BERLIN – The smell of cigarettes assails the guests in the event hall in central Berlin. They sit around tables that are empty but for bottles of water and soft drinks. The band – keyboard, oud, darbouka – is busy with a sound check. It’s a modest gathering of the Palestinian community, in commemoration of the 13th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat. Reham, a 19-year-old Palestinian student whose parents requested that her surname not be published, is sitting with friends at the young people’s table, laughing and taking selfies.
Reham came to Berlin from the Gaza Strip about 10 months ago in the wake of her older brother, Said, 22, who’s a medical student at the Charité, a local university hospital and medical school. She’s undecided about whether to follow in his footsteps or opt for genetics. Both of them graduated with top honors from high school, were accepted for studies in Germany and left their family behind. For young Gazans, admission to an institution of higher education in Europe is almost the only way to get out of the Strip.
“I waited three or four months for the [Rafah] crossing to open,” says Reham, when we meet in the small apartment she shares with her brother, in the student dorms on Potsdamer Strasse. “My visa was going to expire within six months. There were many students whose visa expired before the crossing was opened. They lost their chance and remained in Gaza. But I got out.”
Both brother and sister assert that they will never return to the Gaza Strip. “I think that at this stage, everyone, irrespective of age or who they are, wants to leave Gaza, because the situation there is intolerable,” says Reham. “Obviously my friends want to leave. They saw that Said and I left and that we have a good life here – everything is clean, there are many options, you can work, you can go to school. But to leave you need money and very high matriculation marks.”
Said was the first in his family to leave the Gaza Strip, three years ago, and the family did not take his decision easily, he says: “My father wanted me to stay, because I’m his only son. In Palestinian families, a son is a very important person – he is the family’s continuation. I bear the name of the family that will go on across the generations. He told me, ‘You can marry your cousin, you can go to school here. I’ll buy you a car.’”
But Said thought he didn’t have a future in Gaza, and that things there were only getting worse. The alternative, from his father’s perspective, was to go to Egypt. Said rejected that option, in part because of the political instability there. The good reputation that higher education in Germany has, and the minimal cost of tuition, tipped the scales in favor of Berlin.
“Of course, it was very difficult for me to go and leave behind my family, my culture – everything I had,” Said says. “But so far it’s turned out to be the best decision I ever made, especially the decision to go to Berlin. I didn’t know a thing about the world. In Gaza you have to think a certain way, live in a certain way. Your friends, the language, the culture – it’s all very rigid. You can’t change it.”
Affair in Leningrad
Said and Reham’s family story is special, but not altogether anomalous in the Gaza landscape. Like many Palestinian men, the father of the family, Maher, attended university in the Soviet Union. He met his wife, Ukrainian-born Irina, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the mid-1980s when they were both students at the city’s arts academy. The couple lived in the USSR for a few years, and their first daughter was born there. They then moved to Gaza, where Irina, who had been an avowed atheist, became a devout Muslim. (The story of Irina and other Russian and Ukrainian women living in Gaza appeared in Haaretz in July.)
Their family, too, like many in Gaza, suffered a loss in one of the Israel-Hamas wars. Bashar, Maher’s nephew, was killed in January 2009 when two Israeli-fired mortar shells exploded outside the school run by UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, in the Jabalya refugee camp, near the family’s home. “I didn’t see the explosion,” Irina recalls in a telephone interview, “but I saw people standing on balconies and shouting. They were shouting because of what they saw. Then the ambulances started to arrive. The doctors were completely covered in blood. There were many stretchers, and they took more and more people.”
A few years ago, Irina and Maher planted trees next to their home. But the trees were not watered for months and they died. The water supply had been cut off because electric power was unavailable. Reham remembers her father getting up at 4 A.M. to fill the water containers for the rest of the day. Since the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement this past October, there has been a very limited improvement, Irina notes: Instead of the four hours of electricity a day they’d become accustomed to in recent months, at times electric power was available for eight hours at a stretch. The water supply remained irregular – running water can be had mainly during the night. The border crossing at Rafah was opened for a few days after the reconciliation took effect, before being closed again. In Irina’s view, the terrorist attack near El Arish in November means that the crossing will stay closed for a long time.
Irina and Maher’s firstborn, a daughter, also left Gaza during the past year. She now lives in Belgium, where she and her two daughters, one of them 6 years old, the other born in Belgium a few months ago, were given asylum. She hopes that her husband and her parents will soon join her, but so far all of her parents’ efforts to leave Gaza have failed. The Erez crossing point between the Strip and Israel is barred to them, and the Rafah crossing, even on the good days, is open sporadically, and various sources attest that priority on the endless waiting list to leave is achieved by means of bribes of thousands of dollars to the guards on both sides of the border.
