Elena Hamida and her husband Hazem. Courtesy of Hamida

The Russian and Ukrainian Women Who Left Their Lives Behind to Raise Families in Gaza

'Everything here is fine. The only thing I don’t like is that it’s impossible to leave,' says Elena, one of hundreds of women from the former USSR who are married to Palestinians and are living in Gaza

Lydia Salah sends me photos but asks me not to publish them, anywhere. It’s a family history. Here she is, with short, blond hair, early-1990s style, light skin, glossy pink lipstick, in a white muslin dress. He’s next to her – brown-skinned, black forelock and almond eyes, wearing a floral-patterned vest and a white shirt. She looks focused and a bit upright; he’s smiling lightly, proudly. They’re both young and beautiful.

The pictures tell the story of their love. In this one she’s sitting on his lap and hugging him, in another they’re standing and smiling, a spring sun lighting up their faces, against a background of bare trees and a structure that looks like a Russian Orthodox monastery. Here they are in the snow, here’s a shot of them hugging their firstborn child, Lydia’s head covered with a checkered keffiyeh. In this one she’s standing with the carriage and the baby next to a typical Soviet housing block, and here she is again, this time with two children, in a different setting – palm trees, and afterward on the seashore.

There are many more photos: Lydia with one of her daughters against the backdrop of a Christmas tree, with something written in Arabic in the background, he and she by the side of a pool. They change with time – her hair gets longer, his fills with gray, the faces grow round, the bodies are heavier, the children grow up – but the eyes are still luminous.

“I love him just like 24 years ago,” Lydia writes to me. “It’s personal, and I know that many people who are hostile to us call us ‘those dumb women,’ or worse, ‘mattresses for Arab men,’” she adds, which is why she doesn’t want the pictures to be published. “I’ve heard that more than once from your people. I’m a simple woman who loves her husband very much. He was never my enemy, and it doesn’t frighten me that he’s an Arab.”

She continues, “There are no pure nations, they all intermixed long ago. My name from home is Romanovskaya, my grandmother was German. I am Russian according to my passport, but no one ever asked me about it, and I don’t care. What’s important is that I’m happy with my husband and my children. The only thing I want is for the occupation to end and the borders to be open, so we will be able to travel where we want.”

Since 1997, Lydia, 43, an accountant by profession, and the mother of three children, has lived in the Gaza Strip with her husband, Ihab, a dentist who has his own clinic.

Courtesy of Zaqout

‘Israel Loves Cats’

For me, it all started with the story of Sonia, a mixed-breed cat – Angoran-Persian – which was sent to Israel from Gaza for lifesaving medical treatment. The cat’s owner, Tatyana Zaqout, 39, mother of three, who lives in Beit Lahia, says she contacted most of the animal-rights organizations in the world, told her story on the Russian-language Facebook page “Israel Loves Cats,” and managed, exceptionally, a few weeks ago, to get Sonia through the Erez checkpoint and into the hands of an Israeli organization called Let the Animals Live. The cat’s condition has improved somewhat since, but the treatment is continuing and she is staying in Israel for the time being. Tatyana is in regular touch with the clinic.

That story was cited in the Hebrew-language media and covered extensively on Russian-language websites in Israel. It also cropped up on social networks in Arabic and outraged many users, who berated the government in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the owner of the cat herself, as Tatyana told me in an interview conducted via Facebook Messenger. “Children who are in need of treatment [here] are dying in the hospitals,” she wrote. “That’s the reason for the negative reactions to the story with Sonia.”

Courtesy of Zaqout

Tatyana, who is originally from Poltava, a city in central Ukraine, southeast of the capital, Kiev, is one of several hundred women who have moved to the Gaza Strip in recent decades from countries of the former Soviet Union – mainly Ukraine and Russia – with their Palestinian husbands. About a decade ago, I heard that some of them occasionally called in to Pervoye Radio, a pirate station that broadcasts in Russian from Rishon Letzion and could be heard, at least in the past, in the Strip.

