Making the decision to leave Gaza is harder than some would think

A Palestinian woman takes a selfie on Gaza's sea port (APA Images)

Rana Shubair

Mondoweiss  /  October 23, 2022

Many of Gaza’s youth decide to leave the open-air prison and many of those who leave end up alienated or refugees. Sometimes to realize the value of your homeland, you have to leave it.

Survival is a word that has become attached to us Palestinians who live in the besieged Gaza Strip. In the last thirteen years alone, we’ve survived five major Israeli aggressions and other smaller-scale attacks. 

Just after the last Israeli attack, which ended August 7, 2022 at around midnight, many of the people here posted on their social media statuses: “Good morning world. We’re alive. A new lease on life to accomplish our dreams.”

Although physically surviving is a blessing, it doesn’t mean that we’re OK from within. The heavy dosage of military attacks we’ve had to endure, and life under a tight blockade, is itself mentally taxing. People rarely have the luxury to find ways to deal with these circumstances. It turns into a burden, wrecking us from within. 

The burden of surviving

We’re the ones expecting to carry the torch, to uphold the struggle, to remain steadfast in the face of everything, to carry the legacy of every martyr and the responsibility to obtain justice. At many times, this constant battle and the everyday fight to live an ordinary life becomes too heavy. Sometimes it feels enough of a feat to just keep on surviving.

Among all this anarchy, I’ve observed how my people respond to the prodigiously difficult circumstances they inhabit, asking myself how they do it — how do they recover after every attack? How do they maintain their sanity amidst the daily electricity cuts, the restrictions on travel, the denial of access to proper medical care, the  unemployment, the lack of a horizon.

For some, they decide to go back to life, because it’s the only viable option. After every aggression, they express their obstinacy to stay here, no matter how much the oppressor tries to uproot them. They pick up the broken pieces of their lives and rebuild. 

“Nothing can make us back down in the face of the occupation,” they say, almost valiantly. “If they destroy our homes, we will rebuild them. We will stay rooted in our land.” This is the sentiment of many people whose lives were shattered one way or another during the attacks. They’ve been uprooted and displaced before and they can’t imagine going through it again. They also can’t see themselves as living in “someone else’s free country and being treated as the other.” 

For others, they try to find a way out of the open-air prison. 

Given the recurring military attacks, the abject poverty, the rampant unemployment among the youth, it is not surprising that many choose to leave. Instead of dying a slow death, they seek new lands hoping that those countries would give them a chance at life.

Young people find that Gaza, under the suffocating siege, is too limited for their capabilities and dreams — offering them no real chance to develop and enhance their skills. 

“If Gaza were open to the outside world…”

One of those is G.B.

G.B., 27, lived in Gaza for fifteen years and part of her childhood in the Gulf. She says that “because of the siege, cultural diversity and opportunities in Gaza are limited. I volunteered, studied, and worked wherever I could. But then I felt that all my chances dried up. I decided that I needed to travel — to get away from the siege.”

She wishes that the siege would be lifted and points out that “if Gaza were open to the outside world, I’d readily go back and live there.” She explains that she currently lives in Turkey with her husband, but that she still misses Gaza. “I miss my family, and I long to go back, but only for a visit. Although I’ve left Gaza behind, it’s still the place that has enriched my life in many ways. But I can never go back and live there, unless I see a Gaza that is open to the whole world.”

Despite this, G.B doesn’t see that living outside has given her all she dreams of. ‘There’s an amount of racism you have to deal with and which deprives you of the stability you need.” The siege follows you. 

Whenever I see someone leaving Gaza, I’m torn between sadness and happiness. It’s good to know that some people find great opportunities outside, but it’s tormenting to see Gaza lose talented people. Still, no one can blame a generation who grew up under siege when they want to escape the open-air prison. 

Tarneem Hammad, 28, also expressed the same sentiment — she doesn’t want to leave, but if she finds a better job opportunity outside she would have no other choice. After studying in the UK for a year and a half, she decided to return to Gaza. 