Before Hamas seized control, Maher was a person of influence, directing the planning and construction unit in the Construction Ministry in the Gaza Strip. He lost his job under the Hamas regime, and during the past year the salary he had continued to receive from the Ramallah-based Palestinian government was substantially reduced. The main source of income that makes it possible for him and Irina to maintain their way of life and pay for their children’s studies in Berlin comes from art. The couple paint together, in a style they call “traditional Palestinian art,” and sell their joint works abroad, mostly to affluent Palestinians.
Discarding the hijab
As an adolescent, Said relates, he considered himself a Muslim, but things have changed since then. Toward the end of high school, he started to ask questions for which he found no answers within the framework of religion.
“My family is not 100-percent religious,” he explains. “I think that because my mother is Russian and my father Palestinian, it was never really possible for us to come to a decision on that subject. And actually, that was a good thing, because we each had freedom to choose. In Palestinian society there is no freedom of choice, because if you say, ‘I am a Christian,’ people will look at you and say, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not acceptable here.’ But we had freedom to choose our religion, our way of thinking.”
It’s possible, he adds, that the Palestinian society has become even more insular since Hamas took power, in 2007. “I think that Hamas chose the wrong way to educate people about what’s good and what’s bad,” Said avers. “They used violence, they shot people in the street. People were forced to live a hard life only because they were born there.”
At the same time, both siblings agree that Gazans believe that Hamas remains the only force that can guarantee them that one day the land of Palestine will be theirs once again. “The Palestinian people is ready to die for its land,” Said says, adding that, besides the violent suppression of protest in the Strip, that tenacity is probably also part of the secret of the Hamas regime’s durability.
Reham, in contrast to her brother, terms herself a Muslim. She eats only halal food and says she wants to marry a Muslim, preferably a Palestinian. But in Berlin she stopped wearing the hijab, a decision she could never even contemplate in Gaza. Asked whether her father supported the move, Reham replies that he was actually the one who encouraged her to shed the hijab, so that people would not look at her as a foreigner.
“Here, no one can tell you to wear it – you choose by yourself. But there – the religion, the culture – you are obliged to wear the hijab,” she says, and reflects on the future she could have expected had she stayed in Gaza: “I had very few prospects of finding work if I’d continued my schooling there. I would have become one of the unemployed. I would have married, lived with [my husband’s] family, had children and stayed at home.”
Along with the conceptual openness that the two absorbed in their Russian-Palestinian family, their mixed roots generated another significant experience: feeling different in their place of birth.
“I think it had positive sides and negative sides,” Said says. “When I played soccer, my friends would always shout, ‘Russia! Russia!’ My nickname was ‘the Russian,’” he recalls. “But I look a bit Asian, and people would also call me ‘the Chinese,’ which wasn’t pleasant. I heard that term very often, 10 times a day. You can imagine what it means to hear that every day and see people looking at you oddly.”
For Reham, being “the Russian girl” or “the Russian woman’s daughter” was a positive experience. “I spoke only Russian with my mother, both at home and on the street. Sometimes my father would get irritated and ask us to stop. In a store, for example. My mother would also say, ‘Let’s not speak Russian.’ When I asked why, she would reply, ‘They’ll raise the prices.’ So I said, ‘Mom, enough with this nonsense. Don’t worry, they already know you’re Russian – they hear your accent.’”
For Said, his past as a half-Russian boy is one of the reasons he will never go back to the Gaza Strip. “If I have a family that doesn’t look Palestinian, people will treat my children the way they treated me. The children won’t be happy. I will not go back there, unless the culture starts to change and open up, and people start to respect the way other people look and think.”
Unlike her brother, Reham says she never felt like an outsider in Gaza – although she recalls situations that have led her to feel unwelcome in Berlin. On one occasion, she says, a woman started to curse her and a friend on the subway because they were speaking Arabic. “This is Berlin, everything is possible here. There’s ‘multi-culti’ here [a term referring to the multiculturalism that characterizes Germany, and Berlin in particular]. You hear Chinese, English, French. So why can’t we speak Arabic?” she asks, adding that she doesn’t see her future in Germany, although she definitely intends to stay in Europe.
Said prefers to hang out with his foreign friends rather than with Palestinians, because that way he encounters new cultures. He has a Japanese girlfriend whom he recently visited at her home in Japan, and says he fell in love with the country. He’s happy in Berlin, he says, but despite his fondness for the city, he admits that he too doesn’t see his future here.
“I’m not yet sure that I would want my children to grow up in this country and this culture. It’s very nice to live here as a student, but I can’t imagine my children growing up in this culture. I’ve had experience with Germans. They’re nice people, people who deserve respect. But I think they’re a bit cold and not emotional like the people in the place I come from. The way they communicate with each other I can’t imagine my children speaking German with me or thinking in a German way.”