Those conversations, which in the current Israeli-Palestinian reality are comparable to signals from outer space, piqued my curiosity even then. But I didn’t know how to track down the women. The story of Sonia burst an internet dam for me, and I began to find Facebook profiles of Russian-speaking women from Gaza, accompanied by Ramadan greetings, “Happy Victory Day” messages, recipes, quotations from the Koran in Russian and Arabic, pictures of children and also mourning posts for relatives who perished in the 2014 war in the Strip. Almost half the women I contacted via Facebook agreed to talk to me, and in the end I spoke to five of them.

The very possibility of speaking with these women, who live in a “hostile entity” an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, was immensely gratifying, and I thanked fate for the common language and culture that opened this conflict-bypass channel for us. Still, despite the closeness that developed, I felt that there was much that was not being said explicitly and that remained between the lines – and I don’t mean only the criticism some of them have of Hamas, which they were only willing to express off the record.

A kidnapping averted

Tatyana came to Gaza in 2005 with her husband, Ayman, after he completed his dentistry studies in Poltava. Many Palestinians, from both Israel and the territories, attended institutions of higher education in the Soviet Union, together with thousands of other students from countries that were in the communist giant’s sphere of influence. That tradition continued after the collapse of the Soviet empire, in 1991, with many Palestinian men still coming to Russian and Ukrainian cities to attend medical schools and other institutions.

“A girlfriend of mine who was then married to a Palestinian from Jenin introduced us,” Tatyana relates. “He had economic difficulties during his studies. I worked and helped him as best I could. My mother also helped him.” Tatyana says she came to Gaza “without giving the matter any thought and without knowing anything about the place.” During the first two years, she had problems adjusting, she says, but immediately adds that, “now, I am completely used to it and have integrated into local life.”

Subsequently Tatyana wrote me, “There are many difficulties here, but I have learned to shut my eyes. In a foreign country, you will never be one of them. With our concepts of life, it’s not so easy to accept what is happening here.”

For Elena Hamida, who also arrived in Gaza in 2005 from Poltava when she was not yet 25, the first years in her new home were filled with suffering. She met her future husband when he was a medical student and she was studying nursing. The couple married and had a son, and her husband’s father wanted to see his grandchild. Ignoring the importuning of friends and relatives, Elena agreed to let her husband take their 2-year-old son to the Gaza Strip. She was then pregnant with a daughter and stayed behind to continue her studies and have the baby, she tells me by phone. She hoped her husband would return soon in order to continue his studies. But a year later he called to ask her to come to Gaza.

Courtesy of Hamida

Elena: “My mother tried to persuade me not to go. She was against it. ‘Where are you going?’ she asked. ‘You don’t know the language, you don’t know anything at all.’ I got organized, took my 8-month-old daughter, and went.”

Her ordeal began on the minibus that took her from the airport in Egypt to the Rafah crossing. “We stopped in Sinai to eat. They have cafes along the road,” she relates, recalling a dramatic incident. “I didn’t want to get out – I wasn’t familiar with anything and didn’t know the language. The others said, ‘Come with us, at least eat something. The girl is sleeping. Don’t touch her.’ Alright, I thought. I went to the café, and then I had this bad feeling and I ran to the car, and all the others did the same. I entered the cab quickly and saw black hands taking my daughter out through the window. I started to scream, to shout – in short, that person left the child and disappeared in the crowd.”

There followed 10 days of waiting at the Rafah crossing – which is controlled by Egypt – with a baby, with the only source of running water being a hose emerging from the ground. But finally Elena was reunited with her son. “He was already 3 years and 8 months old. He looked so thin, tall; I didn’t recognize him. He spoke Arabic, and with me not understanding anything I was saying. Gradually he got used to me.”

