’ lives from afar. Separated from their parents, siblings, children and spouses after leaving the Strip – typically for long-dreamed-of study abroad – they have watched news of the Israeli assault with horror. Some have lost homes, relatives or both – and others woke up every morning worrying that it would be their turn.

Sameeha Elwan, who left Gaza City to study for her PhD in Perth, Australia, wrote on July 29: “The fear and horror aches in every bone in my body. When I sleep at night, my mouth whispers prayers to my loved ones in Gaza, while my eyes well with tears over the loss of more children. I dream of my family, of a need to hide them somewhere, of confusion about where is safest, of broken stairs that prevent me from reaching my sister…And then I wake up to read messages of horror from my friends on Facebook.”

War as a crucible for activism

Tamam Abusalama, who recently completed her first year of journalism studies at Ankara University in Turkey, echoes Elwan. “Not being there with my family makes me feel very bad. It’s so hard to only read and watch what is happening, without being able to be there with them. When I sleep I have awful dreams; I was afraid of waking up to hear more bad news. Before going to bed each night I would prepare myself to find out that someone I love had been killed.”

Abusalama, her two sisters and older brother all were fortunate enough to be able to travel out of Gaza to pursue educational opportunities – relatively rare among the Gazan population. However, like most other Palestinians, they come from a closely knit family, and their parents and younger brother still live in their family home in a neighborhood in northern Gaza City, along with a network of other relatives who reside in the Jabalya refugee camp.

On the first day of Eid al-Fitr (the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan), the siblings received via Skype the news they had dreaded: Their mother’s cousin, whom they call “uncle,” had been killed in an F-16 attack on Jabalya, leaving behind his wife and two small children, ages 3 and 4.

“When I first heard the news, I was shocked and started crying, thinking of his children. They still don’t understand what that means, or where their father is,” says Shahd Abusalama, one of Tamam’s older sisters. She will leave Turkey soon to pursue a master’s in international human rights law at SOAS, University of London. “But my father reminded me that there is a price for freedom. And that we are so much better off than other families who have been totally wiped out, or who have members who now have horrible disabilities.”

“We’ve lived through many wars before, and have seen how a lot of aid is promised, but not much is actually received by the families who suffer the most,” explains Shahd. “This is not just humanitarian handouts like the international NGOs give, but solidarity – a sign of our deep appreciation for the price these families have paid for standing strong for our rights as a people. We are part of a connected resistance, which takes many forms.”

When support is thin

Coping is much harder, however, for Palestinians from Gaza who find themselves in communities without strong support.

Both Alaa Asad and Ahmed Rezeq are living within “the belly of the beast” – Egypt and the United States, respectively. Asad is attending his first year of medical school in Cairo, separated from a family who lives so close to the Israeli border that evacuation to a UN school was necessary. He tried for five months before he was finally able to make it out of Gaza, and yet he says what he really wants is to be with his family during such a time of hardship. While his family does not want to worry him and has told him little directly, word has leaked out that his home has been largely destroyed and one of his brothers wounded – spending six days in the hospital.

It doesn’t help that he must hide the fact that he is Palestinian from everyone in Egypt except his fellow countrymen, saying instead that he is from Jordan or Syria. The current military administration ruling Egypt has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the Gazan government is affiliated, and the media frenzy against the group that has ensued has made it difficult there for all Palestinians.

“While I was walking on the street one day, I saw an old woman carrying heavy bags,” says Asad. “I offered to help her, and while walking by her side, I told her I am a Palestinian from Gaza. It was like she became another person, swearing and angry.”

Ahmed Rezeq, who is attending his first year of university in California thanks to a full scholarship from the U.S.-based Hope Fund, is an hour away from Los Angeles and there are no protests or solidarity groups where he lives. Fortunately, although he says his friends do not really understand what is happening, they are very supportive. It is difficult, though, for Rezeq to balance the warmth and welcome he feels at school with the actions of the U.S. government.

“I remember the day when President Obama was elected for the first time,” recalls Rezeq, who comes from Deir Al Balah in central Gaza. “A lot of Palestinians, including me, were really happy. We expected that since he had experienced injustice in life as a black man, he would never support it elsewhere. Like Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere.’ But he has shown himself to be no different from other presidents in his total support of Israel, even when it was massacring my people.”

Paying the ultimate price

The Palestinians abroad who have suffered the most are those who have lost homes and immediate family members – unable to help rebuild or say a final goodbye.

Refaat Alareer is a professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and editor of a collection of his students’ short stories, Gaza Writes Back. He has been studying for his PhD in Malaysia, leaving his wife and three young children with his extended family in Gaza. They live in a neighborhood near Gaza City called Shejaya, a community now made infamous by an Israeli massacre that killed more than 85 people, about a third of them children.

On July 22, his wife’s sister, brother-in-law and three of their children were killed when an Israeli F-16 struck their house as they slept. Two days later, Alareer received a text message saying his wife’s brother, cousin and grandfather had been murdered as well. And then the ultimate blow came. The family complex of seven flats was leveled by an airstrike, and his 31-year-old brother, Mohammed, was killed -- leaving behind his wife and two children, ages 4 and 1.

“Being away from my family, from my home, I feel like I am betraying them, like I am letting them down when they most need me,” he writes, adding that he will put his PhD program on hold while he helps care for his brother’s children and rebuild their family home. “My inability to provide the help and protection I should is making the pain unbearable. There is nothing in the world I need right now except to be back in Gaza, with my family. I want to be home.”

As of this writing, Alareer is still trying to return.

Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and activist. 

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