From Gaza to Spain – We Are Not Numbers

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Four young people leaning against bridge railing.
The writer (third from left) with friends in Spain. Photo supplied by Shahd Safi.

When the plane landed in Madrid, I was excited. It took me a while to believe I finally made it out of Gaza, the strip where I grew up, the widest open air prison on Earth lacking clean water, with polluted air and daily electricity cuts. An unsafe zone where Israel rains down terror on us through escalations and assaults, and not to forget, the restrictions: in Gaza, Palestinians are not allowed to travel, only occasionally under exceptional circumstances for either education or health. Yet here I was, in Spain, a beautiful place!

I have always dreamed of traveling and have fantasised of safe aeroplanes, airports and travel bags. I wondered about the outside world, how it would feel to live without being occupied. How it would feel to be safe and free without hearing warplanes buzz during the Israeli bombardments on us. How it would feel to escape the resulting fear, to live a normal life in a healthy environment with sufficient electricity. But being born in Gaza, I had difficulty maintaining the hope that these dreams would ever come true. I wondered whether I’d just keep dreaming of graduating on time with no accumulated tuition debt, of finding a full time decent job after my BA degree, and of pursuing my MA and PHD degrees, dreams that most Palestinians in Gaza cannot make come true. When I first enrolled in Al-Aqsa University to study English Literature, I was drowning in fears about my future. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to graduate because my family’s financial situation was not stable. Also, I feared not finding a job, terrifying me because unemployment in Gaza reached 45% in 2022.

These factors made me determined to get scholarships. I studied the first and second academic years in university for free because of scholarships based on my high school GPAs. But during the Covid 19 pandemic, my GPA dropped. I couldn’t get any other scholarships. I depended on my mother for financial assistance during my third academic year, which put a lot of pressure on us both.

In my fourth year of study, I found a part time job with NaTakallm, an organisation that hires displaced persons and their host community members as online tutors, teachers, translators, and cultural exchange partners. I was so glad my refugee status was finally useful somehow, allowing me to be partially financially independent.

I started to save money. I was frugal in order to graduate on time. Then I came upon great news while browsing online. My university offered Erasmus exchange opportunities with Universidad de Jaen in Spain. All the conditions–good GPA, English skills, and CV– applied to me. I was thrilled yet scared I’d be rejected. I had been waiting for an opportunity like this since I enrolled in Al-Aqsa University.

I filled out the application, went through the selection procedures, then received the happiest news: I had been given a scholarship to study one semester at the university of Jaen as an Erasmus Exchange student and would be traveling to Spain! I was both unbelievably happy yet in denial. I barely believed I was finally traveling, that one of my dreams was coming true! Was I dreaming? It took me time to believe the news was real.

I prepared my passport, travel insurance, and other travel documents in a hurry. I purchased travel bags, new clothes, and got myself a new haircut, short, round, and wavy, to signify this new adventure. I booked tickets and rented a house in Jaen. After paying the deposit, I contacted friends abroad whom I previously met online to ask for tips and advice.

If I hadn’t worked at NaTakallam, I would have never been able to cover the travel expenses. It felt so nice to take hold of everything related to my travel on my own at such an age and with such difficulties. It taught me so much responsibility. It truly made me feel like a strong independent woman. Now as I’m writing this, I’m recalling everything. I feel blessed and lucky that among 2.2 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza, I managed to travel.

My travel was not easy though. I remember when I left the Palestinian crossing hall and accessed the Egyptian one, I was so shocked by the Egyptian policemen’s treatment. I had imagined before that this would be the easiest part, that Egyptians are Arabs and that my mother is actually Egyptian who always told me how kind and nice Egyptians are.

The Egyptian crossing hall was not decent nor sufficient. The bathrooms were dirty, their doors were broken and needed to be fixed, the ceiling looked like it was about to collapse on me, and there were no tissues nor water. The crossing hall was small compared with the large  number of Palestinian travellers who for some reason had  to spend hours and hours in the heat there with no air conditioners, drowning in their sweat. I spent eight hours there, not knowing why. I had a camera. I was excited about taking photos of my travels and documenting my experience. An Egyptian policeman took it from me for a few hours, checked and invaded my privacy. I was told not to use it in Egypt and hide it until I arrive in Spain. That part didn’t hurt me though. The one that really hurt is when a policeman pushed my travel bag back with his boots in anger while telling Palestinians off. I felt humiliated. I wondered how Palestinians would treat Egyptians if they were in our shoes, occupied and powerless. I wanted to express my anger and frustration. I wanted to yell at him, but I couldn’t. I was previously told by another policeman that if I said  anything, I’d be sent back to Gaza. That’s when I cursed the Israeli occupation for destroying our Gaza airport and for all that it is bad in Palestine. I also thought how shameful it was what some Egyptians did to us.