Doing what’s needed

Like most of the women who came to the Strip from the former Soviet Union, Elena moved into her husband’s home – which is to say, the home of his extended family, in Gaza City. “I lived together with his parents and my sisters-in-law,” she says. “I tried to do everything the way they wanted, like you’re supposed to. Naturally there were also quarrels, scandals, misunderstandings. And there was a period when I wanted to drop everything and leave. There were also insults. Female relatives – not those who lived in the house, but aunts twice and three times removed, and young girls especially – really didn’t like it that I was there. Because the regular custom is that if someone goes abroad to study, he gets married after he comes back. My arrival spoiled the plans of many families. There were also fights, my children were insulted. Even now, kids in school sometimes call them, ‘Russians, Russians’ – but they don’t pay attention anymore.”

My phone conversation with Elena went on for a while. She says she loves Gaza. “I’ve gotten used to it, as far as I am concerned everything here is fine. The only thing I don’t like is that it’s impossible to leave [the Gaza Strip].”

What about the electricity?

You can live without electricity. It used to be hard, now it’s alright. But I don’t want to return to Ukraine. There’s a war there, too, and I have children, I worry. There are those gangs there I am afraid that my boy would become a junkie, or start drinking. There, I simply would not be able to keep an eye on them. If it’s one child it’s possible, but not three. One of them for sure would find himself in bad company.”

And in Gaza that can’t happen?

“Here it’s possible to keep an eye on them. There, I would not be able to do that. I simply would not.”

When I mention to her that the war in Ukraine is distant from Poltava, Elena adds that economically, too, she would not be able to manage there with three children.

Courtesy of Hamida

‘Our beautiful Gaza’

Some time after our conversation, Elena got in touch to say that she wanted to clear up a few things. She tells me her story more directly, noting her early naivete and her desire to curry favor with her husband Hazam’s family. She adds that the Russian and Ukrainian legations evacuated her and her children, along with many other women at the beginning of 2009, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. At that time she lived for a few months in her hometown, and didn’t want to return to Gaza. But after much soul-searching and under pressure from the children, she decided to go back after all, but now, she says, as a different woman – tougher, blunter, able to stand up for her rights.

“I love my husband, the children need a father,” Elena continues, explaining her decision to return. “Especially when I have a wonderful husband who in 16 years of married life has never raised a hand against me. Other husbands are not like that. There are normal ones, but there are also those who beat their wives – girls from our circle. They come to the hospital with broken arms, hemorrhages, deep wounds. I didn’t want to say that next to my husband; he is ashamed of men like that. My husband looks grim-faced, but he is good-hearted, crazy about the children. We do not teach them with blows, we explain their mistakes to them in words. I appreciate him, he does not insult me. We quarrel day-to-day, like everyone, but there is no violence, even though I am often naughty and do things to spite him. Another man would punch me in the face, but mine says, ‘How could I do that – after all, you have no one here.’”

Elena later writes to say that eventually, too, the confrontations with her new relatives abated.

“I am the oldest woman among them, my husband is the firstborn son, we are both in the medical profession,” she says, explaining the status she acquired in the course of time. “It’s true that I don’t work in the profession, but everyone comes to my house for injections, or I go to set up an infusion. I swim, I work out, I prepare dishes [for the family] from home – which, by the way, has captivated them. I also have a diploma as a pastry chef and I bake cakes – all the Arabs love Napoleons.”

In our phone call, Elena told me about the power outages and about how, during Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, she made fires on the roof in order to cook noodles or rice, and was afraid that the drones hovering above would mistake what she was doing, and think that she was about to fire a rocket. In a message she sends me she underscores other aspects of life in the Strip: “Our Gaza is beautiful. We have parks, pools, community centers with activities for children. Of course, they’re not perfect, like those in Russia and Ukraine, but even so... If we hadn’t been bombed and there wasn’t a war... Other than that, everything is fine, the children are healthy, smart, my husband is excellent, what more can I ask for? I don’t need more. With a family like this I can get along anywhere in the world,” she sums up.

