Life in Gaza Was Hell. They Managed to Escape. These Are Their Stories

Oppression by Hamas and the Israeli occupation, grinding poverty, domestic violence, shattered dreams, an arduous escape and difficult conditions in a refugee camp – such are the lives of Gazans in exile on the Greek island of Leros

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A gif showing pics of the Gaza exiles
Credit: Ofir Berman
Ofir Berman
Ofir Berman

Mohammed, 27, from Jabalya refugee camp

‘A good friend decided that he could no longer stand the suffering, and he shot himself in the head. Unfortunately, the suicide of young people in Gaza is not a rare event. Life there is over.’

We were at sea for six long hours, dozens of people crammed into a small rubber dinghy. I could feel the arm of Sarah, the Syrian girl, stretching toward me while I daydreamed about freedom, which looked closer than ever. The dream shatters with a big wave that floods the dinghy. In my heart, I was afraid, but I felt safer on the open sea than in merciless Gaza.

When I was 8, I was diagnosed with a heart problem, and I had several operations over the years. One operation was in Ichilov [Hospital, Tel Aviv], and I remember standing at the window and being thrilled by the sight of the city. I met a lot of Israelis who believe in peace, and suddenly I felt that I could breathe easy.

After a month in Israel, I went back to Gaza. That was a period when lots of Palestinians got organized and threw stones at Israeli soldiers along the border. Hamas sent young people to be killed for no reason, so I set up an organization that called for a stop to the demonstrations along the fence. Thousands of people came to one of our demonstrations in Jabalya, and I was arrested and held for two weeks. Over the years I was arrested dozens of times for things I said. In my jail cell people accused me of being a traitor, of being an agent of Israel.

Mohammed, 27, from Jabalya refugee campCredit: Ofir Berman

I am not a religious person and I don’t believe in violence, and there was no place for me there. That is why I left Gaza. A good friend of mine took another path. Last summer he decided that he could no longer stand the suffering, and he shot himself in the head. Unfortunately, the suicide of young people in Gaza is not a rare event. Life there is over.

I am definitely not the only one who was arrested for ideas and for speaking out. Many demonstrators were arrested, and Hamas threatened them in order to prevent future actions. One time I was waiting for the release of a friend who had been arrested, and when he came out his face was swollen and bleeding. I barely recognized him.

Hamas doesn’t make do with thwarting demonstrations; they also prevent cultural events. They shut down parties and performances, they don’t allow concerts, and they spread the notion that artists are heretics. Oud players can perform in public areas, but if an audience gathers around them, that will cause a problem. For Hamas’ leaders, art is part of Western culture and has to be boycotted.

The prohibitions also relate to private life. Women have to wear a head covering when they go outside. There was a group of women who organized in the social media and demanded to be accepted as they are – but not long ago, a female journalist who was walking outside without a head covering was beaten by Hamas people and taken to the hospital. Of course, the sale of alcohol is forbidden, even to Christians who need it for religious rituals. They are compelled to make wine at home, secretly.

For most residents of Gaza, leaving via the Rafah crossing [into Egypt] is the only option, but to leave you need authorization from Hamas. There are thousands of names on the waiting list, and approval takes many months. I managed to get out, but I am continuing to act from here. I teach children in the camp [in Leros], I send out video clips and I write on the web about the hope for a change in the relations between Palestinians and Israelis. I haven’t yet given up my dream to lead the Palestinian people.

Mahmoud, 31, from Gaza City

Credit: Ofir Berman

‘I paid 1,000 euros just to get to the Cairo airport. One friend drowned and never completed his voyage to freedom. Sailing to Greece is a huge risk, and all of us took it for lack of any choice.’

The happiest moment in my life was when my first child, a son, was born. That was a period when I still had hope, but when my second son was born, I already understood that we would not be able to live a happy life in Gaza, with Hamas ruling domestically and Israel surrounding us from the outside. I love my homeland, I even have a Palestine tattoo on my arm, but there is no personal security there, and to get work you have to cooperate with Hamas.

I studied computers, but the labor market in Gaza is paralyzed. I couldn’t find a job in the profession, so I worked as a waiter. After a short time, I was fired. Almost 50 percent of Gaza’s residents are unemployed, and even those who have jobs can barely manage to buy basic commodities. Fortunately for me, my family in Gaza is helping my wife and children.

I decided to leave Gaza in order to ensure a better future for my two sons. That required a great deal of money. At the Rafah crossing, I had to bribe officers and sleep a few days in the cold. I paid 1,000 euros just to get to the airport in Cairo. I made sure to show up with a plane ticket, otherwise they throw you out. I slept in the airport for three days and from there I flew to Turkey. After four months, we found smugglers who would help us get to Greece. The first time we were caught and we had to sail back. Ten days later we tried again and made it – some of us. One of my friends drowned and never got to complete his voyage to freedom. Trying to sail to Greece is a huge risk, and all of us who took it did it for lack of any other choice.

I lived here for a short time in a refugee camp, and then I moved into a tent by the sea. We fled from Gaza and got here only to discover that Europe is making life for refugees hard, just to discourage the other refugees in the world from coming. Deterrence was the goal. And still, I hope my family will be able to join me. I will consider returning to Gaza only after the ongoing war with Israel is over. I believe and hope that we will be able to live in peace when we learn to respect one another.

