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Posts tagged “USA

My Journey to America

After all the difficulties I had been through in order to get myself out of the big prison of the Gaza Strip, I made it to USA.

I spent the first week of the program in Gaza against my will. My hope of leaving had gradually been fading until I received a call informing me that I would be leaving through Erez on the 26th of June after a whole week of pain trying to pass Rafah border. I was in Gaza physically but not mentally. My mind was constantly with the people who would become my second family soon after my arrival. I was daydreaming of life in USA and I couldn’t wait till I arrived there. I thought I was so unlucky that I missed a week in my life there but in fact I was such a lucky girl. What had been waiting for me was beyond my expectations.

At 8 am, on the 26th of June, my adventure had started. I had passed through Erez and Jerusalem, and somehow I was able to convince my driver to take me by the old city. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bus till I arrived Allenby Bridge in Jericho, but my driver had sympathy for me and he allowed me to have one hour there even though he took a risk by doing that. I actually exceeded the limited time I had as walking in the old streets of Jerusalem and visiting all the holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stole my mind. I was jumping in the streets and singing out loudly like a nut. Can’t blame me for that! I had to go back to where we agreed to meet in order to get dropped off by Allenby to complete my way to Amman, while wondering why it must be so difficult for me to go to my capital city and why I have to go through all these complex procedures in order to travel.

I had arrived in Amman by 6 pm and had stayed with a very nice woman whom I knew through Facebook as she was supporting the sales of my calendar, Gaza Calendar 2011. I spent a short but unforgettable time in Amman. My plane was scheduled to leave at 5 pm on the following day. I had to travel to Dubai’s airport and then to Washington DC.

I couldn’t believe myself when I took my first step out of the plain in Washington DC airport after a 12-hours-non-stop flight. I was even more excited knowing that only a couple of hours separated me from joining the MEPI family. But I should learn that excitement sometimes works in the wrong direction. I was walking the airport with a look full of excitement, smiling to everyone I encountered, and ended up sitting in a gate that I thought it was the right one, but realized had been the wrong one two minutes after my flight to Philadelphia took off. It was actually kind of funny. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I guess for someone who had taken a 12-hour non-stop flight, sitting between two elderly people who kept snoring the whole trip, it is normal to run out of batteries. My flight was rescheduled for me. It was by then a bit sad as almost nothing remained to meet my MEPI family, but it turned out to require four more hours of waiting. Then I cried like a baby until I fell asleep, only to wake up just as my flight started boarding and return to the same excitement I had before.

“Nothing happens without a reason” – this is something that I started to believe in very deeply. I met wonderful people on that flight that left an impact on my vision for my future. Some of those people belonged to a church group who were volunteering in Zambia fighting hunger and poverty there. By the end of the trip, it felt as if I was one of them. They didn’t leave me tell they made sure that I got my luggage and everything was ok with me. Soon after, they formed themselves as a circle and held each other’s hands and included me. Then they made a prayer with their eyes closed to give thanks for their safe arrival. I am Muslim but I joined them while they were doing their prayer and it felt good to me. I believe that religions shouldn’t create gaps between people. To whatever religion we belong, we are all humans at the end of the day and what we share is more than how we differ from one another.

As I was walking toward the exit expecting to see somebody to drive me to Newark, Delaware, I saw the coordinator of MEPI program in the University of Delaware, waiting for me and holding a paper with my name written on it. After glancing at him, I ran to him and I hugged him as if I knew him already. I was just so excited about starting my journey. He drove me to Delaware where my MEPI family was waiting for me excitedly.

Meeting my MEPI family was so special to me. Thinking of them constantly before the time came and following their Facebook posts from Gaza made them already a part of me, even before I met any of them. That made it easier for us to get along. We were together all the time. We used to leave each other at bedtime, only to dream about the next day. Every day made us more connected and more caring about each other. I felt a real family overwhelmed with love, passion, and care around me. We would laugh together and cry if anyone started to shed a tear. They maybe didn’t know to what extent each one of them affected my personality, but at least I know that they will keep their own place in my heart forever. My colleagues were from 14 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We had many differences but those differences didn’t keep us apart, they only made our family more interesting. We had fun laughing at each other’s accents and sharing our cultures. The loveliest part was the staff members. They are such great people who accompanied us all the time to make sure that every day would be better than the previous day. They were there to educate us, to help us doing our homework, and to cheer us up whenever we felt down. They dedicated themselves to supporting us in every way they could. Such giving and loving people are rare to find. They have left an enduring impression on me. I feel so proud having had a chance to be close to such wonderful people with amazing characters.

