I didn’t imagine my life would look like this at 30. Where I live, in a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, we are still under occupation and the nation is still divided. Here, we aren’t free.
Not only that, but I never expected to be a mother at this age. When I became pregnant I was just 25 years old, and having a family so young was not something that was in my plans. I loved a person – a great man – and wanted to live with him, but in our community you can’t live together without being married, so we decided to get married just a few months into our relationship. One year later, we had our first child.
In many ways it was a shock, but now looking after my son, Wadee, it’s the biggest achievement of my life. Despite the fact that having him shifted my plans considerably – I had wanted to complete my university degree in physical education, obtain a masters degree and a PhD with a view to becoming an academic – I had my second child, another boy, Mohammed, when Wadee was just under two years old.
Because of my children and the situation we must live in, my ambitions have changed. Now, they’re bigger than myself. Of course, I’d love to go back and complete the education I was, and still am, so passionate about. But, more than that, I hope for freedom and peace in this world, especially in my country as it is still under occupation. What I really want are no borders or barriers; I don’t want to feel scared any more.
The start my children have had in life has similarities to my own. I come from a family that is very ordinary – poor, but on the whole pretty liberal while fully respecting the culture of our local community. I spent my first few years living with my family in a Canadian refugee camp at the Egypt-Gaza border, before we returned to Gaza when I was a teenager. There were cultural changes to get used to again in terms of habits and traditions, mainly that, as women, we were expected to show respect by wearing only long dresses and the hijab.
My sisters and I challenged this, and our parents were incredibly supportive. We wanted the freedom to choose instead of it being imposed upon us, but it wasn’t straightforward. We were living in a Gazan refugee camp, and people didn’t always like the choices we were making. So, later, our parents encouraged us to move to the more liberal Gaza City to study at al-Aqsa University, where I soon felt accepted. I’ve come to appreciate that no matter where you go, you can create a good life for yourself with relatives, friends and the community; it just depends what your hopes and dreams are and how you fight for them.
Now, after becoming involved in different local youth- and women-orientated projects, I work as a field co-ordinator at a local non-governmental organisation, Ma’an Centre. We don’t earn a huge amount of money, just under $1,000/£720 per month, but it’s enough. We live in a small apartment at my husband’s family house [the camp has existed for so long it has its own buildings, including 11 schools], but money isn’t the main challenge we face.
There’s always tension and anxiety in our life here in Gaza. The fear from the past and what could happen in the future is overwhelming at times. Our political life is very frustrating and directly affects the community in grave ways.
The reality is that peace cannot exist without women – I truly believe that women offer the best chance of freedom, wherever you are in the world. And that, despite our physical difference, we should all have the same rights. We have proved our capability in all jobs, from medicine to construction. I’ve seen how women work as truck drivers in Germany and other European countries. Here, too, there are many women working to reconstruct the homes that have been destroyed – any line of work is acceptable if it affords you a dignified life.
Sadly, for the time being, it is normal here to feel frightened for tomorrow, because tomorrow is not clear. This doesn’t just apply to Palestine, but the entire region. We are so afraid of what could come. We try to hope for the best, but our fear never abates. I am constantly thinking about my children: what does their future look like? Are they going to live a normal life? The future scares me.
All the same, I try to stay happy. Happiness to me is a complete system of things all working together; it is inherited from the past and it’s linked with the future. Seeing my friends gathered around me, talking and laughing, makes me happy. Watching a film where I can see myself in the script makes me happy, reading a good novel or eating walnuts as a treat. These things cheer me up, certainly, but I still find it difficult to feel happiness as a whole; it will only truly exist when I feel freedom. I haven’t felt that yet, but I still hope for it. I am happy, but I don’t feel like I’m flying high with happiness. I wish I could soar. One day I will.