Living in Gaza — one of the most dangerous places on earth — the Al Ghussein family learned years ago that where there is smoke, there are most likely bombs. And when there are bombs, the family clusters in the safest space they can find.
A basement would work. But houses in Gaza do not have basements. Often, families seek shelter under a staircase in their homes. For the Al Ghussein family, the best choice turned out to be a bathroom — tiled and enclosed.
At times of air strikes, the bathroom can get quite crowded, as cousins or other relatives sometimes rush to join them.
“Because we always say that if we die, we die together,” said Nour Al Ghussein, a 26-year-old Portland State University student. “You take your family, and you go and you hide.”
Once, during an Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, a bomb exploded next to her parents’ bedroom.
“And parts of the house fell on our heads,” she said, adding: “Fire entered through the windows.”
There is an Arabic phrase that many Muslims invoke at times of deep emotion, especially grief and fear. Outside, the Al Ghusseins could hear neighbors wailing that phrase — Allah Akbar, meaning “God is most great” — “because they thought we were dead,” Nour says.
Instead, the Al Ghusseins were crammed together in the guest bathroom. Nour kept looking around at her brother, four sisters and parents, methodically counting each one again and again to assure herself that they were all there, safe and alive.
“I would go through this multiple times a year,” she said, seeking safety with her family while bombs exploded outside.
For Nour and her friends, bombings became a childhood norm.
Fifty Years of Fighting
Israel took control of Gaza following the Six-Day War in 1967. In 2017, Hamas unveiled a new charter that on the surface appeared to soften the group’s hard-line position against Israel. While the original Hamas charter had called for the destruction of Israel, the new document stated that Hamas was “not at war with the Jewish people, only with Zionism.”
Moreover, the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, stated: “Hamas advocates the liberation of all of Palestine, but is ready to support the state on 1967 borders without recognizing Israel or ceding any of its rights. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister at the time, immediately dismissed the move as a smokescreen. “Hamas is attempting to fool the world,” Netanyahu said, “but it will not succeed.”
Christians, Jews and Muslims attach importance to the region, which for centuries has been marked by religious strife and conflict over land ownership. The parallel growth of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism has amplified the tension. Jews in Israel cite the area as their ancestral home. Palestinians make the same claim.
Like Nour and her family, nearly all residents of Gaza are Muslim.
Armed checkpoints at both the Israeli and Egyptian borders of Gaza prevent citizens from leaving freely or re-entering once they have left. Permission to leave can take months, even years, to obtain. Often, the checkpoints are simply closed. In 2020, for instance, both the Rafah crossing into Egypt and the Erez crossing into Israel were open for just 125 days.
Inside Gaza, the blockades have meant that residents face shortages of fuel and water as well as frequent interruptions of power. In the summer of 2022, households in Gaza received an average of three to four hours of electricity per day, according to a report from the Gaza Power Generating Company. Health care is also limited, and medicine is often scarce. The border blockade by Israel and Egypt has sharply curtailed Gaza’s economy.
“People are dying because there is a lack of almost everything in Gaza,” Nour said. “The blockade is holding us back from advancing in the world.”
Israelis counter that the blockades are necessary to protect terrorists from entering their country.
There is also a major difference of opinion about the purpose of tunnels that run beneath much of Gaza. Hamas says the tunnels are used to bring essential supplies to the territory. Israel says the tunnels are used for Hamas terrorist activities.
A Lost Childhood
For Nour, the constant aggression has had a dehumanizing effect.
“Because of this situation, I didn’t know what childhood was,” she said.
Once — with bombings such a commonplace event, she does not remember the year — “we got bombed inside our school.” The school, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine, was adjacent to a government building that may or may not have been the intended target.
Nour was in second, maybe third grade. “I thought it was the end of the world. I was ready to meet God that day,” she says.
Several friends perished in the incident. “I remember they (Israelis) said there was some mistake, they didn’t mean to bomb the school,” she said. “But how can you try to say it was a mistake? I lost my friends.”
How many friends has she lost to Israeli bombings?
“Oh my God,” she said. “I can’t even count.”
As she left for school each morning, she would kiss her parents goodbye, hoping they would still be alive at dinner time.
The clothing factory her father owned was bombed into nothingness in 2005. Left with no livelihood, he launched a business seeking energy solutions for a region that frequently is without gas or electricity.
