After 31 years, freedom from Israel’s blockade
The prospect of leaving for the first time in my life made me so anxious I could not sleep the night before my scheduled departure. It did not help knowing I would have to travel without my laptop, any food, or even shampoo and toothpaste, because Israeli authorities forbid Palestinians leaving Gaza from carrying any of these items. I also knew from talking to fellow Gaza residents who had missed out on scholarship opportunities or were prevented from obtaining necessary medical care that Israel could always bar me from leaving at the last moment without offering any reason.
My bus pick-up was scheduled for 6 a.m. I woke early and headed out in the dark. When the bus arrived, I smiled. Then I cried. I cannot describe the feeling. It was something more than happiness — maybe the feeling of peace or the taste of freedom.
We went through the Erez crossing into Israel and then through Israel and the occupied West Bank to the Allenby Bridge border crossing, where we entered Jordan. I saw vast open green pastures and tall trees. As we passed Jerusalem’s Old City we were not allowed to stop to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque, but I managed to snap a quick photo from the bus window.
‘I felt like a prisoner released on bail, thrilled just to breathe unpolluted air and to see open space, so much light and no darkness.’
Though, as the crow flies, the distance between my home in the Gaza Strip and Jordan’s capital is less than 160 km, the trip took 12 hours. I arrived in Amman at 6 p.m., exhausted but happy. I got into a taxi, and opened the window. I felt like a prisoner released on bail, thrilled just to breathe unpolluted air and to see open space, so much light and no darkness. I walked Amman’s streets, filming myself in videos talking about how it feels to breathe freedom for the first time, so I could bring these feelings with me when I returned home. I got my US visa and flew to New York a week later.
This experience has all been so new to me. During my first few days away, I would wake up in the middle of the night to charge my phone before the next power cut, and then remember that, because I was not in Gaza, my life was not controlled by the electricity schedule.
On the flight to New York, I had to ask the flight attendant where my tray table was, and how to find the bathroom, as I worried I would accidentally open the door of the plane. And I may have been the only adult in New York City who was overjoyed to see the snow last week; I even went out and played in it. But I am slowly adjusting. I have proudly been taking the subway every day between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I am staying with a colleague. When my colleagues went home at the end of our week of meetings, I felt sad, not knowing if I would ever see them again. They told me that they would see me next year, and I hope it is true.
Friends and family back home keep asking: “How’s life outside Gaza?” I cannot answer. How to tell people who live on four to six hours of electricity daily that high-rise buildings in New York leave their lights on 24 hours a day, simply because it looks nice? How it feels to live without generator noises, the deafening roar of Israeli military drones at night, or the constant fear of imminent conflict? Or that you can hop on a bus, train or plane on a whim, without needing a permit, and travel across the world?
I know that I have been more fortunate than many Gazans, 70 percent of whom rely on humanitarian aid. I graduated from college and, in a place where unemployment rates hover around 40 percent for men and 70 percent for women, my father, sister and I all have jobs. No one in my family has been harmed in any of the three military assaults Israel has launched since 2008, and our house has not been hit. And I know I probably could not have traveled if not for my organization’s help. Still, I try not to think about how, later this month, I will enter the Erez checkpoint from the Israeli side and cross back into Gaza, unsure when, if ever, I will be allowed to leave again. It is easier to accept reality in Gaza when you have not seen how other people live.
• Abier Almasri is the Gaza research assistant at Human Rights Watch.
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