Anyways, when I arrived in  Cairo, I was so happy to finally be safe and not in danger of being sent back to Gaza. I remember while leaving the microbus, the driver advised me not to say anything about what happened to me in the hall and also not to say anything bad about Egypt, their president, policemen, and the people. When I talked to Egyptian people, they were nice and kind, just like what my beloved mother has always told me. Their dialect reminded me of my mother’s too. I felt she was right there with me.

In Egypt, I purchased burgers from McDonald’s for the first time. They were so delicious! I spent a night in a hotel, then went to the airport. My seat on the plane was right beside the window. I still remember the day and night views: mountains, lakes and clouds from above. The bright lights I saw from the night sky made my heart smile.

I spent twelve hours in transit in Morocco. The policemen there were kind. My keffiyeh somehow made them feel connected with me. Moroccans there, in the airport, would ask me if I was Palestinian, and when I said yes, they smiled and prayed for a free Palestine.

Then came the moment I was in Madrid’s airport. There was no going back. I would be pursuing my Erasmus, the European Union’s cultural exchange program that supports education, training, youth, and sport in Europe. From Madrid I took a bus into Jaen, to my rented apartment, where I was going to live. I met the landlady, who happened to be beautifully generous and kind, her soul so loving and pure! She gave me the keys and showed me everything in the house after she had cleaned it really well and put food in the fridge and cleaned the bathroom, something my international classmates didn’t get and were surprised when I told them about it.

When I went to my new university, I took with me my strong passion. I filled out the necessary documents and participated in classes. I was hungry to be heard. Every time we were asked to talk about our countries, I’d talk enthusiastically about Palestine. I compared my life in Jaen, Spain to my life in Gaza, where water and air are unhealthy, where we have only eight hours of electricity and must manage it well, where there is no free internet at all, even for students, who have to pay for it even though it is third generation, barely sufficient.

I could see people in Spain were not deeply aware of the Palestinian cause as they see only Western mainstream media. I was happy when a few students told me they knew the truth because of videos that went viral on Tick Tock in the last two years when Gaza was under extreme Israeli assault, and especially right after the Israeli occupation forces tried to invade the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem. So I feel hopeful that we are reclaiming our narrative, the true narrative, for more people are getting to know Gaza from us via social media.

I told my friends about the scenes of destruction I experienced during the attack: buildings falling on residents, heavy dark smoke rising out of the rubble, the sounds of bombs exploding. During each and every aggression over Gaza, my family and I would leave our house to find a safer place, knowing that there are no safe shelters in Gaza, unlike in Israel, while hearing injured people crying in pain. When I hear the voices of planes flying in the sky over Jaen, I feel unsafe remembering the voices of the Israeli bombardment over us. Houses and buildings fall in my memory, children yell and cry. My little sister asks me to hold her hand. My mother tells me to get out of the house, wakes up my brothers, opens the windows, and follows us. Remembering, I feel powerless. Then, I wake up, assure myself I’m fine, and pray for a free Palestine. When I hear anything similar to explosions, like a door being slammed hard, or a rocket exploding, or something heavy falling and breaking, my heart flutters in fear until I remember I’m in Spain, living my dream, safe.

I have also been lucky to meet Palestinians from the West Bank here in Spain. We became a group, two gentlemen and two ladies, who hang out a lot together knowing that it’s hard for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to meet in Palestine because of Israeli restrictions.

In addition, Spanish people are kind, sociable and welcoming! Their desserts are delicious. They make churros with chocolate, donuts and Spanish sponge cake. I have gained some weight that I know I’ll lose when I go back to Gaza. Spain has incredibly beautiful cities and views, there are historical places and sculptures such as Alhambra. There are many green parks, icy mountains, blue lakes and beaches full of people hanging out. I’ve been to Granada, Almuñécar, Barcelona and Madrid. I’ll visit other places before I go back to Gaza in July.

Yet I admit I’m scared I’ll be depressed when I go back to Gaza. Other friends who have gone back told me adapting to foreign countries was much easier than re-adapting to Gaza and that the way through Egypt back to Gaza is even harder. Yet, Gaza still means family and home and I miss it.

This story is co-published with Palestine Deep Dive.

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