I have not been with my family for almost three years now. My parents, siblings and grandparents haven't met my 14-month-old daughter, our first born. I really miss my family and desperately would like to visit with them, but I can't. Why? Because I am from Gaza.
My wife and I both have families in Gaza and, believe it or not, we would love to go and spend our vacations there.
A vacation would be a joy, but I also find myself worrying that if, God forbid, something awful were to happen to one of our parents we would most likely not be able to make it to Gaza in time. Our parents are getting older and conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate. I know we are not alone in this and that this worry is not restricted to Palestinians right now as the whole region is going to hell. But this has gone for too long. It's been almost 10 years since Gaza has been placed under a siege that has turned it into a huge open-air prison.
In 2009, I did get in for a visit, but due to border closures from both the Israeli and Egyptian sides, I got stuck for four months instead of the four weeks I'd planned. That amounted to mental torture to me. I was not myself as I waited for the border to open. I was paying rent for an apartment I wasn't occupying, I had no paycheck coming and I had to pass on airline tickets because of the uncertain border situation. My situation is not unique. People coming from the Gulf and Europe to visit their families in Gaza lose their jobs, scholarships, or miss their classes -- all for wanting to see a sick parent or meet a new family member.
In Gaza, family life is integral to everything. Yet, here we are unable to connect with them or be with them when they need us. Time with family allows us to slow down and focus on the important things in life. It also allows us to instill in our children that family is important. Something hard to do when you are living 6,000 miles away from your closest of kin. Kind words and calls are great, but there is nothing like in-person time to truly show people how much you love and care for them.
In the meantime, I struggle to understand what political ends are achieved through these policies of separation. How does keeping thousands of families apart from each other help anything? I don't think it's making Israel safe and it's certainly not helping them or the Egyptians win any PR contests. Last time I visited with my parents, they came to meet me at the Rafah border when I arrived at the Palestinian side. When I spotted them in the crowd, I hugged them and immediately my eyes started to tear up because I realized I had missed them so much. I really felt those tears not only in my eyes but also deep down in my heart.
We consider ourselves blessed to have a life here in the U.S.; my adoptive country has been good to us. The U.S. is the place where we got educated. It's our home where we live, work and prosper. But as the Arabic proverb goes, "without people even heaven is hell." Families like mine do not really care for the political climate and all the news they see offers them little hope. My father once told me, when Israel withdrew its army from Gaza in 2005, "It's like they locked us in the basement and told us, 'Good luck with that!'" Gaza has no access to its airspace and and can't build a port on its coast. With the borders sealed shut, it's not just a locked basement. It's a prison.
To give you an idea of the struggle, about every 60-90 days the Egyptian government opens its borders with Gaza. The catch is that they only announce this two or three days prior. People like me who want to see their folks in Gaza have to buy a ticket on short notice and get on a plane right away. When you arrive in Cairo, you are either sent back to the country you came from or you're held in a detention room until there is a busload and then you're shipped to the border with Gaza in Rafah. You stay in this government bus for eight hours driving through the Sinai desert. During the trip you are not to step out of the bus for any reason and the entire time an armed police officer rides in the bus and holds onto everyone's passport. And did I mention that you pay through the nose for this treatment?
Congratulations, now you've entered the prison! You've made it to Gaza, where you can finally spend time with your family. Now, you're ready to go back to your place of work. You have to be placed on a waiting list maintained by the government in Gaza and then coordination has to be made with governments in Egypt, Ramallah and Israel. Occasionally you are asked to coordinate with the Jordanians. You take whichever route opens up to you. If you are lucky, you can leave Gaza within four months from the time of your entry. If you're not so lucky, it can take a year. In the aftermath of the Gaza war, things seem to have gotten worse. The frail economy has collapsed, businesses are shutting down, employees are not getting paid and as a result financial commitments have gone unmet and families disintegrate. To be blunt, the mental state of many of my family members is not what it used to be prior to the Israeli war on Gaza last summer. Many times, I talk to family members and see how negatively their mental health has been impacted after the 51 days of constant bombardment. They tick, they are agitated and they are impatient. I do not fault them. The Gaza Strip is a place that seems abandoned by both God and the politicians. We must not let Gaza be graveyard of buried hopes.
Sadly, until this this cruel siege on our families in Gaza ends, our reunions will be provided courtesy of Skype and Facebook. I hope things change for the sake of the children.