I have experienced more freedom over the past 10 months than at any other time in my life.
Being a student in Paris means I do not have to contend with obstacles that Palestinians living under occupation face every day.
My freedom has nonetheless come with a major condition attached. While I can move around in much of Europe, I am prevented from visiting my family and friends in Gaza.
In September 2017, I crossed through Erez, the military checkpoint separating Gaza from Israel. The Israeli troops at that checkpoint made me sign a document stipulating that I would stay away from Gaza for a full 12 months.
In practice, I am prevented from entering Gaza for even longer.
If I traveled to Gaza for a vacation this coming September, there is a high probability I wouldn’t be allowed to leave again or that I would be obstructed from doing so.
The crossings at both Erez and Rafah – on Gaza’s border with Egypt – are frequently closed to Palestinians. As a result, there would be no guarantee that I could make it back to France before term resumes in the autumn.
I could, therefore, lose the scholarship I have been granted to study communications at Paris 8 University.
The masters program I am following lasts for two years. I don’t know yet what I will do when it is completed.
But I do know one thing: I won’t rush back to Gaza. I fully intend to pursue the opportunities that were denied me in Palestine.
My experience is shared by many other young people from Gaza now studying abroad.
Gaza is often – and accurately – described as an open-air prison. It is only natural that people locked inside that prison want to escape from it.
Yet once we manage to escape, we are homesick. We long to see our loved ones, who remain inside the prison.
The freedom we taste on the outside is fraught with uncertainty.
In most cases, we have been allowed to study in the West for limited periods of time. Once our courses are over, we need to apply for permission from the authorities if we are to stay in our countries of residence. Permits to remain are usually issued only if we have managed to find employment or get admitted to a different academic course.
If we are lucky, the work we do will be rewarding both financially and emotionally. But there is always the risk that we will have to accept an unsatisfying job just so that we can have legal status.
Telling Europeans about the limits on our freedom can be exhausting.
“Basically, I can now travel to wherever I want, though I cannot travel back to Gaza,” Said Alyacoubi, who is studying immunology at Oxford University, said.
“In fact, I do not know how or when I will be able to see my family or friends back home. Explaining this to people who ask is a headache. There is no way to explain that my home is currently unreachable.”
Aged 26, Alyacoubi also left Gaza in 2017. Not being able to use his medical skills to assist people in Gaza saddens him.
“I still have that feeling of being imprisoned and deprived of my freedom of movement,” he said. “We are divided from our home and our people.”
“I want to watch the sunset”
Rola Mattar has been studying business administration in Paris since 2016. Being away from her family in Gaza is proving very tough.
She has spoken with her mother about trying to meet in Jordan. But she is not sure that her mother will be able to travel because of the restrictions imposed under Israel’s siege on Gaza.
“During vacations, everybody goes home to see their loved ones,” the 25-year-old said. “I feel so bad. I can’t even describe how bad I feel. I want to see my cousins, to eat my mother’s cooking, just to watch the sunset from the rooftop of my family’s house.”
The absence is especially noticeable during occasions that are supposed to be joyful. “I’m thinking about my graduation day,” said Mattar. “Everyone will have their family beside them but I won’t. It’s really unfair that we Gazans get through all kinds of difficulties and yet we still suffer in every aspect of our lives.”
Excluded from joy
Tamam Abusalama left Gaza when she was 19. Today, she is 25.
Since leaving, she has made what she called one “humiliating trip” back to Gaza. Five years ago, she traveled there from Turkey, where she was then studying. At the end of her stay, she spent many days shuttling between her family’s home and the Rafah crossing before she was finally allowed to travel back to Turkey.
Now studying communication science in Brussels, Tamam is one of four siblings living outside Gaza. Her brother Majed lives in Germany, while her sisters Majd and Shahd live in Spain and Britain.
The three recently met each other for the first time in six years. They had a holiday together in Spain.
“We decided to meet every two months in a new city just to benefit from our current freedom of movement,” said Tamam. “Our happiness couldn’t be complete without my parents and my young brother who are in Gaza. But still it was a dream that came true.”
The pain of being separated from loved ones was particularly acute for Tamam during the major Israeli offensives against Gaza in November 2012 and the summer of 2014.
“I spent my days waiting for any call or message from my family,” she said. “That was the moment when you wished to be back, giving them a hug before it is too late.”
Tragically, it was too late for a member of her extended family. One of Tamam’s uncles was killed during the 2014 Israeli attack. She was unable to mourn his death alongside her family.
She has also had to miss out on happier events such as when her younger brother Mohammed was married in Gaza last year.
After his wedding, Tamam wrote an article highlighting the injustice of her being excluded from the celebration, of how she had to settle for watching videos rather than being there in person.
That story encapsulates what Palestinians in exile have to endure. Modern technology may allow us to communicate in ways that previous generations could not imagine. Yet it does not remove the heartbreak of being prevented from going home – even for a holiday.