Why did I “swap” US for Gaza?
Why did I leave the US and come back to Gaza?
I have been thinking about that question for more than a year now.
In September 2021, I returned to Palestine, having lived in the US since June 2019.
The time I spent away proved that some cliches have a lot of truth about them. Compared to Palestine, the US is indeed a land of opportunity.
I was there on a Fulbright scholarship. Most of my fellow students at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University had no difficulty finding jobs.
They were recruited by Deloitte, Grant Thornton and other big firms.
It was much easier to live in the US than in Gaza.
I felt welcome. Perhaps that was because I surrounded myself with other Arabs, though I did make a number of American friends.
For the last few months of my stay, I lived in Virginia and commuted to Washington for an internship.
During that time, I often had a weird sensation. Was it really true that I could travel inside the US without having to get a special permit?
Such freedom is unknown in Gaza.
Tempted to remain
My time in the US was by no means stress-free. During it, I figured out that I am traumatized.
Each time a plane flew overhead, I had painful memories of coming under aerial bombardment. All the images of war and destruction would pop up in my mind.
As I – like everyone in Gaza – have witnessed real horror, I was puzzled by the things that preoccupied Americans.
Around the time of the 2020 presidential election, most of my American friends were stressed.
One professor canceled classes because of the strain he felt under at that time. I saw advertisements offering psychological services over issues relating to the election.
Why, I wondered, was an election making people anxious?
In Gaza, I have never even been able to exercise my right to vote in a major election.
The last election for president of the Palestinian Authority was held in 2005. And the last election to the Palestinian Legislative Council was in 2006.
I was too young then to take part in both of them.
The reason why I returned to Gaza is quite simple. My visa expired.
Yes, I was tempted to remain in the US without authorization. But I am someone who obeys rules.
When I moved back to Gaza, I avoided speaking about my time in the US as much as possible. I do not want people in Gaza to feel envious or resentful.
On my return, I was struck by how – rather than welcoming me home – my friends in Gaza admonished me. They all told me that I should have stayed away.
It is not hard to see why. Overall, the unemployment rate here is approximately 44 percent, according to the latest official statistics.
At 72 percent, the rate is extremely high for people aged between 19 and 29 who hold an associate diploma or higher.
And when people manage to find work, their wages are frequently low.
One of my brothers is a nurse. He has two children and gets paid about $200 per month.
My brother struggles to feed his family.
As if the hardships caused by a complete Israeli blockade were not bad enough, we are subjected to full-scale attacks with dreadful regularity. One such attack took place in August this year.
Although my neighborhood was not directly targeted during the attack, there were explosions nearby.
We were frightened. When I held my young nephew after one blast, I could feel his heart pounding in his tiny body.
The attack once again underscored that nobody here is safe.
We have every reason to despair. Yet I refuse to do so.
The poet Mahmoud Darwish has written about how jobless and imprisoned Palestinians “sow hope.”
Gaza has been accurately described countless times as an open-air prison. All of us who live here are prisoners.
I could have escaped from this prison by remaining in the US. Instead, I opted to come back.
Despite all the suffering I have witnessed, I still yearn for a better tomorrow.
I remain optimistic that things will change if enough people around the world take action against Israel. It is our duty to sow hope.
Ghada Al-Haddad is a journalist based in Gaza.