Nour’s best friend, a journalist named Yaser Murtaya, was killed by an Israeli sniper during the 2018 Gaza border protests. Shortly before his death, Murtaya completed a video, “Between Two Crossings” about Nour’s efforts to leave Palestine and attend college in the United States.
“Yaser, he was 30 years old and his dream was to travel and see the world outside,” she said. “Even while wearing a ‘Press’ jacket, he got shot while he was doing his job.”
In Portland, Nour tried talking to a psychologist about the trauma she continued to experience, even as new reports about friends who died in Gaza reached her in the United States. By mutual agreement, they ended their sessions together.
“I think she got depressed,” Nour said. “The stories that I have are more than any human can handle.”
But as disturbing as her own memories might be, Nour said, “there are 2 million people left in Gaza, people who have stories maybe even worse than the ones I have.”
Trauma From Afar
Far from Gaza, safe by comparison in her Portland apartment, Nour suffers nonetheless when her homeland comes under attack. She relives her own fraught memories and anguishes for the people she loves who remain in Gaza.
On May 10, 2021, Israel began an 11-day bombing assault on Gaza that claimed at least 256 Palestinian lives, 66 of them children. Thirteen Israelis died in the exchanges, two of whom were children. Nour said she was unable to stop watching reports of the attacks, and that she barely slept until a ceasefire was declared. These events, she contends, are triggers for her post-traumatic stress disorder, of PTSD.
“It was tragic to watch it live-streamed on my TV while being away from my family and the ones I love,” she said. “I felt helpless and retraumatized because this time I was watching every bomb. Me and all my friends from Gaza were sleepless for the whole 11 days.”
After a lifetime of turmoil in her homeland, Nour bristles at what she considers casual semantics — terms she says do not begin to describe what is actually taking place in Gaza. She grows particularly unhappy when the words “conflict” or “war” are attached to the situation in her homeland.
“Conflict suggests two equal powers,” she said. “This is not a conflict. This is an occupation.” As for the word “war,” Nour rejoins: “It is an aggression, not a war.”
Studying By Candlelight
The youngest of six siblings, Nour — her name means “light” — was born in Gaza in 1995. Her mother, Fatima, created and ran an organization that assisted people with disabilities. Many people in Gaza lost limbs in the bombings or were paralyzed by falling rubble, so her mother had a busy job, Nour said. Her mother also ran a project aimed at raising awareness about domestic violence for young women in Gaza City, Nour said.
“She is my idol,” she said.
The family lived in the northwest part of Gaza City, not far from the beach.
“It was not as crowded as the rest of the city, but it was more dangerous,” Nour said. Israeli bombers often took aim at open space, she explained, such as several small farms near the family home. This meant “there were bombs going off in the field next door.”
Fields or no fields, she stressed that life was far from pastoral. In Gaza, Nour says it feels as if “there’s literally not even 1% of green space in Gaza,” she said. “I really didn’t see nature until I left Gaza.”
Even now, five years after she left Gaza to attend college in the United States, “It’s still weird for me. I get mixed feelings — feelings of, ‘Oh, my God, there is nature out there, and it is charming.’ We used to see pictures (of nature) and we wouldn’t know if it was real or not.”
Rockets fired by Israel frequently destroy Gaza’s power lines. Sometimes, Gaza households receive electrical power in designated shifts. For Nour, the intermittent electrical service meant she often did homework by candlelight. But demand for candles was so high that stores often sold out. When that happened, Nour and her mother joined others who waited at the Gaza checkpoints for the next candle shipment.
During times when there was electric power, Nour and her friends often watched television. The American and British programs were more than diversion, for they helped Nour learn English. She especially loved to watch American movies and documentaries. Popular music also helped expand her English vocabulary.
There were other extracurricular lessons. After the bombings, Nour would see people lined up outside bakeries, trying to buy bread for their families. The same thing happened at shops that sold bottled water.
“I always noticed that two days after any attack, people would run out of money,” she said.
Banking was not a firm part of the culture, she said. Nor was the kind of financial management that can help families to stay afloat following disaster. Before she finished high school, Nour determined that she wanted to study finance, with the goal of educating others in Gaza about financial stability.
“It’s all about financial planning,” she said. “People need to learn. If you have money, your kids will not starve.”
Despite the ever-present tensions in Gaza, politics was never an official topic at her all-girls high school.