The real wealth is not measured with money but with how many close relationships you form. Therefore, I consider myself to be very rich as I have many real friends that I can trust for the rest of my life.

Apart from making friends, for a Gazan, who got used to seeing gray all around and not much green, it is delightful to see some views of nature. This is another thing I loved about America. I never got bored wandering around in the streets as the huge trees with fireflies that seemed like Christmas tree lights made me full of joy and inspiration. I would go for a walk ifI felt rough, but that was never a way for me to relax in Gaza. I never minded long drives, too. My head would keep swinging from one window to another in order not to miss any views. We would pass by huge lakes that took my breath away, or a group of geese, or sometimes we would see deer standing by the woods.

I felt so fortunate had having a chance to let my eyes enjoy pondering nature there and meeting many interesting people, some of them were great professors who are so passionate about the Palestinian cause. They became excited about setting up a meeting with me as soon as they know I am a Palestinian living in Gaza.

I also enjoyed talking to people that I encountered by chance. Palestine was my favorite topic to talk about whenever I had a chance. It was funny as most times I spoke to anyone, she or he would ask me where I am from, and then I would reply with a smile on my face, “I’m from Palestine.” Then most people would ask, “Pakistan?” and I would say again, “no! PaLLLLestine” to make sure that I make the pronunciation of letter “L” as clear as possible. But this actually didn’t make any difference to some of them, as they would either ask “where is that?” or “what’s that?” My answer would be “Do you know Israel?” They would show all the expressions of confirmation they can and then I would say “well, Israel is in Palestine” to leave them with exclamation marks on their faces. And then they would be confused, which would be the responsibility that I enjoyed the most, to explain what I meant with history as my only evidence.

It was a bit sad that many people didn’t recognize my country. I say MY COUNTRY as I’ll never lose hope that it is going to be a country one day. Sometimes I got emotional seeing maps with Israel written in bold on the world map and not finding Palestine in the resources that were given to us for use during the leadership program. However, that only grew two things inside me: Knowledge of how hard I have to work to educate people about my country, and determination to make Palestine recognized by every human being on the planet.

Writing about my journey to USA can never end. Briefly and honestly, the five weeks I spent there made me much more mature and confident in my potential, and my ability to give as much as to take. I’m not such a different Shahd, but I can assure you I am a better Shahd after this interesting, eventful, and educational journey.


Pure hell at the Rafah crossing

“Oh yes! I got the scholarship! I’ll be going to USA for a leadership program,” I said while jumping with happiness after reading the email with news of my approval। I thought I had passed the most difficult step. It wasn’t actually the step that I should have worried about. I realized later that I had rushed my happiness, and that it had been too early to feel like I was in control of everything.

When the time to book my tickets came, the American embassy gave me two options; either to leave through Egypt to the USA, or to go through Erez border to Amman and then to the US. I was confused. I had a flashback of being humiliated in the Erez border when I went to Jerusalem to get my visa for the USA. I thought that was enough of that, and there was no need to go through the same experience again. In the meantime, I had read articles and followed the news that announced the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. So I quickly decided to go through Egypt, but didn’t know that it was a stupid decision until it was too late.

I was in the middle of a bunch of discordant voices which would eventually end up driving me crazy. Haha, welcome to confusing Gaza! First, I heard that it was not difficult any more to leave through Rafah, and that it was even easier for women. “All you need is your passport and you will leave very easily and quickly.” Most people agreed on that, relying on fake news reported by the media. Later, I realized that this was what should have been implemented, but not what had happened in reality. I had to go the Rafah border and reserve the date of 18th of June to travel. When I went there, I found people fighting because every date before the 22nd of July had already been taken. I was very depressed, thinking that my dream of visiting the USA wouldn’t happen because of a border, but was lucky enough to meet a man who liked me and sacrificed his reservation on the 18th of June for me. Then I thought that there was nothing more to worry about.

The 18th of June came. It was last Saturday. I was at the Rafah border by 7 am. I kept standing for long hours under the burning sun with dad and my friends Joe and Rocky from ISM. I had to beg people to help me. I saw old men and women crying. I realized then that wherever I went, I would get humiliated, and that I shouldn’t have paid attention to what I experienced at Erez, because no matter how hard that was for me, it wasn’t any harder than the humiliation I would face at Rafah. I went back home that day at around 4 pm. I forced myself to sleep to escape from the frustration I felt at having to get up the following day and make a second attempt at crossing. I didn’t only make a second attempt; I had a third, a fourth and a fifth, all for nothing! I used to leave home so early with my suitcase, torturing myself, my family and my friend to return with it after committing around 8 hours there. I’m still stuck in the horrible prison of Gaza.

