Navigating dreams, survivor’s guilt, and the yearning for Gaza

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Fireworks behind office highrise in Malasia.
Komtar Tower, Penang, with the fireworks behind it that I could not enjoy. Photo: Basma Almaza

Until I turned 17 in Gaza, I thought my life was ordinary. That’s when I realized traveling abroad wasn’t just a journey; it entailed enduring a thousand deaths — facing borders and experiencing psychological torment that cuts deep into the heart. The Israeli attacks seemed endless, the constant sound of occupation helicopters, and the lingering scent of smoke robbed us of sleep. Seeking solace at night, I listened to echoes of bombing sounds under my blanket.

Always the restless daughter, yearning for more, I found the confines of my hometown unbearable. The idea of traveling consumed my dreams. I yearned for freedom to explore the world, traverse mountains, and swim in oceans— a soul aware that leaving was essential to pursue something greater.

Yet, now that I managed to chase those dreams, the place I long for is the very home I once desperately wanted to escape. Being away from Gaza brings an overwhelming sense of guilt, living without the constant threat of bombing and death. The pursuit of my dreams now intertwines with the ache of leaving those I love, my true home, my refuge. I yearn to be with them, cherishing every precious second — seconds that could be the last. I’ve become the restless daughter eagerly longing to run back towards the fire I’ve always known.

Had I known that the hurried hug before catching the waiting car would be the last, I’d have cherished that moment longer. My anticipation of reuniting with my family in just three years transformed into an endless wait. I regret not engraving every detail of home in my memory — the aroma of Mother’s breakfast, the smiles of my brothers, and the wisdom in Dad’s words. A longing that began when I left home in 2022.

Haunted by the past

On Dec. 31, 2023, a day meant for embracing new beginnings with hope for a better 365 days, I found myself amidst the celebrations in my university town in Malaysia. Clad in subdued purple and black attire, I couldn’t bring myself to wear the vibrant colors that once adorned my wardrobe back home in Gaza. The scent of Arabic perfume clung to me. I forced a smile, attempting to absorb the joy of bustling streets while ignoring the shadows beneath the festive facade.

As fireworks illuminated the sky, casting shadows on the renowned tower in Penang, an overwhelming sense of dread gripped me. While fireworks typically evoke joy, for us, the people of Gaza, they stir distinct emotions. What should have been a celebration felt more like an impending bombing, triggering haunting memories of the five wars I had experienced in Gaza. In an instant, my mind was transported back to my past. Instead of the sounds of joy in 2023, all I heard were the screams of horror from 2009. I wasn’t seeing people dancing and singing; I could only see horrifying scenes of people losing loved ones and body parts, and of bodies being buried alive under the rubble.

Panic…

Noise…

Amidst the celebration, my senses dulled the surrounding noise, and memories of the Alfakhora school massacre in 2009 in Jabalia Camp flooded back. 40 people were killed. I stood there, drenched in blood that wasn’t mine. The buried memories of that day surfaced in that very moment.

Panic…

I can’t breathe…

Struggling to breathe in 2023, I found myself back in 2018, reliving the terror as bombs rained perilously close to our home. Experiencing that gripping fear, that overwhelming sense of being alone facing the impossible, while the whole world watched us like spectators to a horror movie.

Panic…

Silence…

In the grip of panic, I sought solace in a hopeful memory from 2021, the year I applied to study in Malaysia. Despite the Israeli attacks, the prospect of going abroad filled me with hope, awakening a sudden yearning for life. The fear of death became my constant companion during the harrowing moments of sudden airstrikes. The unsettling silence that followed power outages only heightened the sense of vulnerability during these attacks.

The rapid memories left me momentarily deafened, seeing only flames flickering before my eyes.

Street in Penang with colored lights on the trees.
The street in Penang where the stranger spoke to me. Photo: Basma Almaza

A random stranger broke the silence and brought me back to 2023.

Joyously, he asked, “Where are you from?” oblivious to the darkness inside me. My tongue tied, English failed me, I revealed my identity as a Palestinian with a feeble voice. He responded with a warm smile, extending his arms as a gesture of respect and surprise, reminding me that I was not in Gaza but in Malaysia.

The sympathy in his eyes intensified the guilt within me, reigniting the daily questions: How can I lead a normal life when everyone I love is suffering? How can I partake in celebrations when everyone else is under bombardment? How can I be safe when Gaza is not? A deep yearning to cry welled up inside me, but there were no more tears in my eyes.

Missing my mother

As the internal storm raged, I imagined my mother smiling at me. The stark contrast between the festive atmosphere around me and the traumatic memories of war in Gaza sparked an intense ache for my mother’s comfort and support. An overwhelming desire to embrace her, inhale her scent, and share my guilt and pain with her enveloped me.

Until October 12th, I used to talk to my mom every day, sharing everything from the moment I wake up until I fell asleep. Since then, communication has been scarce, barely reaching her once a month due to Internet disruptions and constant bombings. I find myself constantly thinking of her. January is her favorite month, despite her complaints about the cold weather.

It’s heart-wrenching to accept the harsh reality of the ongoing bombardment, with humanity yet to intervene and stop the genocide against my people. What cuts even deeper is my profound failure to save my city, my people, my family, but most agonizingly, my own mother.

Hold on, Mama.

I miss you

I miss my family

I miss home

I miss my friends

I miss Gaza

I have the luxury of navigating sorrow and grief.  Meanwhile, for my people in Gaza, a world away, the grip of shock and fear still prevails. Their humble desires revolve around staying alive, surviving the bombs, returning home, ensuring safety, and meeting basic needs such as food, water, warmth, and a proper burial when they die.

Since October, a new semester has awaited me, with daily affirmations whispering promises of normalcy. I told myself everything will get better. Yet, as days stretched beyond 100th, the persistence of genocide and injustice became an unbearable weight.  In a gracious turn, my university understood my plea for a break. They granted me a pause from lectures and academic obligations, embodying the spirit of Malaysia — a country draped in kindness and equity, unwavering in its solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

In my struggle for normalcy, I grapple with the desire to give up and the necessity to survive. But I remind myself that I must endure until I graduate in a year. One more year until I can go back home —  a home that no longer exists, to people who are no longer there.

My friends in Malaysia don’t understand this yearning. They fail to comprehend that we Palestinians, especially Gazans, have a deep love for our city, and no matter what country we visit, something essential is always missing. They ask me where I get strength, joking that “products are made in China while strength is made in Palestine.”

I wish I could explain; I have no other option but to be strong because we may leave Gaza, but Gaza never leaves us.

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