C-section in Gaza

The family support structure, the possibility of buying on credit in the grocery store and a traditional society that observes the laws of Islam strictly are sources of security for these women, who left their home countries at different stages of the cruel processes that took place after the fall of the Soviet empire. Indeed, for a time in the 1990s the standard of living in Gaza was higher than in remote Russian cities. For example, Lydia Salah, who met her husband in Volgograd and moved with him to the Strip in 1997, relates that it was economics that prompted their decision to leave Russia, even though her husband received Russian citizenship and they would have liked very much to stay there.

“Life in Gaza Strip was easier,” she says. “Everything was very cheap – the food, the clothes – and there was work. Israel was open to workers from Gaza, and above all there was quiet.”

Courtesy of Kalub

Furthermore, even though a large proportion of Palestinian physicians had had their medical education in the former Soviet Union, the quality of medical care was and remains far higher in Gaza than it is in Russia, according to Tanya Kalub, a dentist of 45 who is married to a Palestinian heart surgeon. She says this not only as a physician but also as a mother and as a patient. Tanya became ill with cancer and completed her chemotherapy in Gaza a year ago.

“I had a referral for radiation treatments in Israel,” she relates. “It had to be done within a short time – half a year. The [Russian] embassy tried to help, but I didn’t have proper papers. Negotiations [with Israeli authorities] went on for four months, but when nothing was resolved, I went to Egypt. We rented an apartment and I had the radiation treatments there. The funny thing is that in Russia they refused to give me radiation treatment. They have other kinds of therapy protocols. It’s a good thing I was here with my problem. It was scary – the children are young.”

Tanya and her husband, Mohammed, lived for many years in the city of Krasnodar, in southern Russia, where they both worked in a hospital and ran their own pharmaceutical-marketing business. Their two older daughters were born there. They came to Gaza in 2011, and their youngest daughter was born there three years later, during the 2014 war.

“My husband worked, we didn’t see him for 40 days and nights, he was in the hospital and we were at home,” Tanya says. “During a three-day cease-fire, we went to the hospital and I had a C-section. I would have had a C-section anyway – it was planned. It was frightening. The operation was in the morning, and by the evening they had already sent me home. But everything went well – the doctors are wonderful. And the attitude [toward them] is different, too. In general, it’s good to be a doctor here.”

Toward the end of Tanya’s last pregnancy, her husband’s younger sister was killed when an Israeli shell struck her house. In contrast to 2009, when Russia and Ukraine flew their citizens out of the Gaza Strip, in the summer of 2014, their assistance took the form of transporting families that wished to be evacuated to the Rafah crossing, where they were on their own. The majority of the women chose to remain in Gaza. Most of the families were directly affected by the war; two of the women I spoke with lost relatives.

“We have no connection with any political group,” Tanya says. “Everyone is a doctor or a teacher, no one is a party member. The attacks usually came at night, but this one was in the morning, at nine o’clock. It was the second day of Id al-Fitr [the holiday that concludes Ramadan].” Her husband’s sister’s family lived on the fourth floor of the neighboring building. A shell hurtled into their home.

“It was already after the bombing, after the planes. They were eating breakfast. The shell went through four walls. [My husband’s] sister was standing in its path. It sliced through her and slashed her two legs in the hip region. A 4-year-old who was with her was sliced in two. For two weeks they tried to treat her, my husband himself amputated both her legs. I still miss her. She was the only one who had a European education. She had a master’s degree, she had a good job in the field of economics, she had a career. She had another son, too. She was 28.”

Tanya adds, “People who belong to political parties and their house was destroyed – that’s clear, they have their war. But like that, people of peace? May it never happen again.”

‘Rafah is hell’

Tanya speaks jocularly about the absence of electricity. “We have electricity four hours a day. It’s like an all-inclusive holiday: Do the laundry, do the ironing – I try to do everything in those four hours,” she says, adding that when the power problems first began, in 2011, they lived by candlelight, but eventually they installed solar panels. “It’s never dark in the house. There’s always internet, lights, television. We even turn on the refrigerator sometimes ... People get along with generators or something else.”

“The quality of life here is very different from Russia,” she notes. “At first it was hard for me. The food is different, it’s a whole different world. Not better, not worse, just different. But we got used to it, we got along. Even when I traveled [to Russia for a visit], I just wanted to come back.”