It is, simply, pure hell at Rafah. Every day I went to the border was harder than the one before it. Every day, I just got more and more frustrated. “There’s only one way you’re going to leave: with a strong connection”- this is the system that the Rafah border follows. Every day I went there, I bled tears for the people who have been struggling to leave for weeks, but couldn’t. There was no mercy for anybody, whoever they were: old or young, sick or healthy, or whatever. It’s not like the movies: it is true drama, so sad and so miserable. For the past five days, I’ve been dying to hear a certain response from anyone working there. Nobody can bother to talk to you or tell you anything, you just have to try and try without stopping.

When people said that I didn’t have to worry anymore about crossing though Rafah, and that I could leave easily and quickly, it seems that they meant that you could leave very quickly, within at least two weeks. Oh, what a joke! But after I went though that hell, don’t think that I am going to surrender. No, I’ll keep going. Persistence is the only way to reach goals, and I’ll reach them eventually.

Why should my dreams be crushed at the Rafah border? Why, after I got a chance that a Gazan can have only once in a lifetime? Why should the media lie about reality? Why should they let us go so far with our dreams, then finally shock us with the reality? Where is the honesty of the media and where is the honesty of leaders, be they Palestinian or Egyptian? Who is responsible for all the suffering that Gazans face at Rafah? We are the victims of a web of lies.


To get my Visa to USA, I passed by Jerusalem as a stranger and wast humiliated

It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.

My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.

As I passed through the first checkpoint, the alarm bell rang. I started to feel worried but one of my friends told me that it was because my bag contained a laptop. Seeing some Palestinian men working there helped me to relax. One of them told me not to worry as this was normal. He took it from me and he asked me to enter the gate again. I did, with my heart beating fast. After that we were led to enter lots of gates, one after another.

My eyes waited excitedly to see the green lights. I reached one point where I had to stand in an exact way. I tried to show that I had no fear. I saw the green light and they allowed me to pass. I took a deep breath then, but I was so rushed! Unluckily, I heard some Hebrew through the speakers which were spread everywhere around. Then an old Palestinian man who was responsible to show the travelers where to go yelled loudly, calling me back. “I don’t know what the problem is with you, my daughter,” he said with his eyebrows high, showing surprise and worry. “Come back to the same gate and do as I tell you to do,” he continued. I couldn’t hide my panic anymore. I did as I was told but the signs of worry on my face were obvious. “Smile or else the photo will be dark,” the Palestinian man joked to make me less worried.

I wondered why everybody else was having fewer obstacles at passing than I, but I had no answer to my question. I thought that nothing could be worse than that when I passed that grim gate. I was mistaken again. They sent me to a special check point. I was ordered to go into an empty room with a window of glass and an empty chair, a table, and a microphone behind it. I was about to cry, but I tried to pull myself together because I believed that what would make them happy was seeing me fall. I kept standing and just waited. It was totally quiet and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, while I looked around the place randomly, an Israeli female soldier sat in the chair.

“You have to do what I tell you exactly,” she said. “Take off your trousers,” she continued with that severe, intense voice. I looked at her with surprise, asking if she was serious. She repeated the same sentence in a louder tone. I could not summon any reaction but the same shocked look. “It is an order!” she shouted, and continued, “You don’t have to worry as only you and I are here.” I kept my head high and I took them off, insisting on making my dream of reaching Jerusalem reality. She ordered me to turn myself around and then pull my t-shirt up. I put my stuff inside a box to be checked as she ordered, and then got it back to dress again.

I am writing this to you feeling so low. Maybe some would think that I should not speak about this, but I must. People have to know how we are humiliated, how badly we are treated, as if we were less than human beings. What was the point of doing that? Obviously nothing! Why did they choose me in particular? For absolutely no reason! They just wanted to enjoy inflicting psychological torment on somebody, and the lot fell upon me. I tried to keep my strength, but this experience left a deep pain inside me.

All my friends passed earlier than me. They waited for me on the other side. As I joined them again, I felt so much better. I decided to live in the moment and not to let anyone ruin my happiness at finally reaching the bus of the American embassy that had been waiting for four hours to take us to Jerusalem.

I only needed to deeply breathe the fresh air of the lands on the other side of the Erez border to feel relaxed. It was such a special feeling. We got into the bus which drove us to Jerusalem. I kept looking through the windows at the places around us. I was amazed. I saw fantastic nature wherever I directed my eyes. They were so hungry for such views. I looked around wildly in order to not miss any of the beauty: the hills, sandy and rocky mountains, green fields, huge trees, and colorful flowers. On our way from Erez to Jerusalem, as I pondered nature, I sang Fairoz’s song about the streets of the old Quds, feeling so happy that I had made it, in spite of every difficulty I had passed through. The taxi driver, who is originally from Jerusalem, noticed my painting book and asked me about it. “I am an artist and I always wanted to draw the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque face to face one day. So I hope that this will be my chance to do so,” I said. “Do not be so dreamy. I have to drop you by the American embassy, and immediately after you all finish your visa interviews, I will take you back to the Erez border,” he replied. After I thought everything was going to be fine, I was mistaken again.

