By Asmaa ElKhaldi
We Palestinians confront many hardships daily. That's why we call common civil rights our "dreams." We struggle and die to achieve them, but however many times we try, we can't make them come true.
A common dream for Palestinians living in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and even the West Bank is to secure a permit to visit the holy city of Jerusalem, with its ancient roads leading to the place where every Muslim longs to pray, the Al-Aqsa Mosque—also called the Noble Sanctuary.
Living in the prison that is the Gaza Strip is not easy. We are forbidden to travel without the permission of our “masters,” Israel and Egypt. Travelling is one of my biggest dreams. I want to discover new places and new people. I seek any opportunity to travel abroad and return to Gaza to share what I learned.
Last summer, I was accepted as a Palestinian delegate to the Women-to-Women Leadership Conference and Program in Boston. I would represent the Gaza Strip with two other Palestinian girls from the West Bank. My happiness was beyond expression! Not only because I would fly for the first time but also because I'd have the chance to fulfill a dream I’d had since childhood—to visit Jerusalem. (Anyone wishing to travel to the United States must visit there for the visa interview.)
Honestly, I have to admit it. When I was accepted into the conference, one thought kept repeating in my mind: "I can miss the program in the U.S, but I can’t miss the chance to visit Jerusalem for the first time."
After weeks of waiting, I received a message: "Asmaa, tomorrow is your visa interview in Jerusalem. Make sure to go to the Erez crossing early." It was the holy month of Ramadan and just minutes before the breaking of the fast. “Tomorrow is the day! What should I do?” I was up all night connecting with friends who had traveled from Gaza through the Erez crossing.
I even talked to my friend Tasneem from Jerusalem, who wasn't expecting me. I had always promised her I’d make it to Jerusalem one day. With my determination and my belief in myself and my dreams, I now was!
I will never forget my mother's nonstop panic. She said: "Asmaa, you don't even know Gaza City well. How can you go to Jerusalem alone?" On the other hand, my father supported me as he always does, because he believes in my inner power and bravery. He was scared for me too, but instead, he gave me advice.
The morning came. I hadn't slept more than an hour. My thoughts pounded incessantly. I worried about not getting my permit or some other unexpected thing happening. My mind kept praying. I finally arrived at Erez crossing in the early morning with my Dad, who insisted on driving me. After waiting more than an hour on the Palestinian side, my permit was finally handed to me. I asked my Dad: "If I'm allowed a permit, why do I have to wait so long for the Israelis to hand it to me? All this wasted time; I could have stayed longer in Jerusalem!" He answered: "To humiliate us."
It was time to leave Gaza and cross the Erez checkpoint. This was the first time I’d been inspected, body-scanned and ordered though the long series of steel gates. Finally, I was at the point every Palestinian dreams of: I was in occupied Palestine. I got into a taxi near the crossing. I burst with happiness and heartbreak. All the beauty I was seeing as a tourist, while the occupiers were the residents.
When my family called and asked, "Where are you now?" I replied, "I'm in Majdal, on my way to Jerusalem." I stopped to realize what I'd just said. Majdal? I've never imagined pronouncing the town and now I was in it. I remembered my grandma, who lived here until her family was expelled in the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe, the creation of Israel and the explusion of the Palestinians). I wished she were with me.
I arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. At the end of my interview at the American consulate, I was accepted. Finished with business, I called my cousin Anas who lives in Ramallah. I hadn’t seen him seen for eight years. I wanted to take a selfie with him when I got to Ramallah. However, this selfie couldn’t be taken. I wasn’t allowed to go to Ramallah, less than an hour away. My permit was just for Jerusalem. Anas responded, “This is the occupation.”
When I called Tasneem, who I’d known on Facebook for four years, she came with her car, warm hug and wide smile, despite her hunger and exhaustion. I asked her to drive me to Al-Aqsa Mosque. My permit was only for six hours and I had just an hour before I had to leave for Erez. Tasneem was heart broken and wanted me to stay longer.
When we arrived in the Old City, we walked through the tiny roads to reach Al-Aqsa. The dream became reality as I stood in front of the gigantic, unbelievably beautiful Dome of the Rock. I could hardly hold back my tears.
"Is that real or a mirage or what?" I asked Tasneem. We prayed together, took photos and talked with people. Every time I said I was from Gaza, people were amazed. How could I make it to Jerusalem at such a young age? Others almost cried to see a Gazan girl. It swiftly came time for the Adhan Al-Aser (call to prayer). This was the first time I’d heard the Al-Aqsa Adhan live. I was shaking.
When it was time to leave for Erez, finding a cab was almost impossible because worshipers who came from Gaza usually stayed overnight to pray on Lailat Al-Qader (the 27th night of Ramadan) and then left in the morning. After a fruitless search for a cab going to Erez, we had to call a more expensive car. We expected the taxi in 30 minutes, so we went shopping in Al-Qattanin Souk. However, the driver got stuck in traffic and he arrived two hours later. Now, there was only an hour left before the Erez crossing closed and it took two hours to reach it by car.
I worried that my parents would be very frightened. Then, I worried about not being allowed back into Gaza because my visa had expired. Tasneem calmed me down and assured me everything would be okay; I could stay with her. She called my Dad because my phone's battery was out of charge. Plus, I wasn't ready to talk to him. She explained and assured him I was in safe hands. My Dad calmly accepted the situation. I was very happy and told Tasneem, “Your wish is fulfilled. I'll stay until morning.” We laughed, delighted with the unexpected incident that led to more time in Jerusalem. Putting aside my worries, I enjoyed the rest of my visit.
Tasneem's family was kind and hospitable. Their love towards Gazans was clear. We broke our fast together and prayed. Not to waste any moments sleeping, Tasneem and I stayed awake all night eating and talking. I discovered things I hadn't known about her and Jerusalem before. The city's history was more devastating than I realized.
We called the same driver to take me to Erez the next day. I asked Tasneem to go to the mosque again and we took pictures and prayed. I shifted between a desire to stay and a desire to return home to prove I was brave enough to achieve my dreams unharmed. Saying good-bye to Tasneem, I embraced her tightly and promised this wasn’t my last visit. Then I gave her my favorite ring to remember our adventure.
I had violated my visa conditions but was lucky. The large number of Gazans coming back in after the Ramadan services caused the guards to brush off my offense. The officer only said in Hebrew, "Don't do it again." I passed through. I couldn't believe that in a few minutes I was back in Gaza. Just a piece of blue paper allowed me to go in and out of Gaza, and yet it was almost impossible to get.
I arrived in Gaza with my bright smile and rich memories. I’d photographed so many things, people couldn't believe my stay was just a day. I was super proud of myself. And, I was unbelievably thankful to God, who listens to our wishes. Although I was unable to ride in an airplane and attend the Woman-to-Woman program due to family problems, my visit to Jerusalem was priceless. I'm sure that one day I'll fly, but to go back to Jerusalem is not easy.
If you have a dream, don't wait for it to come to you. You need to hurry toward it. Accomplish that dream by fully believing in it and yourself; challenge all the obstacles, be patient and persistent. Being Palestinian is not easy, but it also makes you stronger.
Asmaa, 19, is a second-year architecture student at the Islamic University of Gaza and a freelance. She writes for We are not numbers.