All her comforts depend on her husband, notes Tanya: “The whole family treats me well, he treats me well. I am not a racist, I’m not a terrorist, I don’t understand anything about politics. It’s good for me with him wherever we are. It was good for me with him in Russia, and here too, and if we were to go to Mars, as they say, it would probably be good there also. Everything is dependent on him.”

Some of the women make it sound as though the electricity problem is, all in all, something that can be overcome – that it’s just a matter of habit and skill. It’s impossible to keep perishable food in the house, and air conditioning is out of the question, but what troubles the women far more are the closed borders and the impossibility of visiting their relatives overseas. The option of leaving via Israel is almost nonexistent, and to get a permit to travel through Egypt can take months if not years. The women’s Russian citizenship doesn’t always help.

The last time Tatyana Zaqout left Gaza was in 2009, via the Rafah terminal – an ordeal she never wants to go through again. “Rafah is hell,” she says. “A few thousand people are made to wait in front of the closed gates under the broiling sun. You’re treated like a herd of animals. People are let in through a door on the side of the gate a few at a time, and the bags and suitcases are thrown over the top of the gate in return for payment. The bags fly, everything in them gets broken. There’s no water, no toilets. And if you’re lucky and get through in under 24 hours, you face another trip in Sinai, where your car gets stopped every kilometer, your suitcases are turned inside out and Egyptian bandits take what they want.”

Courtesy of Zaqout

Something for the children

The situation is even more difficult for Irina Rumiantseva (who asked that her Arabic married name not be used), a painter of 52 and the mother of four children. She’s been waiting for an opportunity to exit for several years, without real hope.

“Last week we called the Russian legation – no one can help,” she says. “They [i.e., Hamas] compile lists in Rafah. The last time, our number was 2,354. But they only open the roads for two-three days and then they’re closed for three months. People who need urgent operations can’t leave. There have been cases of people dying in Rafah before their turn came.”

Irina, whose husband was director general of the Ministry of Construction and Architecture on behalf of Fatah, is the only woman I spoke with who speaks forthrightly of her desire to leave the Gaza Strip. She was born in Sevastopol, the major port city on the Crimean Black Sea. In the mid-1980s, she attended the academy of arts in Leningrad. There she met her husband, Maher, who was also a student in the institution, in architecture, and went on to do doctoral studies in the field.

Afterward, the city they lived in reverted to its original name, St. Petersburg, and if at first it was only Maher who was a foreign student, Irina also received that status in Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. (Two-and-a-half decades later, Russia’s annexation of Crimea again changed Irina’s legal status: From being a Ukrainian citizen she became a Russian citizen, and all without leaving the Strip.) The couple’s first child, a daughter, was born in Leningrad. But in the early 1990s, they had no choice but to move to Gaza. Neither of them could stay in Russia, and Irina’s hometown was off-limits to outsiders for security reasons.

Irina recalls wistfully the years when Fatah was in control in Gaza. She was then teaching painting in various frameworks. “Those were better times for me,” she says. “Hamas of course builds mosques, hospitals. But I would like something for children – parks, zoos, for the authorities to clean the seashore, to organize beach activities.”

And none of that exists?

“There is something, but not at the level it could be at. There was a project that my husband tried to promote: for the facades of the buildings to be in one uniform style There were different projects, but they were postponed. Things were easier for me then, when there was electricity all the time. But the main thing is the closed borders, which drives everyone crazy. My parents don’t understand how it can be, how it’s possible not to be able to visit.”

Irina’s father celebrated his 80th birthday this month, back in Sevastopol. She’d promised him to visit immediately after Ramadan, at the end of June, but it didn’t work out. The siege of Gaza is also seriously undermining her and her husband’s careers as artists, a career they launched after he was fired from the ministry.

