Three days ago, my five years old nephew called me, saying “Khalto (Arabic word meaning Aunt), I will never ever talk to you for the rest of my life”. I was shocked by his words so I asked him “Why?”. His voice started cracking when he told me “Because you are not coming back to visit me during the holiday. Why you are not visiting me? You left and you won’t come back, why?” His twin brother took the phone and said “Khalto, Salem has been waking up at night for the past few days, crying why you are not coming for the holiday. Khalto, please come visit us for the holiday”.
There I am, surrounded by Christmas celebrations everywhere; a time where family get together to share memories of the past, moments of the present and the future, trying to explain to my nephews that I can’t come back, that it is not the flight or the distance that is keeping me away, it is the politics, the borders, the restriction, the permits and checkpoints. However, as much as I tried to explain 67 years of occupation and 8 years of blockade to 5 years old boys, they simply left the phone to their mom and didn’t talk to me until now. This tore my heart into pieces. Even normal people can’t understand that I, as a human, don’t have control over my freedom of movements because they can’t imagine a place like Gaza exists. They can’t imagine that being a Palestinian from Gaza is a curse preventing us from living normally or traveling normally.
That tiny reddish area on the map is called Gaza; which is considered the “biggest prison in the World” with a total area of 365 square kilometers and 1.8 million Palestinian inhabitant. Gaza is surround with air, water and land; with no control over air, a very limited access for fishers to the sea (only 6 miles) and surrounded by Israel from three sides and Egypt from one side.
In order to travel from or to Gaza, you will have to go through Egypt or Israel. Through Egypt, you can fly to Cairo, then take a taxi all the way to the borders with Gaza on a journey that used to take around 8 hours but now takes more than 12 hours due to the checkpoints by the Egyptian army. Even if you can withstand the long journey, the continuous insults through the trip, just because you are a Palestinian living in Gaza, checkpoints inspection, and the danger of being shot at by the army or armed groups; you would reach the borders to find them closed.
According to Gisha, Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Rafah border connecting Gaza and Egypt has been closed for 306 days per the year of 2015. There are more than 17,000 Palestinians registering for travel through Rafah; the majority are traveling for education, medical treatment, work, or going back to their homes after getting stuck in Gaza. One has to be in a dire need for medical treatment or pursuing higher education to bear the suffering, humiliation, and mistreatment. Bribe has also become vital factor determining your ability to leave where you may need to pay 3,000 dollars for bribe just to travel.
The process of traveling from Gaza gets more complicated if your efforts to travel through Egypt was unfruitful and you want to try your luck of traveling through Israel. Traveling through Erez Crossing, between Gaza and Israel, is limited to International organizations’ employees, businessmen, some medical conditions and in some cases students. The process is very complicated that only desperate souls would go through it. First, you need a visa, for the USA for example, you will have to have visa interview in Jerusalem; in order to reach Jerusalem, you apply for a permit to the Israeli authorities through the Palestinian Civil Affair office. The permit need to be applied two months ahead as it takes 20 and more working day to process your application (It used to be 14 working days). If you are over 16 years old and less than 50 years old, your application are very likely to be rejected without giving you reasons for the rejection, or you won’t receive a reply until the reason you are traveling for becomes invalid.
If you were lucky to have a permit for the visa interview, you will be given 10 days to travel to Jerusalem and come back. Then, you will have to start the process all over again, applying for a permit from the Israeli Authorities, a Non-Objection Clearance from the Jordanian Authorities, and permit from the Palestinian government in Gaza. From my experience this year, the Non-objection clearance took one month and half during the beginning of this year and two week and half during the mid 2015.
My permit from the Israeli Authorities at the beginning of this year, took weeks of running around between the Civil Affairs Office and any organization that could help me. Only with the help of Gisha, Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, was I able to leave on the day after which my travel reason becomes invalid. Traveling to the U.S in September, I had to go through the same process of waiting, of humiliation, suffering, anxiety and loads of Disappointment as I lost the chance to participate in the “World Humanitarian Summit: Youth Consultation” held in Qatar. I almost lost the chance to come to the U.S to participate in Atlas Corps Fellowship, as I was standing on the borders while the officer was telling me “Go back. You don’t have a permit. Go home”. Now, I remember my tears, my heart break, my disappointment, and my panic as I asked him to check again and started calling the U.S consulate. I remember waiting for hours and every half an hour, I would go and ask “Is there any news? The officer would answer “No, I am telling you go back home.” This is something no human being should go through just because he/she want to exercise their basic right of freedom of movement. I was able to leave with the help of the U.S consulate and traveled for 30 hours in total to reach DC, Washington.
No, my 5 years old nephews will never be able to comprehend the complexity of why I won’t be able to join them for the holiday until they grow up and experience it for themselves. I am surrounded by amazing people and friends here, but I can’t help my heart from crying out and yearning to hug my mom, play with my nephews, watch Korean soap operas with my sister, drinking tea with my dad and chatting nonchalantly with my brother. Every passing day in the holiday reminds me that it is not only the distance separating us, it is much more. It is borders, occupation, siege, wars, and politics. My wish for Christmas or new year, that my nephews when they grow up would never experience this.
Happy Holidays everyone while you are surrounded by your family, friends and beloved ones.