Gaza and Nea Kavala: When your dreams pull you apart

Hala Riziq (Palestine) and Ghulam Hussein Azimi (Afghanistan) do not know each other. They come from different countries and different generations. Hala is a mother and holds a position of responsibility in the NGO she works for. Hussein is a son and hasn’t finished his studies yet. However, they have a lot in common. Both had to say goodbye to family members for the same reason: seeking a better future.

Hala Riziq (45 years old) is many things. She is a program manager for Alianza por la Solidaridad; she is also a mother, a wife, and a daughter. Hala is one of the few people lucky enough to work in the country where she is. She is probably more than anyone can ever imagine. But, unfortunately, for the rest of the world, Hala is also a number, one of the two million numbers who have been living, for sixteen years now, under siege in the 360 square kilometers that make up the Gaza Strip.

The new year hasn’t given rest to this small region of Palestine, located between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. Just days before the end of January, thirty-five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including eight minors. This is alarming compared to the 313 Palestinians who were killed in 2021. Yet the international community continues to turn a blind eye to this grave humanitarian crisis.

A feeling of uncertainty pervades Hala when I ask her about the future. “That’s life in Gaza. You cannot plan or do anything, because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow”. Sadly, most Gazans live a similar situation. “We don’t feel safe. We feel afraid. I am afraid of losing more family members any day, for any reason. Because of the Israeli occupation, because of repeated offenses, because of any new disease in the world, because some stupid decision will make me one day decide to take my whole family out of Gaza illegally”.

This statement fully corroborates the mental plight that Palestinians are subjected to on a daily basis. “We are under pressure, stress, and depression. The psychological situation is very hard for all of us. All the time we are trying to support each other. We insist on surviving, and we do it as a coping mechanism, trying to mitigate things all the time”.

Opportunities for young people are scarce here. Three-quarters of Gazans are unemployed. The only way for Palestinians to leave the territory is to seek a permit from Israel – which can sometimes take months to arrive or not at all – or to do so irregularly. In this way, many lives are lost in the depths of the Mediterranean. In this sense, Hala is very clear about why she has never left the Strip: “Staying in Gaza is difficult, but leaving Gaza is even more difficult. So I have two possibilities: to immigrate illegally, which may force me to lose my life or that of my family, or to suffer until I get a permit. And if I think of leaving Gaza, I ask myself: What would I do anywhere else? It will be hard, it will be difficult to adapt to a new country, with a new culture, and a new language. How would I cope? These are the thoughts that come to the minds of people who are still in Gaza. But I personally love Gaza. It is my homeland, my nationality, my citizenship, and my home.

Not so for her son, one of four children, who has had the opportunity to go to Turkey to study, and has no plans to return to Palestine. Hala lets out a long sigh as she explains this difficult situation: “I feel sorry for him because I will miss him a lot, but at the end of the day it’s his life. I can’t make it easy for him to have the life he deserves inside Gaza, so I won’t be able to stop him from start looking for a better future away from here, even if it costs me and if it’s hard for me”. In these terms, the situation is exacerbated for women, due to patriarchal norms. For them, any decision they might make is hindered if it clashes with the interests of society, even if their will is to study. “You can count on the fingers of your hands the number of women in Gaza who can participate, do something they believe in, or have a decision-making position in our country”.

For Ghulam Hussein Azimi (19 years old), who has been living in the Nea Kavala refugee camp in northern Greece for the past couple of months, the situation is not so different from that of Hala’s son. Hussein came to Greece fleeing his home, Afghanistan because his plans to study were cut short by the arrival of the Taliban. For him, as for many young Afghans, the change of regime in Afghanistan has meant a new start in almost every aspect, including academics. “I just wanted to study, then the Taliban came and wiped everything out. Since then, my life, my goals, and my ideas have changed completely”.

Hussein left Afghanistan nine months ago. Most of his family has stayed behind. He is waiting for approval from the Greek state to get the documents with which he can travel and leave the refugee camp behind. This delay can sometimes take several years. But Hussein is clear: “Being able to continue studying International Relations at university is the most important thing for me right now. He plans to return to Afghanistan, perhaps when he is in an important international position: “In the future, if I get a big diploma or a big job, I would like to go back to my country. Because, in spite of everything, it is still my homeland”.