For a Palestinian, Gaza is a place from which escape is nearly impossible. Israel has, for the past 13 years, denied all but a tiny number of applicants the right to travel outside the congested, blockaded strip of land that is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison. For those fortunate few who manage to attain a permit to depart, the extreme shock of life outside Gaza is almost unbearable. Freedom is painful: It triggers the release of long-suppressed emotions, and the realization that a lifetime of unending psychological trauma has rendered them unable to normalize the understanding that their lives can be free of fear, scarcity and helplessness.
Aamer Arouqi, 26, a Palestinian journalist, says that finding asylum in Belgium felt like being released from prison. “It was my first time ever to see, talk and touch other human beings outside Gaza!”
During his first six months in Belgium, Aamer suffered from intense culture shock, as he grappled with his emotional pain. He was haunted by what he described as “a scarcity mindset,” or the inchoate sense that he needed something he did not have. “I still feel the blockade around me, and a sense of limitation, even in my thinking.”
“The first time I heard the sound of a civilian plane I thought it was an Israeli warplane coming to bomb Gaza,” recalls Aamer. He was sleeping at the time; the sound jerked him awake, screaming as though from a nightmare. After that, he found that his whole body seized up every time he heard a plane flying overhead. Eventually, he moved to an apartment that was further away from the airport.
Ahmed Almassri, 25, now lives in Australia after winning a scholarship to study there. His first experience of seeing a civilian plane shocked him with the understanding of how deeply his life in Gaza had distorted his perceptions. “For me [the plane] symbolized death, but for others it meant a new life,” he said.
The memories, the shared traumas and worldview anchor these young people in the home they have left behind. “It deforms you and your perceptions forever, but you can’t help feeling attached to Gaza, especially if you have family and friends there,” explains Ahmed.
Like most of his peers in Gaza, Ahmed acquired thick emotional armor. “In Gaza, when bad things happen you just get on with your life and don’t feel much. But when you finally leave, the numbness melts away,” he says. Ahmed’s theory is that people in Gaza have become indifferent to current events as a form of self-protection. Even a year after arriving in Australia, he is unable to react emotionally to crises that are deeply important to the people around him, like the global climate emergency. “I feel unable to develop a sophisticated level of caring now, after all the crisis I have seen in my life,” he said.
Nor is Ahmed able to rid himself of his “blockade mentality.” He was unable to plan a summer vacation abroad, because he fears border crossings. “I have developed a strange belief that things might go wrong, and that I might not be able to return to Australia. I am afraid that I will be questioned or stopped. I am seriously unable to believe that I have the right to move.” He suffers constantly from a feeling of being physically confined, and also questions any feeling of happiness — even while he is experiencing it.
Samar (Summer) Alkhdour, who won an academic scholarship that allowed her to build a new life in Canada, says that her survival strategy as she enters the process of post-Gaza self-healing is to “cut off negativity.” Within a year of arriving in Canada, she deleted all the news networks and Facebook pages that have to do with politics or the situation in Gaza. For Samar, this was the only way to maintain her sanity, particularly as a mother. Despite all her efforts to forget, though, the sound of ambulance sirens or helicopters flying overhead trigger intense flashbacks of the bombings and corpses she remembers while living through three wars. “I am 34 years old now and I can’t erase what I’ve witnessed,” she admits.
Mohammed Hammouda, 23, moved to the United States in search of a better life, but the first years were a struggle. He was homeless for a time, but eventually found his way. Like Aamer, Ahmed and Samar, Mohammed found that the transition to a new country blew the lid off the psychological trauma he had suppressed to survive. The sound of a plane flying overhead triggered fears of F16 bombers, and when he came home at night to a dark apartment he found himself wondering for a moment if the electricity had been cut off — as it very often was in Gaza.
“My first moment outside Gaza I felt like I was traveling from one planet to another,” he recalls. It took him a long time to internalize the understanding that he was free. “I was really astonished by the amount of freedom outside Gaza. Living a normal life, eating healthy food, drinking clean water not being afraid of being arrested for something I say or do!”
Malak Mattar, a Palestinian artist who moved to Turkey with her sister to study, now finds it easier to manage her time and be productive. Just 19 years old, she earns a living from her art, which has attracted considerable critical acclaim. In Gaza, the constant crises made it impossible to maintain a productive routine.
Adam Masood, 25, a photographer who was prevented from leaving because he had documented the wars in Gaza, finally managed to obtain asylum in Belgium. Now that he has a home in a conflict-free zone, clean water to drink, unlimited access to electricity and a job, he says, “My mind can be free to dream bigger than the ‘basics.’”
Almassri sayes he finds it difficult to comprehend that Israelis seem completely unaware of the emotional pain he feels so intensely. “Are [they] living in a parallel universe? It feels so weird how they can’t realize our reality when we live right next to them.”
With summer now approaching in the southern hemisphere, his colleagues, who include Israelis, are traveling to visit their families. “And I,” says Ahmed, “don’t have the privilege to even dream about that.”