‘I will stand up to my oppressors once more’: A travel diary of a Palestinian forced to leave home

Guest contribution by Mohammed Yassin

My name is Mohammed Yassin. Right before the 10th grade, I moved with my family to Palestine where I stayed for the rest of high school. I expected things to be different, yes, but I did not expect the riveting life changing experiences I would quickly come to face

This is not a story of the happiness or love or joy that I felt in my years in qada Ramallah where I felt more at home than anywhere else. This is a story of heartache, a story of struggle that culminated on that cruel day of departure when my time in Palestine was up.

I decided to write a memo of each part of my rough journey back to the United States. The emotions, the anguish, the mental torture I experienced — I tried my hardest to record it all.

The Last Ride

I am sitting upstairs by myself because I can’t bear to sit with anyone at the moment. I’m staring uninterestedly at the images flickering across the television screen when my mom calls my name to tell me that the taxi driver has arrived. Her words echo in my head. The moment I’ve dreaded this whole year is finally here. I knew this day would come but I prayed with all my heart that it never would.

I slowly drag my feet along the floor, hoping that if I stalled, something might happen and put our journey on hold indefinitely. I drag my feet even slower, but nothing interrupts our plans.

My cousin, named Mohammad with an ‘a’, helps me move the luggage. Secretly, I wish he wasn’t so obedient. That way, it would take longer to move our luggage to the taxi and I’d be extending whatever time I have left here. We move each bag one by one, sluggishly filling the trunk and the backseat of the taxi. My mom moves quickly to the car. She never did like farewells. As for me, I emotionlessly bid my adieus and sit next to her in the cab, stone-faced and inanimate.

The taxi lurches forward. As we pick up speed and cruise through Al-Taybeh, my mind feels rushed by the faces of all of the people I’ll miss, all of the people who have impacted my life in one way or another, be it positively or negatively. They welcomed me into this country as a foolish child, and now they watch me leave a wiser and less foolish child.

As the inches turn to feet and the feet turn to miles, I feel my heart being tugged in so many different directions by ropes tied to the places and the people I’ve grown attached to. At the same time, I feel another set of ropes loosen. There are people, there are loved ones waiting for me on the other side. My heart feels as emotionally unsteady as a hormonal teenager but my mind knows better than to let me dwell on my mix of feelings. I thrust my emotions to the back of my mind to deal with later. Hopefully they won’t become a barrier I’ll find difficult to overcome.

As we drive through Areeha, or Jericho, the Dead Sea’s home city, I catch myself taking the deepest breaths I can. It may be a long while before I get to breathe my country’s air again. It may be a long while before I get to feel the ease and tranquility that I experience when the warm, salty air fills my lungs. I see people smiling everywhere I look even though they’re under occupation. I see peace. I see potential for this nation to be a great nation known for its hospitality, its love, its comfort. I am jealous that all of these smiling faces will get to stay while I, no less Palestinian than the lovely people around me, will be exported like an object and stripped of Palestine’s natural beauty.

The Bridge to Hell

We’re at the jisr to enter Jordan right now. I sit in silence as I wait for our tickets to be called. I hate this place. I look around. We sit as patiently as possible, biding our time on our phones and using the oh-so-generous free WiFi meant to help us kill time. I’ve only been sitting here for ten minutes, but it feels like an eternity. In the span of these tense ten minutes, I reflect on the friendships, the brotherhoods, the bonds I’ll be leaving behind. I contemplate the way everything can change in such little time.

The crowd is staring, and I know this to be true because I see so many pairs of eyes scanning every little detail of my mother and I. Every few minutes, the crowd gives us another stare-down, just to make sure nothing has changed. Posters of Abu Mazen, the Palestinian “President”, line the walls, and as I turn my attention to each corner of the room, I’m given the sense that I’m supposed to appreciate him as some sort of saint or savior sent from heaven. The waiting room’s television screen replays footage of recent Israeli air strikes and night raids. So much for putting an end to the occupation, right?

Finally our tickets are called. We enter a bus that will take us from the Palestinians to our oppressors. The engin runs, vibrating our seats and our minds, cluttering our thoughts as the temperature rises. I sit as silently as I can, observing the the children and mothers and businessmen next to me. We’re all the same but we’re also so diverse. We’re strangers but everyone keeps exchanging that look that says, “Hang in there. We’re looking out for you, too.” It’s this hospitality and respect that I will miss the most.

The ticket-taker joins us on the bus. He weaves his way down the aisle, collecting our tickets, and nonchalantly tearing off the stubs for us to keep. Then he walks off and we are alone again, staring at our ticket stubs and wondering if these will serve as bitter reminders of a challenging experience or souvenirs from our time spent in the warmth of our homeland. We sit and we wait. We sit and we wait.

The bus driver suddenly boards and closes the door without any warning. Still within the occupied West Bank, our journey to the Israeli military compound feels so abrupt and unwelcoming.

In total, the ride should only be about five minutes. But it is riddled with checkpoints and road blocks and stops where we’ll be searched, questioned, checked, and made to sit in chairs, waiting. Endless waiting.

After the first minute of driving, we make the first of many stops. Here, another teller checks our tickets. There is no enthusiasm here. It’s just meant to irritate us. The doors close abruptly again and we’re off. But only for a few moments because now we’ve reached a military checkpoint. My mother and I are checked. We’re not terrorists, they determine, and transfer us to another bus — the “safe” bus. After some waiting, the bus starts to move forward. Then we stop again. The bus is checked once more as my patience thins.