“It surely hurts to leave your family, culture and home, but there is no other option. You can’t get married, you can’t get a job, you can’t rent a house, you can’t start a new life. Youth are leaving Gaza because their hopes, feelings, and energies become geared towards leaving.” 

“Even if they don’t know what they’re leaving for, it’s a goal for most youth want,” she adds. “It breaks my heart knowing that Gaza is losing some of its talented youth. But in the end, everyone has a right to decide where to build their lives. I wish circumstances would ease and the blockade would be lifted. Then surely many of the youth will choose to stay and build their lives beside their families.”

Day by day, sixteen years of siege have eroded people’s tolerance in many ways. Some have stable jobs, but they still feel the siege closing in on them. A number of my close friends have expressed this clearly. 

“The number one thing is safety, then comes freedom of movement,” one of them says. “We want to be able to travel freely, just like people do in other places. In Gaza, a person has to register months before traveling and going through inhumane circumstances on their journey through Egypt.”

Then there are those who act on a whim, without any safe and tangible plans, and gamble by leaving by any means, and they may end up drowning in a capsized smuggler’s boat. Others are more patient and weigh their options. 

“As long as I have a secure job here, I won’t leave…but if I were given an opportunity to benefit Gaza while living outside, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so” –

Issam Adwan

Issam Adwan, 29, understands this desperation very well. “In light of the devastated economic conditions, the soaring unemployment, the recurring Israeli attacks — we’ve become more convinced that the only solution for those without a livelihood is to emigrate,” he said. “This is especially true among the youth. I think that emigration is a tool that people use as a way to deal with the difficult reality.”

To Issam, the decision to leave or remain depends on the opportunities that present themselves. “For me, emigrating isn’t a goal in and of itself. So long as there are alternatives in my country where I can be with my family and friends, I’d rather stay,” he says. “Emigration to me is closely linked to the objective I have in mind. As long as I have a secure job here, I won’t leave. As a journalist, I can perform my duties better from Gaza. But if I were given an opportunity to benefit Gaza while living outside, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.” 

To value your homeland, sometimes you have to leave

Amid the different views, one thing stands out that everyone agrees on: the close-knit social ties they have grown so used to can only be found in Gaza. Families get together, friends hang out, and the sense of community is strong. 

Samia Elswerki, 28, says she wishes her daughters could grow up in Gaza among family. This is something she deeply misses. 

“I traveled to Turkey a year ago, and applied for a number of jobs and was thrilled when I found one. I’ve already built a network of people here, which has benefited me on many levels. But I terribly miss my family in Gaza, and if I ever get a good job there, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. I like to think that I will one day. I have two daughters, 3 and 5, and I keep telling them we’re going back some day. If you ask me, I’m truly biased towards my homeland.”  

The man-made blockade imposed on Gaza for the past fifteen years now has driven people to this point. Many took illegal routes and tried to get smuggled out, in many cases leading to disaster at sea. Many drowned, while others made it. Many of those who survived found themselves becoming refugees in the countries where they sought asylum. They found themselves having to go through lengthy and tedious procedures before being granted a decent life. 

The siege affects all aspects of life, too. It leads many qualified people to leave, and the brain drain is real. Even university lecturers aren’t spared this reality — having to obtain special permissions to travel for conferences or workshops. Many of them are denied permission to travel for no given reason. At other times, groups of lecturers apply to the same seminar, but only one is granted permission from the Egyptian authorities. So if it’s not the Israeli side that’s obstructing our lives, it’s their allies. 

Our children have grown up in this besieged, poverty-stricken, and war-ravaged environment, and it’s all they know. When a child finishes school and university, and finds himself winding up at a dead-end, he falls into despair. He’s faced with the conundrum of whether to seek the uncertain path of trying to find some sort of livelihood outside, or to stay here and survive.

But sometimes, to realize the value of your homeland, you have to leave it. And in order to do that, you have to have the freedom to leave. Our children should be able to see the outside world. If lifting this illegal blockade means that they can travel to other Palestinian cities, then they might just see that there’s a promising future that awaits them in their homeland.

Rana Shubair is a Palestinian author and activist from the Gaza Strip