As the media headlines swing from the growing death count in the Gaza Strip to fitful truce negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, a growing number of Americans are becoming aware of the eight-year-old blockade that has prevented the 1.8 million people of Gaza from living a normal life. However, it still seems like a distant battle; most Americans don't realize that the conflict is fueled by billions of dollars of US military "aid," or that there are Palestinians from Gaza living among them, fearing for their loved ones' lives from afar.
Separated from their parents, siblings, children and spouses after leaving the Strip to study or work, they have watched news of the Israeli assault with horror. Some have lost homes, relatives or both.
"I'd rather be with my family than be abroad," says Minna Albarqi, who, like most of the few Gazan students studying in the United States, managed to earn a full scholarship so she could pursue a higher academic degree - in her case, at Hollins University in Virginia. "Whatever happens to them, I want to happen to me. It's too painful wondering what is happening to them."
Mohammed Alhammami, who left Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp to study public policy and government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, agrees: "The hardest part about being abroad is not being there, not knowing what is happening immediately. I've been literally stuck in front of my computer screen, glued to the news, reading the names of the dead, afraid that I will know them . . . that a member of my family will be there."
Ahmed Msallam, who is studying computer science at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, was terrified when he read the news in late July that in one single neighborhood - called Shejaya, in eastern Gaza City - Israeli forces had killed at least 87 residents, a third of them children. Shejaya is his home.
"I felt like I was being ripped apart," he recalls. "The war in 2008 and 2009 was horrendous, but this is a lot worse. Civilians are being targeted everywhere, even during so-called 'truce times.'"
Fortunately, although Msallam's family was forced to evacuate and the interior of his home is damaged, it is still standing and none of his relatives were killed. Iman Abu Aitah, a junior with a double major in literary studies and biology at Columbia College, South Carolina, wasn't so lucky. She learned on July 23 that her parents, two brothers and 4-year-old nephew had been killed instantly in an Israeli rocket attack. In addition, two of Abu Aitah's sisters and another brother were injured in the blast. A close friend of Abu Aitah, Ghada Tafesh, reports that she is "staying strong" and plans to complete her degree, then return home to help support her siblings.
Tafesh, who is pursuing the same double major at Philadelphia's Wilson College, had hoped to return to Gaza this summer, following a visit with her aunt in a Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. However, as the threat of war became increasingly serious, she and her family changed her plane ticket three times. Once Israel unleashed its assault, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the borders closed. She never made it in.
"Not being there killed a little of my soul every minute. I was worried sick all the time; I didn't want to be left behind," says Tafesh. Fortunately, in her aunt's refugee camp, she was surrounded by sympathetic supporters. "As soon as people knew I was from Gaza, I got a lot of encouraging words. It made me feel better. "
Living in the United States, however, can be rough for Palestinians. A July CNN poll found thata majority of Americans believe Israel's military actions in Gaza are justified, with only four in 10 saying that Israel has used too much force.
"I love America because of the opportunity I have been given to get a quality education and become someone who will impact the world," says Msallam. "But I also think it is shameful for a country that claims to be a democracy to allow the systematic targeting and killing of Palestinians, and to support the Israeli blockade that is denying my little brother the basic human rights he deserves."
Nisreen Zaqout, a 19-year-old sophomore at Illinois College in Jacksonville, had no idea how challenging it would be when she agreed to participate in a program called New Story Leadership (NSL), which brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together in Washington, DC. She was the only participant this summer from Gaza, and when the assault began, she found it difficult to project a positive attitude as she mixed with Israelis and members of Congress. In her concluding speech at the end of the program, Zaqout was brutally honest.
"Being part of NSL at this time is absolute torture. I wanted to quit. I still want to quit," she admitted. "I kept trying not to think about what is going on back home. . . . about bombs falling from the sky, about what is happening to my family, about myself. I thought maybe I could detach myself from Gaza and make the best out of this experience. That I could learn to be pragmatic. But I couldn't, and I still can't. I realized that it is impossible to detach me from myself."
Does Zaqout still have hope that a better future for her people is within reach? "To be honest, I see no hope," she said. "If you live in Gaza, you know you are stuck. You can't get out. And if you are a curious tourist, you can't get in. . . . But to me, Gaza is not the problem; it is the solution. People in Gaza appreciate life more than any other place in the world. Think about it. They die to live. I stand before you as a fighter, fighting for dignity, freedom and the right to choose."