“We would talk about what was happening not inside class, but between us,” she said. “In school we learned a lot about our history, our roots. I did not learn to hate or to talk politics in school.”
Twice, Nour was chosen for leadership programs outside Gaza. One was in South Africa; the other at Harvard University in the United States. But she was unable to leave because of the continuing siege in Gaza.
In 2015, Nour was selected for a five-week leadership program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. About 100 students from the Middle East and North Africa gathered at Georgetown University and then were dispatched to six different U.S. campuses.
“My luck was Portland State University,” Nour said. She made it her business to connect with faculty members, especially those who taught classes related to finance. When it was time to leave, she remembers one mentor telling her, “It’s not fair that you have to go back to that prison.”
Once back in Gaza, she kept in touch with many of her professors from Portland State. She became more and more determined to fulfill her goal of bringing financial education to Gaza. She was certain that this would mean studying in the U.S.
“I felt I had a responsibility, at least before I die, to try to do something,” Nour said. “My main goal was education first, and to try to do something for myself, my family or my country. My plan is to bring education to an independent Palestinian economic reovery.”
The Border Impasse
By 2016, Nour had documents showing that she had been admitted to Portland State University with a full scholarship. She packed her suitcase and began the lengthy process of applying for permission to leave Gaza. The territory has had no functioning airport since Israel bombed Yasser Arafat International Airport in late 2001 and bulldozed its runway a few weeks later. In order to travel abroad, Nour would have to exit first via Egypt or Israel, and then travel through Jordan or Turkey.
But even with the necessary papers, the border crossings can bring disappointment. The scene is always chaotic, with people shouting and crowds pushing forward. Sometimes the crossing officials make arbitrary exceptions. Other times, they reject the documents and send the crossing-applicant home.
“Gaza is full of dreams that were shattered in one moment at that crossing,” Nour said in “Between Two Crossings.”
Students from Gaza with hopes of studying abroad are not immune to what can seem like bureaucratic capriciousness. Pleading with the crossing officials is not always a successful strategy, Nour said.
“To be honest, there’s hundreds — thousands — of students who say ‘This is my last chance (to leave),’ and it is true,” she said. “They have had to change their plans, change their lives. They don’t even know whom to blame.”
When Nour was rebuffed in one attempt to leave Gaza via Egypt, “I had no choice but to keep trying. If I don’t make it outside, that’s it.”
“Between Two Crossings” documents Nour’s year-long attempts to leave Gaza via Egypt. At one point in the film, a woman in a headscarf tries to comfort her. The woman is Nour’s mother, who tells her, “My dear, if it is meant to happen, it will happen.”
Helping Nour to gather her things and return home after the thwarted effort to leave, Nour’s mother sighs. “What can we do?” Fatima says in the film. “So much indignity.”
A girlfriend tries to make light of their plight. “Look at Gaza,” the friend tells Nour. ‘We’re special. No one gets in, and no one gets out.” The comment is laden with bittersweet irony. Nour and her friend dissolve into laughter.
Another earlier attempt did get Nour and some friends across the Israeli border. But the long delay before their names were called did not give them sufficient time to reach a scheduled interview at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. They tried anyway, but the embassy was closed by the time they arrived. Frustrated, they climbed in a taxi and headed back to the Gaza border.
“But when we came back (to the Gaza border), we were five minutes late. They wouldn’t open the gates for us,” she said. “They left us on the street in the dark,” until finally a guard took pity on them and let them step over the border to return to Gaza.
Nour’s break came in 2016 when she was asked to participate in a conference in Istanbul, Turkey. That invitation provided solid institutional backing from a non-governmental institution (NGO) — “my ticket,” Nour says — for the exit papers she needed. At last, Nour’s name was called and she was waved through the border blockade to Israel. Even so, she had to manipulate the truth, telling the border agent she would return four days later when in fact she might never go back.
Young women seeking to leave Gaza are well-coached by their families in safety measures, Nour said. The idea is to find one person who appears trustworthy and stick beside that person until they are safely out of Gaza. During the long wait for her papers to be processed at the Israeli checkpoint, she met a young man who was also intent on exiting. It turned out their families knew each other, so the two decided to share a taxi for the ride through Israel and on to Jordan.
