It has been a long time since my family has had reason to celebrate.
For nine years my wife Faten and I have been intermittently separated from our school-age children as we traveled back and forth between our home in Gaza and Cairo as Faten needed brain surgery and radiotherapy treatment unavailable here.
Palestinians in Gaza are not able to travel freely as Israel has imposed total closure for nearly a decade, and Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing, the main exit and entry for the vast majority of Gaza’s nearly 1.9 million residents, closed. Only for rare exceptions is it opened.
We were in Cairo, where Faten began receiving cancer treatment, when Israel suddenly closed Rafah in 2007. After her surgery, we were stranded in Egypt for months, along with thousands of other Gaza travelers. We only made it back home after the Egyptian authorities took the extraordinary measure of opening a commercial crossing it operates in coordination with Israel to let stranded people back into Gaza.
Egypt’s closure of Rafah eased after the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011 and during the presidency of Muhammad Morsi, voted into power during Egypt’s first democratic national election. But all that changed in summer 2013 after the overthrow of Morsi’s government and the installment of General Abdulfattah al-Sisi.
At that time, Faten and I were about to leave for Egypt. A few days before al-Sisi’s takeover, we were in a bus, just in front of the gate to Egypt at Rafah crossing, when we were informed that the Egyptians were no longer letting in anyone from Gaza.
With Rafah closed, Faten needed to find treatment elsewhere. The only option was occupied East Jerusalem, off limits to Palestinians in Gaza without an Israeli permit. Time passed, but Faten underwent one more round of radiotherapy there in late March to mid-April.
Only three months after the radiotherapy treatment, an MRI scan found cancer. Faten needed another urgent referral to a hospital outside of Gaza. It was decided that she should go back to Jerusalem. Her hospital appointment was scheduled for mid-July of 2014.
Israel launched a massive assault on Gaza about a week before her appointment.
In the midst of the relentless Israeli bombing, I received a phone call from the Palestinian authorities informing me that Faten and I could go to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza’s north and then on to Jerusalem.
By then, every moving object on the roads was vulnerable to Israeli air strikes or tank fire. Faten and I decided not to go.
During a three-day ceasefire, I received another call saying that Rafah was reopened and that medical patients could travel to Egypt. Faten and I stayed with a relative in Rafah before departing to Egypt as Israeli warplanes buzzed overhead and missiles hit areas around us, breaching the ceasefire.
The next morning, we reached the Rafah crossing terminal just as an Israeli warplane fired a missile at an exterior wall of the waiting hall.
We made it to Cairo while our children remained in the care of relatives in Gaza, without protection from Israel’s merciless military. Leaving them so my wife could get urgently needed treatment was a heartrending decision no parent should ever have to make.
The stress of our family’s ordeal peaked again last December. Faten and I had been back in Cairo since late June for medical care, including brain surgery, radiotherapy and follow-up. Meanwhile, our daughter Aseel was in her last year of school, preparing for her matriculation exams, the results of which would greatly determine her next chapter in life.
“Father, please come back, we are terribly fed up of being lonely and we are in bad need of both of you,” Aseel told me as we talked over the Internet. She sounded tired and sad, sighing more than once.
“May God help her, Munir, Nadine and Mohammad during these difficult times,” I whispered right after I spoke to Aseel. I could not do anything for my children but make that little prayer.
Back in Gaza
Two months after that conversation, my wife and I returned to Gaza in mid-February of this year. By then, Aseel had already been in school for five months without us present. The pressure on her mounted as summer neared and the time to sit for exams grew closer. Whether or not she would succeed became a matter of concern for our extended family.
After she finished her exams in mid-June, we waited anxiously for the results.
Earlier this month, the scores were finally published.
“Is this a good result, Dad?” Aseel asked, her eyes tearing up.
She had scored 86 percent.
“Of course it is, my dear daughter. It is even great,” I replied, to Aseel’s relief.
The news spread like wildfire among our family in Maghazi refugee camp. My mother, sisters, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces poured into our home to congratulate Aseel who has chosen to study English.
My wife, who still struggles but is able to hold up with medication and painkillers, became flush with joy and looked more like her old self than she has in a long time.
She rushed into the kitchen and instructed our son to run out to buy some ingredients so that she could bake a cake for the occasion.
We had a party at our home to celebrate. Our family in Maghazi came over, as did relatives from elsewhere in Gaza, to congratulate Aseel and bring her gifts.
My little nieces and nephews danced to the music that filled our home, which we decorated with balloons. I offered chocolates to our neighbors, who offered their congratulations on my daughter’s success.
“Thank you God for creating a little light of hope. May you bring some more happiness to our long-troubled family,” I thought to myself as our guests enjoyed cake, fruits and peanuts, full of joy despite it all.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.