—  Stories  —

Palestine: Fleeing home to save her life (6)

- 15 July 2022

Omayma Masoud, a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience, was forced to leave her native Palestine after being threatened by Hamas. By dedicating her life to the profession and to the fight for women's rights, she feels she signed her own death warrant. This, a ‘chapter of laughter and tears’, is the sixth part of her story.

I hold my pen in front of my papers, trying to write, but I cannot, so I pick up my laptop. So many letters on the keyboard that I see them rising, holding hands, dancing in circles, forming words, rising into the air then dropping suddenly to the ground in the form of black ink that flows in all directions and covers the floor, until the black colour becomes the master of the scene.

I click again on the keyboard. More words are appearing on the screen and more sentences are breaking. Two letters switch into very big capital letters then fade away. What’s happening? The words, the phrases, the sentences, and the paragraphs are shattering in my mind, definitely not on the keyboard and definitely not on the screen. I cannot get these words out of my mind to pour them into a complete story. My story – the story that is craving to be told.

Every time I try to write it, it brings back all the feelings and emotions. All of them together. Too many emotions. Too many to handle. I wish I could choose one feeling at a time. I would love to describe everything in detail.

I wish I could hold out my hands and reach out to all the readers so they can feel and see what is boiling inside my mind, inside my heart, and inside my soul. The thing is, I’m trying to write what happened to me in a certain moment, which brings the feeling of the physical and mental presence there as if it is here and now.

It feels like I’m still floating on the troubled river. The river that witnessed the crossing of lives, details, names, nationalities, faces, eyes, trembling hands, shaking hearts, prayers, hopes, despair, fear, and the fight for the light. It is like a war that would last a lifetime.

Under each stone and around each corner, there is a battle to be fought. To fight the disturbed, twirling letters and words in my mind, I am trying to visualise the people who were with me.

The cold eyes are dominating all the fading images in my mind. Lots of faces are appearing out of those fading images. I see tens of blurry faces that are becoming clearer and clearer. They are getting closer and closer. They are getting bigger and bigger as if they are going to cover all the scenes in my mind. An old face full of wrinkles that carry on its tenderness and reassurance. While warm eyes give a caress of safety. I can still hear her voice whispering the same words and praying for me so that I can achieve my goal.

I find myself repeating her prayers out loud as my fingers start to click on the letters of the keyboard and the words and sentences began to flow on the screen in front of me.

I met that old Turkish woman, who was trying to sell roses to me, when I was sitting in a cafe with the intention of finding another trafficker for another trip from Turkey to Greece.

It was the late morning of a hot sunny day in mid-September 2018. I ordered a cup of coffee and asked for the names and numbers of traffickers in the same sentence, smiling at the waiter. He asked me where exactly I wanted to go and whether it was by sea or land. I replied boldly with one sentence:

  • “A whole package.”

The waiter disappeared for a few moments then came back and gave me ten names of traffickers and their WhatsApp numbers. The names were strange: Al khal (uncle) Mohamed, Al khal Abu Khaled, Al khal Jano, and Al khal Hamouda. All of the names started with this word Al khal.

On the same spot, I made a few calls and chose the earliest trip to start off the next day since all the prices that were offered to me were the same, as were the promises of a safe and short trip.

I had all day to equip myself for the trip, bearing in mind lessons learned from the previous journey. I bought good black walking shoes, a dark green leather jacket, a black jumper, black trousers, and a decent-sized black backpack that was firm but light. I made sure to have my little perfume bottle with me. I also bought enough water bottles, bread, food cans and, most importantly, enough mosquito spray for two days. I believed that two days would be much more than any trip would take if we weren’t caught. I was still naive at that time. How could I anticipate what was going to come my way? I was feeling good and hopeful about the trip to come. I thought that I had already encountered more than enough for any person in this life.

Although I wasn’t able to sleep well the night before, I decided to visit Istanbul and enjoy it before leaving for my destination. I have family members and friends living in that city. I longed to call and meet them but held myself back. I had a mission that should not be interrupted. I think now that I did not want anyone or anything to talk me into changing my mind. No one knew why I was leaving. No one would understand how I could leave everything behind and give myself up to the unknown.

With a quick glance at Google Maps, I chose to visit the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). I wanted to melt inside the crowd to pass the time. I had my backpack and headed towards the streets of Istanbul. I entered the bazaar where I found a maze of colours and wonders, silk and silver, and arts and crafts. A stream of endless beauty swallowed me and carried me back to the old markets of Gaza – although modest when compared with the Grand Bazaar, the smell of the spices and the different types of incense awakened homesickness inside me.

I noticed a very dark, very skinny man in his 60s, with Middle Eastern features, and a funny looking woman pointing at me then whispering to each other. I looked back at them, trying to figure out if I knew them from somewhere, but I could not.

I turned into another narrow alley that was full of shops of gold and jewellery. As I was gazing at the sparkling gold creations and ornaments studded with precious stones and possibly diamonds, I could see in the reflection of the shop window that the man and the woman were following me.