As I got inside the bus after picking two flowers planted in Jerusalem's soil

As I got inside the bus after picking two flowers planted in Jerusalem’s soil

I don’t blame him, as he just followed the orders issued by the embassy. I pity the situation though, living as a stranger in my homeland. As soon as I got out the bus and stepped onto the ground, I started jumping, feeling happy that I was standing on the Holy Land. Everything was perfect with the visa interview and thankfully I got it. I did not want to go outside the embassy as we would then get picked up to go back. Eventually, we had to ride the bus and I was lucky enough to take two beautiful red flowers with me.

They were so strict about taking us directly to Erez, but the driver sympathized with us and could understand what if felt like for Gazans who are in Jerusalem, for the first time in their lives, to reach it without seeing the Dome of The Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the end, he said that he could only take a street which would allow us to see the view. I saw it from so far away just like it is seen in the picture, such an amazingly beautiful scene that my eyes could not stop gazing. It is like magic. Seeing that view, and the fact that we could not go closer, and even that we couldn’t open the window and put our heads out, made me very emotional.

“I have to move. I am sorry,” the driver said with a broken voice. I turned my head toward the dome until it disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a long silence. I went to an empty seat in the back of the bus and lay on it, closing my eyes and letting my soul fly over Jerusalem’s dome. With a mixture of feelings, I fell asleep. I woke up when I arrived at Erez, and now write to you about my trip to Jerusalem from my own room in Gaza.


Amidst long hours of waiting to pass to Jerusalem

It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.

My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.

Last night, I went to bed at 11 pm, much earlier than I’m used to. I forced myself to stay under my blanket. The room was very dark and no sound could be heard but the sound of me moving in bed continually. I wanted to sleep so that 7 am today would come quickly, but all my attempts failed. Daydreaming in darkness conquered my mind. I dreamt about my travel to Jerusalem, the smell of its air, the view of its nature, its streets, and its people. My excitement to reach it kept me awake and I only managed to sleep at 4:30 am, then woke up again an hour and a half later.

Amidst this chaos and all the people around me who are chatting as an attempt to make time pass faster, I’m putting my headphones in my ears and listening to Fairoz, trying to live in my own world. I’m writing now from Beit Hanoun border or the so called Erez border. I’m sitting in a hall among lots of people, many of them patients and traders. Everybody has an excuse to go to Jerusalem and waiting to get permission to pass. My eyes are confused; one eye on the people around me and another on the fences that surround me from all destinations, laughing and sarcastically pitying the situation. Isn’t it funny that all of us here are waiting for hours to have a pass to go to our capital, Jerusalem? It’s not fair at all that I need an excuse to go there!

Now I’ve completed two hours of waiting and I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have to wait. While I was writing nonstop, an old woman sat next to me. Her traditional Palestinian dress lined by red embroidery attracted my eyes. The wrinkles of her face looked like she was bearing so many burdens that I thought she was older than only 66 years old. “Are you a refugee?” she asked. I smiled at her, nodding my head to confirm that. Then she said that she is too a refugee. That was the start of a very interesting conversation about our lands, which all Palestinian refugees were cleansed from in 1948. She was only three years old when her family was expelled from her original village, Acre. “I was the youngest of the family,” she said. “My parents and my old brother took turns carrying me,” she said. “They had to put a cover on my face to protect me from the hot weather on that gloomy day.”

Trying to make her laugh, I said, “No wonder why we met here. We are here to return back home!” I laughed. It wasn’t as funny as I thought. Her expressive face showed sorrow. “Oh, I hope so!” she sighed. And then she explained that she was accompanying her son’s twins who suffer from an illness. They sought a permit to cure them at Al-Maqased, a hospital in Jerusalem, and they managed to get it. I tried to change the topic, hoping to stop her from worrying about her grandparents for at least few minutes. I asked her if she knew where my original village, Beit Jerja, was located. While she was looking through the fence, trying to think where to point, her son came rushing her to to tell her get ready, as it was time for them to leave. She hugged me, wished me luck, and then left.

She left to let me return to the situation of depression I am going through, and to continue waiting to follow her to my lovely city that I have always dreamt of reaching: JERUSALEM.