We aren’t stopped again for another few minutes, but I knew not to get comfortable. We stop at another checkpoint. Our bus is checked as its engine rumbles. It’s hot and it’s dusty, and through the muggy window I watch Israeli citizens and other non-Palestinians pass through the checkpoint with ease. We Palestinians are “threats” so we are forced to wait to the tune of this rumbling engine for many minutes before we can get another chance to cross the border and exit this open-ceiling prison.

My mom and I are separated at the final checkpoint. I try to get through the procedures quickly. The Israeli soldiers on the scene were rude and I feel that they could easily make things difficult for me if given the chance. Because my mom isn’t involved in politics, she is sent to a different line and met with a different procedure than the one I have to face. Somehow I get through border control before her and I take a seat and wait patiently for her to meet me at the other end. More and more people are filing through except for her. I’m growing anxious right now. The bus that brought us to the checkpoint drives away. It seems that everyone who was on that bus with me has already gotten through. So where is my mom?

After someone notices my anxious glances, they direct me outside of the checkpoint and inform me that my mother will be soon meet me here. When she makes it out, I let out a deep sigh of relief and mentally prepare myself for what’s to come. We’re getting closer to Amman, but the journey will not be getting any easier. We board yet another bus and are taken to a loading zone where dozens of people dig through mountains of luggage, attempting to locate their own. I find the bags that belong to us and toss them onto our fourth bus. This is the one that will take us through to Jordan.

Day in Hell

We are welcomed into Jordan by officers who very clearly abhor the Palestinians crossing through. They address us with disrespect and with attitude as if we are imposing on them, as if it is our choice to be here, as if we are back at an Israeli checkpoint. I become wary of everyone around me.

When we reach Amman, my mom and I spend our time walking around. I can’t help comparing my surroundings to what I remember of the United States. There are so many similarities and despite being just one country over, I feel as far from Palestine as I had ever been.

Later in the evening, I video-chat with my friends from the comfort of my hotel bed. The internet keeps cutting off from their end but after hearing their voices, I am filled with energy again. I feel silly — it’s only been a few days since I last saw them — but I miss them deeply and I crave to hear how they’re doing. Aside from communicating with my stateside family when I was in high school in Palestine, this is the first time I have ever had to rely on the internet to communicate with loved ones. I hear Mohammad Itayem’s voice mocking me just as he always used to do. Oday yells his ridiculous yet heartwarming pleasantries. Mehde talks with innocence and poise. I feel like a teenager raving over a boy band. They reminded me of what I’m going to miss out on and what I’m going to lose if I don’t keep a firm grip on my roots.

The quote, “Friends are the family one decides to pick for himself,” repeats over and over in my head. That night, I sleep with heavy thoughts. Where is life going to take me? How can I keep others from experiencing this separation? What can I do to make this world a better place, for the Mohammads and Odays and Mehdes of the world?

The Departure

After just three hours of sleep, interrupted by anxious thoughts and memories I won’t be able to relive, it is time to leave for good. The taxi ride to the airport is long. Once again, I am sluggish in packing our bags into the trunk of the cab — not because I want to stay in Amman but because I’m secretly hoping that something might force us to abort our plans, to pick up where we are and to head back to where we’ve come from.

But nothing happens, and soon enough, my mom and I are at the front of the line as our bags are checked twice, our passports stamped, and our boarding passes exchanging hands. The waiting game is not over, though. Our plane boards in three hours. In any other circumstance, I wouldn’t mind, but to spend so many idle hours under the weight of my heavy thoughts is torture. I look at my mom and look away. I am as silent as I’ve ever been. The voices of my friends are replaying in my mind. I can hear them but I can’t speak to them. The faces of the Israeli soldiers forcing me out of my land flash before my eyes. I feel my eyebrows curl. I can see them but I can’t glare at them. I can’t resist. They can’t see me stand up to them anymore. For three hours I walk through the memory of my homeland: the dusty roads, the left and right turns, the golden sun beaming through my windows, the jokes I shared with friends, the beautiful words that spilled from the mouths of my teachers and neighbors. My heart has stayed behind.

Eventually we board. I reject the idea that I’m leaving even as I walk through the tunnel. When I’m thousands of feet up in the air, I still reject the idea that I’m gone, that I’ve departed once and for all. I tell myself that I needed to leave my heart behind. One day I’ll be back to collect it. My eyes, my ears, my lungs, and my beating heart will all be back together again in my native land. I try to convince myself that I’m only going on vacation, that I’ll be back soon enough to claim what’s mine, land, heart, and all.

I’m exhausted. Everyone around me seems to find sleep so easily. My eyes want to close but my preoccupied mind won’t let them. We still have five more hours left in the air. This whole experience has been a nightmare.

Despite my longing to be back home, I’m slowly becoming more and more excited to see the rest of my family. I may be leaving one family behind, but I’ll be embraced by another one.

The Landing

Right as the airplane’s tires hit the asphalt, reality hits me hard in the gut. I’m gone. By body yearns to be at one with its aching heart. In time, I tell myself.

Fortunately, my first day back in the States is beautiful. Having not seen the rest of my family in so long, it is nice to rejoice with old faces. I feel warm when surrounded by these wonderful people.

But in the silence of the night, when I am alone with my thoughts in a setting that has become so foreign to me, I lay in bed calmly plotting my return home. I feel like an animal thrown into a caged shelter. I have two sets of families but only one place to be. I know that I will return. I know that I will come to stand up to my people’s oppressors once more.

Mohammed Yassin

Mohammed Yassin is a Palestinian-American student who completed his high school education in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. His photograph taken in Ein Yabroud during his final weeks in Palestine was featured as a Photo of the Week.

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