I stopped and turned to them saying in Arabic:

  • “Hello, what is the matter? Can I help you with something?”

They both spoke at the same time, thanking God that I speak Arabic and that I did not look like one, then the woman said to her husband:

  • “Ask her.”
  • “Actually, we wanted to know from where you got your backpack? We need two urgently.”
  • “Oh, no problem. I bought it from the big market in the Aksaray area.”
  • “It is far away. We do not have much time. Can you help us choose good ones from this market?”
  • “Okay.”

While I was wandering with the couple from one store to another, I laughed so much at the woman’s jokes and flirtations with her husband, and almost cried hearing their story.

The couple, Aram and Zahia, were Syrian Kurds. They spoke fluent Arabic, but with the Syrian dialect, which is dear to my heart. The man was calm and the woman was quarrelsome, but with a great sense of humour. Every word, every gesture, every look of her eyes, every expression on her face launched laughter in my heart before it reached my lips, even when she was telling me why they escaped Syria.

Spontaneously, the woman told me that they were living in a very small village, whose name I do not remember, on the Iraqi-Syrian border, close to the Turkish border, and that her husband spent most of his life in either Iraqi or Syrian prisons because he was a drug smuggler. Zahia had only one son whom she raised alone, but she had lots of money gained from the drug business which allowed her to live comfortably and provided her with all she wished and dreamed of.

All that changed when her husband became involved in smuggling weapons, not just drugs. He was almost killed in one of the many explosions that occurred in Baghdad’s markets. He felt so guilty for helping to provide the bombs and weapons to the killers, and at the same time he felt grateful to be given another chance to survive, to rethink his life and to quit smuggling. The armed groups in Iraq and Syria pressured him to keep on smuggling weapons to them and threatened to kill his son, who was now a married man, with three children.

All of his life savings and wealth was paid to these groups as a ransom for his son and his family. With the rest of the money, he paid for the last smuggling trip, to get his own son, daughters-in-law and the three grandchildren to Europe, specifically Switzerland. Now it was their turn to try to escape from the threats of those armed groups and to put an end to providing them with weapons or revealing the secrets of weapons owned by one group or the other. I tried to find out who those groups were, but the woman’s face darkened and her voice trembled as she told me that it was better for all of us not to know.

Then, suddenly changing the subject in a split second, her eyes began to shine and she said:

  • “We are going to Switzerland. I cannot wait to hold my son and my grandchildren in my arms. It is my only wish in this life.”

The man’s mobile rang so he moved a few steps away from us to answer, then came back in a hurry, grabbed her by the arm and waved to me saying: “We must leave…” and they disappeared into the crowd.

A few minutes later, four o’clock in the afternoon announced its prompt arrival with a loud ring on my phone alarm and a notification bleep from my WhatsApp that startled me and brought me back to the reality awaiting me.

I received a message with a location that I should move towards immediately.

I ran back to the main street, waved for a taxi, gave the location to the driver and the trip began. In 20 minutes the taxi was already on the highway outside Istanbul heading towards a small town called Çatalca. The town was full of tourists with their bicycles and hiking equipment, but it was also full of women in long dresses wearing the hijab. The taxi stopped in front of a small building, maybe two or three storeys high.

A man came out of the entrance when the driver shouted something in Turkish. To my surprise he addressed me in broken Arabic, asking if my name was Omayma. As I said yes, he opened the car door and told me to get inside the building quickly. I remember very well that I told myself then: “Here we go again, run, fast, quickly. Who do they think I am?”

I wanted to pay the driver but the other man told me that it was included and that he was going to take care of the matter.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”, a middle-aged woman with blond hair and wearing sports clothes asked me with a welcoming smile.

  • “I would love that. Thanks.”
  • “Come inside, I will bring you a chair, or do you want to join us sitting on the floor?”
  • “A chair, please.”
  • “Okay.”

I followed her down a semi-lit corridor, passing rooms with open doors that were full of people sitting at sewing machines and working.

Men raised their heads but when they saw me they started murmuring in Kurdish, which I do not understand. One would call another to tell him to pay attention to me. I felt so uncomfortable and turned to the woman:

  • “What is it? Why is everyone looking at me and what are they saying?”
  • “Do not worry. They are not used to seeing an Arab woman without a hijab especially from the Anfar (people to be trafficked to Greece).”
  • “Is that what they are talking about?”
  • “No, they say the Anfar are already here. They are happy that they will get paid today.”
  • “Paid by whom?”
  • “I cannot answer this. Here is the chair. Have a seat.”

This sentence made my heart sink. The heavy feeling of fear crept into me. She left me alone in the room but soon, newcomers arrived. To my surprise, Aram and Zahia came into the room.

They became my companions on this trip, and the one that followed. When destiny threw these people in my way to share their story with me, I had no idea that we were going to share days and nights of unbelievable events, moments of darkness and light, and chapters of my story filled with tears and laughter.

Is it one daughter-in-law or more than one?