As she had been instructed to do, Nour had arrived at the Israeli checkpoint at 8 a.m. It was 11 p.m. when they reached Jordan. Normally, she said, “if you do it in one shot, it’s three to four hours.”
Instead, she said, “checkpoints after checkpoints.”
The U.S.A. — At Last
At Portland State University, Nour declared a major in finance. She also found a job at a bank where she could both earn some money and hone her business skills. Her desk was near the entrance, where customers could scarcely avoid seeing her.
“Obviously, I do not look white,” said Nour, a young woman with large, deep brown eyes and a mane of dark hair. One day a customer approached and asked where she was from.
“I said Palestine,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, I am from Israel.’”
The customer tried to engage Nour in a dialog about Israel and Palestine. Nour said she was not interested in serving as the voice of Gaza or anywhere else. But the customer, she said, pressed on.
“‘Do you think you will ever be able to achieve peace?’” Nour says the man asked her. She replied, “Yes. Peace is in our hearts.”
Nour said she tried to defuse what was rapidly becoming a nasty encounter. But two days later, the man came back. This time he pointed a camera at Nour, apparently with the intention of initiating another conversation and recording it. She went straight to her manager, asking for help.
“My manager, of course, he didn’t do anything. I was so disappointed,” she said.
Another customer who inquired about Nour’s nationality suggested they go out for coffee so they could talk politics. Nour demurred. The man continued, asking her how it was that “people like you” were able to travel to the U.S. Nour told the man she wanted to end their conversation.
“My identity here is always spurring uninvited conversations,” she reflected. “I am a Palestinian and do not have to represent a political party. I represent my truth and what I have lived through personally and through a tragic collective punishment against innocent people who want to have a little taste of freedom.”
Discussions framed as confrontation are pointless, Nour contends. For her part, she chooses her audiences carefully, aware both that she has a message to convey and that the topic is fraught with misunderstanding and fuel for conflict. So often, when she asks Americans what they know about Gaza, Nour said they reply with a single word: Hamas.
“First of all, it is completely wrong,” she said. “Yes, it is a Muslim government.” But unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, Muslim law in Gaza is not rigid, according to Nour. Although their mother does wear a headscarf, neither she nor any of her four sisters choose to cover their heads.
“For each family, it is a choice,” she said. “You see so many girls not wearing the hijab.”
She objects to what she says are one-sided media portrayals in the U.S. of what goes on in Gaza.
“People need to listen to people who live the situation, not from the media,” she maintains. “Do not come and fight with me. I want to understand you, and I want you to understand me.”
And she stresses: “I am here to share the right image of normalcy. I am a Palestinian citizen, and I am not here to talk on anyone’s behalf. I am not supporting any one person. I am only supporting the innocent people of Palestine.”
What Lies Ahead
In 2018, Nour applied for asylum status in the U.S., and was granted a permanent resident card, or green card. In 2023, she hopes to apply for U.S. citizenship. By then she also hopes to be in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. Marriage and a family, she said, are not on her immediate agenda.
“I’m still healing from the daily trauma of the 20 years I lived in Palestine,” she said. “I do wish to reach the point where I have kids who honor my homeland and history and can live a normal life in dignity.”
For now, “I can’t shake the imagery of all the kids suffering around the world.”
A Family Diaspora
Violence between Israel and Hamas has not declined since Nour left Gaza. “I thought the war would be easier if you were not (there) in it,” Nour said. “But it turns out the war was much worse if you are not with the ones you love.”
With the escalating tensions in recent years, her family began leaving Gaza, one by one. One sister recently completed graduate school in New York. Nour’s mother moved from Toronto not long ago to live with the sister in New York. Her father, her two other sisters and her brother are in Istanbul.
“There is no long-term accommodation for people like us in Turkey, so they’ve been living there on short-term, renewable visas in the hope of reuniting with my mom and sister who are now in the U.S.,” she said.
“We’re scattered, each struggling on their own,” she continued. “But we still try to stay tight and supportive of each other despite the distance and the burden we each deal with.” Their goal, she said, is that “one day, we will all be together in one place. It could be anywhere.”
Anywhere, that is, except Gaza. Without some major political shift, Nour cannot return to her home country.
So for now, living near Portland’s Forest Park, the girl who had never seen nature now takes long hikes with her friends. She loves to watch the sunset and think about what may lie ahead. After all, she does have a world to save.
She smiles: “Hopefully.”