“I was invited to exhibit in the Russian cultural center in Bethlehem – the director contacted me through the Russian embassy in Ramallah. We wrote letters, we obtained all the papers – nothing came of it,” she relates. “Afterward we were invited to Lebanon and to the United States for exhibitions. We are artists, after all, and we need to show our work somehow. But even sending paintings is very difficult.”

After Maher was fired – in the wake of a brief civil war between Fatah and Hamas, which resulted in the latter assuming exclusive control within Gaza – the couple changed course and began to make a living from selling their artworks, which Irina describes as “traditional Palestinian art.” There is no demand at all in Gaza, but according to Irina there are quite a few affluent Palestinians abroad who are happy to purchase paintings of pastoral Palestinian landscapes and images of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Like many Fatah officials who remained loyal to the party and did not join Hamas, Maher continued to receive a salary from Ramallah even after he stopped working in the ministry. Recently, his salary was cut from $1,500 to $1,000 a month, and the income from painting became the couple’s primary source of income, with which they pay for the studies of their middle son and his sister, in Berlin. Their firstborn daughter emigrated not long ago and now lives alone with her 3-year-old daughter and an infant in Brussels. Irina says that their youngest child, a daughter of 13, also wants to leave Gaza. The problem is that there’s no way out.

What Arabs understand

Unlike Irina, most of the women I spoke to say that they have become used to Gaza to a degree that would make it difficult for them to reintegrate into the life of their former homeland. Still, Lydia Salah says that if things don’t get better, she will not object if her children want to leave.

“Nevertheless, I hope everything will work out – because all people want to live in peace,” she writes me on Messenger, and adds, “When I speak with my sister, I laugh all the time: ‘Wait for me until I retire, we’ll sit as grandmothers on the bench and remember our youth.’” Finally, she says that if it were up to her husband, they would have left long ago: She is the one who’s keeping him in Gaza.

Tanya Kalub says she is nostalgic – not for the Russia she left but for the Soviet Union of her childhood. “What do they have there now?” she asks. “Shopping centers. When I went to visit, I felt that I missed my relatives – that, yes. But to live there? I don’t know. Maybe that’s just the kind of person I am. It’s good for me where my family is.”

Courtesy of Kalub

Tatyana Zaqout’s long-term plans are to raise her grandchildren, and in the nearer future to help her cat Sonia get well. She’s the only woman among the interviewees who speaks openly of her fondness for Hamas, defending the organization when I ask her about executions of suspected collaborators with Israel. “Only the guilty are executed; Hamas has never hurt the civilian population,” she insists (contrary to the views of other women, who spoke on the subject only off the record). She adds, “I think that Hamas is the government that’s needed here. They’re the only ones who succeeded in making order.”

She continues, “In the Fatah period, every family here had a Kalach[nikov rifle]. Pistols were a game for kids. People walked around with assault rifles slung over their shoulders. One time I was walking on the street and a truck passed by in which teenagers were shooting pistols into the air. I was scared that if the truck were to hit a bump and the hand of one of the boys would shake, someone would be killed by mistake. When Hamas took power, they banned weapons and confiscated them all. The police also created order; people started to respect them. During the Fatah period, there were often exchanges of fire next to the police station, when all kinds of retards came to get friends out of detention,” Tatyana says, and sums up, “The Arabs understand only force. They need strong rule.”

During the 2014 war, she barely managed to save herself and her family. After repeated requests, the Red Crescent evacuated her and the children, on the basis of their foreign citizenship. Ayman, her husband remained behind, in the hope that he would find a cab driver who would be willing to drive him to the nearest border crossing. In the end, a crazy taxi driver was found, and he arrived at the Zaqout home just minutes before it was destroyed in a bombing raid. When I remind Tatyana of this episode, and expressed my doubts whether Hamas really deserved her admiration, she replies, “That was during the war. In regular life it’s calmer here and you feel more protected [than in Poltava]. Now we’ve moved to the interior [farther from the border]. There’s less chance of that happening here. It was right next to Erez, you know. I will never set foot there again. But you can liken it to the existence of residents of Ashkelon and Sderot: They’re shot at, too, but they don’t leave their cities.”

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