Adil, 23, from Dir al-Balah

Credit: Ofir Berman

‘As a woman, life in Gaza was especially difficult. A married woman must get her husband’s approval to leave home. Israel’s blockade hurts women because exit permits are given mainly to men.’

My husband decided to go to Greece alone, and I was forced to stay behind in Gaza with our two small children. I lived for a year at his parents’ house, but I felt unwanted and I decided to follow in his footsteps with the children. In Greece my relationship with my husband deteriorated. I suffered physical and psychological violence from him; eight months ago he left us and we remained alone in the camp. Since then I haven’t heard from him. We live in a very old building, and I don’t feel safe, because everyone can come into my room. Sometimes men leave me letters under the door.

I paid thousands of dollars for my voyage here. I left Gaza for Egypt, and from there I flew to Turkey. In Turkey we walked for three days to save expenses, but we were caught and had to turn back. In the end we reached the island of Leros in Greece in a rubber dinghy packed with dozens of people.

As a woman, life in Gaza was especially difficult for me. The oppression takes different forms. A married woman needs to get her husband’s approval to leave the house, and an unmarried woman can go out only if she is accompanied by a male relative. Traveling with a strange man is forbidden, so there are female taxi drivers only for women. Israel’s blockade hurts women in Gaza a lot because the exit permits are given mainly to men. Unemployment among women has increased, and so has domestic violence. In 2014 the daughter of neighbors was murdered, because she was said to be having sexual relations with a strange man. The doctors who examined the body found that she hadn’t lost her virginity.

I attended high school but didn’t have enough money to continue to university. My children never went to school at all. Hamas made our life even harder than Israel did. It starts with the basic food commodities: Goods like eggs and milk enter [the Strip], but Hamas seizes control of everything. During the war [in 2014] the situation became truly severe – everyone panicked and rushed to the supermarkets and grocery stores. Hamas imposes curfew in wartime, and prohibits people from walking around outside. Sometimes its people leave basic goods next to doors of buildings, but there is always a shortage of food.

I remember the huge bombings during Israel’s attacks in 2014. Some of my uncles were killed in the bombardments, and our house in Shujaiyeh was completely destroyed. Everything I had collected and all my memories were there, and in an instant it was all taken away. I didn’t want my children to experience what I did, to have a life with no purpose, a life of fear – so I left. It was a hard, dark year. I lost my family and my life was turned upside-down. The absurd thing is that in Gaza it’s the same now: The neighborhood looks exactly the way it did then, rubble on top of rubble and abandoned areas. Instead of my mother crying over my situation, I am crying over her situation.

Ahmed, 22, from Jabalya refugee camp

Credit: Ofir Berman

‘When I was 11, I sold cigarettes on the street. To grow up in Gaza is a type of hell. It’s lucky children can disconnect from reality and create an imaginary world for themselves.’

I have 10 brothers and sisters, and at a pretty young age, I understood that our life was different from the life of children in other places. I understood that our situation was not a typical one. When I was 11, I sold cigarettes on the street, and I remember being quite a sad kid. To grow up in Gaza is a type of hell. It’s lucky that children have the ability to disconnect from reality and create an imaginary world for themselves. You find things to do with whatever there is – you run with a garbage bag and fill it with air, you use barrels as drums, play with things thrown into the street.

When I grew up I had a car, so I worked as a taxi driver. After a few years Hamas seized the car. They said they would return it on condition I would work for their organization. They don’t leave citizens any other option: either join them or stay poor. When there is no work and no food, the only option for a better life – if you can call it that – is to join Hamas. The problem is that once you join, it is very hard to leave.

I have a good friend who understood when he was a teenager that he had no interest in women, but his parents forced him to marry one. He suffered a lot, and then Hamas found out about it and arrested him. You have to understand that Hamas has full control over the life of the individual. They have spies and police who walk around in the streets and impose order. For example, Hamas demands that couples show marriage documents. If an unmarried couple is out walking together and don’t have papers, the guy is arrested and the girl signs a commitment not to go out [in public] again with anyone.

When I look back and think about what I would have wanted most, I would have chosen to live in Israel and work there with my father in farming. He worked in Israel for decades as a farmer, when the border crossings were open. Unfortunately, that is impossible at the moment, so I am here [in Leros]. My brothers remained in Gaza. Perhaps when they will see that I am in a better place they will try to follow my path.

Anis, 28, from Rafah

Credit: Ofir Berman

‘Gazans live with four hours of electricity a day. When the power comes back, everyone cooks, does laundry, charges phones. If it’s the middle of the night, the children sit to watch television.’

I am married and I have three children, aged 4, 7 and 9. Unfortunately, they stayed behind in Gaza because I didn’t have enough money to take them with me. Once, before Israel closed the borders, life there was better. People went to work, there were possibilities, there was free trade, there was enough food and there was electricity. Since Israel imposed a closure on Gaza, in 2007, many families have fallen below the poverty line, and the economy has collapsed. Today life is totally restricted, because of the occupation, and we have no possibility to change the situation.

