Trapped in Ramallah
By: Conor O'Loughlin
The Qupti Family (l to r): George, Anton, Leila and Menirva
International Humanitarian Communications Officer
The sunshine streaming into the room was blinding. The first thing I saw were eyes. Many eyes, all staring up at me from from weary faces. People - men, women, one small boy, sitting on the chintz carpet and corduroy sofas. Sad. Resigned. Bored.
Five families were sitting in this room. A news channel was flickering, muted in the corner. All of them Gazan, they had been given special passes to leave Gaza to make pilgrimages to Bethlehem for Christmas. These passes are gold dust in Gaza: every year hundreds apply but only 300 are granted.
They left, separately, but mostly on Christmas morning, with excitement. One of the group, Manirva, a thin woman of around thirty, travelled with her brother and parents. She hadn't left Gaza in years. Speaking of the West Bank's major city, where they travelled to, she said, "In Ramallah I saw things I have never before seen in my life. When I went to a shop, I asked them to show me a bottle of Coca-Cola. I had never seen one before in my whole life!"
Although these families didn't know each other before, they were tied to a single tragedy. When Israel began the bombardment of Gaza, the border was shut down, completely and immediately. They were stranded.
Today these families are living in a religious hostel on the dusty outskirts of Ramallah. Disconnected and broken, they manage to speak often to their families in Gaza but they cannot contain their fear for their loved
Wasim Dabbagh is ten years old and travelled with his father and mother. His mother works for the UN and, whilst that fact wasn't enough to help them go back, they are one of the lucky families in that she can still work from Ramallah and bring in some money.
But Wasim is worried about his friends. "I called my friend and they told me I was lucky to leave Gaza." He says that even though he escaped the bombing, he "hurts because of Gaza".
George Qubti is a genial 39 year old with a helpless smile on his face. He is Manirva's brother and, whilst she is single, he has a wife and two small children, all of whom are stuck in Gaza. "My heart is breaking," he told me as he sat on the couch beside his father. "I call my wife many times a day. If I could get through ten times every day I would. My daughter is only three. She cries every day and on the phone she begs me to come home. She doesn't understand why I can't come, or why I said I would be back in three days and three weeks later I am still gone. She thinks the bombs have something to do with me being away and if I come home they will stop."
George and Manirva's father, a sprightly 72 year old named Anton, mutters something at this point about the atmosphere being "hot" in Gaza when they left.
Quick to jump in defence of her son, Leila, George's mother, jumps in. "We were all surprised by this. We wouldn't have left our children there if we knew this would happen. We're not happy here because we're watching what's happening on the television and when we get phone calls from there everyone is crying. What we see on television is bad, but what they tell us is worse. Nobody sleeps. We want to go back but they tell us no. They say it is good that we are far away."
Anton is quick to reply.
"But it is not. If we are to die, we will die with our families and in our homes."
As Christians, the families approached a Catholic priest in Ramallah who contacted Caritas Jerusalem on their behalf. They are now being supported by Caritas to help them pay their way while in the West Bank. But this was meant to be a pilgrimage. A holiday.
And now this. Grown men and women, professional men and women, living suddenly penniless in a hostel, dependent on handouts.
Walid Dabbagh is a 51-year old mechanical engineer and Wasim's father. He is a sturdy man, with neat white hair and metal-rimmed glasses. But of all the group he seems to feel the pain the most. His two daughters, who by virtue of being between 16 and 35 were deemed invalid for visas by the Israeli authorities, are stuck in Gaza alone.
"I'm afraid for my children," he told me, his eyes getting more moist with every word.
"The area they live in is so far not too bad but close by there has been massive destruction. I'm asking myself when I return, what will I see? Or find? All my life will be turned around. My daughters ask, 'what are you doing for us to take us out of here?'
"I don't know the reason why all of this is happening. I don't know who to blame. Hamas? Fattah? Israel? The world? People there are awaiting death at any moment. Even us here in Rammallah don't sleep. I am afraid my daughters will be hurt. Or lost. We have been living under siege for two years."
As Wasim sits staring at his hands, his father continues, his emotions barely contained.
"I was born in war," he said. "I am tired. I have been raised in war and now my children are being raised in war. I want to tell the world: enough suffering and war. Enough instability. Let the people of Gaza live."
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