A moment that changed me: I fled the Gaza blockade to study – but my freedom came at a cost

'With every attack on Gaza, I fear my family might be killed' … Walaa Abushaban (Walaa Abushaban)

Walaa Abushaban

The Guardian  /  July 6, 2022

Living in Turkey has opened my mind and given me a future. But leaving my family behind has filled me with guilt.

In 2017, I applied, in secret, for a scholarship to a university in Turkey. Even when I was accepted, I didn’t tell my parents for a while. I lived in Gaza, in the middle of Gaza City – a place that I, like my parents, had never left. Growing up as one of the 2 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip, you get bored with everything. Then, suddenly, when you decide to leave, it feels really hard. You are leaving the place where you have lived all your life, and your family and friends – and you don’t know whether you will ever be able to return.

At school, I achieved high grades. I wanted to study international relations, but my parents said it could be risky to study politics, so I switched to multimedia design and programming. I got good at coding and joined hackathons. Most nights, I would talk to people around the world online. I learned English that way – and by watching Ted Talks with subtitles. But my interest was still in international relations, something I thought I could use to help my country in some way in the future.

When I finally told my parents I had won the scholarship, they were reluctant to let me go. My father worked for an electrical engineering company; my mother had been to university and raised us (I am one of six children). I think my parents are a little more open-minded than many in Gaza City, but they still didn’t want me to leave. My grandfather supported me. He talked to my parents and told them that it was a great opportunity for me and that it would be wrong to reject it.

Israel’s restrictions means very few people are allowed to leave Gaza, so I had to apply for permission; I was due to leave in June that year, but it took six months for the Israeli government to approve my departure.

The hardest part was saying goodbye to my family. I was 19 and it was my first time away from them. My family weren’t allowed to come to the crossing with me, so I had to leave them in the city before being taken there by bus. It felt unbelievable, because I had never even dreamed about leaving the Strip.

I was one of about 20 students leaving Gaza. We set off at 6am. We didn’t arrive in Jordan, having travelled through Israel, until 2am the next morning. It was a very long and stressful day of checkpoints, questioning, humiliations and wondering if I was doing the right thing.

First, we had to get through the Palestinian Authority crossing. The guards asked questions like: “What do you want to do?” even though I knew they knew everything about me. It made me feel uncomfortable.

When we came to the Israeli crossings, it was the first time I had seen Israeli soldiers. I was scared. My mum had made me some sandwiches, which they threw away, along with a mug I had brought.

At the next check, we went into a body-scanning machine. I was with a girl with very long hair under her scarf. The Israeli officers didn’t believe it was her hair, so they made her take her scarf off. Then they started playing with her hair and she began crying. I understand that they wanted to check, but did they have to humiliate her? After they took our bags away to be searched, I found they had gone through my wallet and drawn and written on the banknotes.

At one point, some of the students who were excited started taking photographs. The soldiers shouted at them in Hebrew, then they were put in a room to be asked questions. We got scared because if they detained these few, we were all going to be detained. When they came out, we told them it was a stupid thing to do.

At every checkpoint, there was the fear that they might arrest you or not allow you to leave. I tried to stay silent, answering the minimum, even though I was asked lots of questions. What are you going to study? Tell us about your Facebook account. Why do you speak such good English?

Now, I’m more open-minded, open to the world, exposed to different cultures

I had thought of Israeli soldiers as human beings; I didn’t have hatred towards them, despite what I had been through in Gaza, including three military attacks. I thought they would treat me as a human being in return, but I felt like an object, a risky “thing” from Gaza. They didn’t get close to us, staying behind bulletproof windows. In Jordan, it was the same. There was only one window for Gazans to get their passports checked; we waited for hours.

Leaving Gaza changed me. I am a completely different person now. People there don’t really know what is happening in the outside world. Even though they are exposed to media and movies and books, it is not enough. There are no foreigners in Gaza, so I only got the chance to talk to them online. Now, I am more open-minded, open to the world, exposed to different cultures. I feel free. In Gaza, not only are we under a blockade, but the community also puts a lot of pressure on you – judging you, talking about you.

I finish my degree this year and I am interested in studying for a master’s in conflict management. I feel guilty that I left my family behind. With every attack on Gaza, I fear they might be killed. When my grandfather, who supported my wish to leave, died, I wasn’t able to be there. Last year, during the air strikes, I wanted to go back to Gaza. I thought I would rather die with my parents than be in Turkey, watching it on the news.

I have learned that there is always sacrifice. Do I sacrifice being with my family for my future, or sacrifice my future for my family and friends? I listen to my brain more than my heart. I talk to my mum every day and she asks when I am going to come back. I tell her if I had a future in Gaza, I would come. But I wouldn’t be able to leave again.

As told to Emine Saner