Now, people in Gaza get by with four hours of electricity a day. When the power comes back on at long last, every home suddenly looks like a beehive, there is tremendous pressure to get everything done, and fast. Everyone bakes bread, cooks, does laundry, charges all the phones and the electrical appliances. Even if it’s the middle of the night, if the power comes back on the children stay up to watch television. That’s what it’s like when there is electricity four hours a day. Showering is also complicated. We prepare the children’s clothes in advance and everyone takes turns; whoever doesn’t manage and doesn’t have hot water goes first the next time around.

I find my escape from reality in the kitchen, especially in baking. In Gaza, if the bread ran out or the grocery store was closed, I would go up to the roof or go outside to an open area near the house, build a fire and make bread. Here in the camp, too, I cook and bake pita and Palestinian pastries, and we all sit and eat together.

I live here in a very old building, the ceiling peels off at night [while you’re sleeping] and there’s tons of garbage. There is no toilet and no shower. Not all the rooms have doors or windows, so in the winter it’s really cold. Sometimes we light a fire and drink coffee to warm up.

I have been on Leros for more than a year, because the process of getting documents is very slow. The standard wait is a year and a half, and you have to find ways to pass the time until then. We are all waiting for the day when we receive refugee status and can leave here, but in the end I will want to return to Gaza, to my home, in the hope that there will be peace between Palestine and Israel, or that the situation will improve. Maybe one day I will even get to Tel Aviv.

Ahad, 27, from Rafah

Credit: Ofir Berman

‘I worked as a taxi driver. In conflicted Gaza there are plenty of people looking for an attentive ear, so every taxi driver is something of a psychologist. Our own problems, we try to suppress.’

I worked for a few years as a taxi driver. In Gaza, anyone with a car can work as a taxi driver and make a little money. We cabbies are good at listening to other people and at solving problems. In conflicted Gaza there are plenty of people looking for an attentive ear, so every taxi driver is also something of a psychologist. Our own problems, we try to suppress. For example, the fact that there are a lot of drivers and not enough work for all of them. I made about 15 shekels [about $4.50] a day, which is barely enough for a pack of cigarettes.

I got married too young. I was married for a year and two months, but our relationship wasn’t good and we decided to break up. To free myself a little from the day-to-day pressure I spent the time with friends by the sea watching the waves break on the shore, usually equipped with a water pipe. In the evenings we sometimes met in houses with musician friends, playing the oud and singing. The music strengthened us. I really miss those moments.

I lived in Rafah, very close to the border with Israel. In one of the big demonstrations I was shot in the leg and wounded. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was taken to the nearest hospital and treated there. Here, too, I have to go to the hospital frequently, because I suffer from a ruptured disc. They do tests and give me painkiller pills. Today the only thing I want is stability and a better life.

On the island, I live with a few friends in one of the old buildings near the camp. I opened a mini-supermarket in the building, and that way I manage to earn something. It’s not easy to cope here, because there’s quite a bit of racism. Not being able to speak the language emphasizes the gap between us and the people living here. Everyone here is sure that if they would let us move to a different country in Europe life would be better, but I think the difficulties would accompany us wherever we go. That’s how it is when you don’t have a home.

Alaa, 22, from Khan Yunis

Alaa, 22, from Khan YunisCredit: Ofir Berman

‘Hamas’ leaders end up with renovated homes and new cars. Hamas declares victory, but children play in the rubble. That’s how it is with us: The illusions we’re sold become part of life.’

I started working in agriculture when I was 10 and afterward I sold stuff in a supermarket. My father was a driver, and I tried to help him provide for the family. I have five brothers and one sister, and we only had enough money for the basics.

One of the memories I have from Gaza is the war that broke out between Fatah and Hamas in 2006. I was just 7 then. The streets looked like a minefield, and wounded people ran to our house and asked for help. Wherever you went there were bodies. I still suffer from nightmares.

The wars that Gaza went through left a lot of streets destroyed. The Hamas government talks about rehabilitation projects, and they get money for it, but the destruction remains. That’s of course not the situation with Hamas’ leaders, who always end up with renovated homes and new cars. Hamas declares victory, but in the meantime the children play in the rubble as though it were an amusement park. That’s how it is with us: The illusions we’re sold become part of life.

Two years ago, I decided to escape from Gaza and start a new life. When we arrived we were taken off the boats and our passports and phones were confiscated. In the meantime I’m living in a refugee camp with four other Palestinian refugees in one room. At first I had a food card, but not long ago someone took it.

Greece is the place that the Palestinian refugees come to, because it’s the gateway to Europe. No one enjoys a good life here, and most of the people I know are planning to go on to other countries. I also hope to get to Germany as fast as I can. Friends tell me that refugees are treated well there; they give you money and food, and you can even learn German.

We are young and full of energy, but in Greece we are forced to pass the time idly, without work and with no possibility of studying. On the other hand, how can I complain about Greece when in the place I come from there is no work for young people, most of the time there is no power and there’s a closure that doesn’t make living possible? In the end there’s security here that Gaza doesn’t have.

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