HER STORY #37 - irena
That's Why I'm Called Irena
I am 18 years old, born and raised in Palestine, Gaza.
My mom is Ukrainian, so I'm half European, half Arab. That's why I'm called Irena. It's not an Arab name.
I finished high school in 2015. I was supposed to go to university, but I was so bored of studying, so I decided to take a gap year, and I relaxed for a while, but now I'm going to apply for university and finish my Bachelor's degree. I want to study something that's related to translation, because there are more job opportunities if I study something in English.
I also volunteer at the YMCA in Gaza. I have worked as a volunteer for four years. I'm like a leader. We take care of children: We play with them and create small talk. It's all fun, and it's something that has built my personality.
I'm not the kind of person that only listens to certain genres of music. I just sing anything that my voice can handle, and I listen to all kinds of music. I even listen to Spanish songs, Indian songs - even if I don't understand it. The music just attracts me.
For a long time I thought about singing in public and performing concerts, but I really don't want to be famous. I hate that life, although many people have told me that my voice is beautiful and that I should go to auditions.
I want to develop myself, but I really don't want to go public. Every once in a while I download a cover that I do at home through Sound Cloud. I record my singing and upload it online.
I'm a huge fan of animals. I love taking care of them, feeding them, playing with them - dogs, cats, horses, everything.
There are many homeless cats and dogs here. It breaks my heart to see that they have nothing to eat, especially in winter, because it gets so cold and rainy. I don't like to see that.
I love animals more than humans actually, because humans are so greedy, so hateful, and so racist. You just find hate in them. I know that there are good people, but humans are so hateful, and they always hurt each other. They don't want to live in peace and harmony. Animals don't hurt anybody. They are always kind to people. If you help an animal, he would never forget that. It's strange, but I love them more than I love people.
We used to have a dog, but he died. I have a cat named Fluffy, because he's so fluffy. I love cats, because they can read your mind. I know sometimes cats can be mean and rude, but whenever I'm feeling down or crying, he just comes and sits in my lap and plays with me.
I have a strong connection with horses too. My brother used to horseback ride for years and he always told me to come and try. For one year and a half I went there, and then I decided to start taking classes. I really loved it. In the beginning it was scary, but it became fun when we began to jump. I go to the equestrian club every day.
There is one horse that I love. His name is Rambo, and I always ride him. After class I feed him apples and chocolate, and I give him love.
My dad studied in Ukraine, which was where he met mom. They got married, and my dad wanted to come back to Palestine because of his family. Since my mom didn't want to leave him, she came here and learned Arabic. She speaks better than most Palestinians here.
I can understand Ukrainian, but I speak Russian with my mom, and when I used to visit Ukraine I would speak Russian. Even though I don't know Ukrainian, the two languages aren't so different.
I have been going to the YMCA since I was nine years old - maybe even younger than that.
It's a place where you can play all sorts of sports, and you can meet your friends, and just sit and chat. The place is so comfortable, and I had a lot of fun there.
There was a camp, where you could join different teams with people of different ages, from Team A to Team I. For example, those in Group A are children from age six to nine. Once you have been in all the teams, you take a leadership course and so many other courses to become a leader.
It's not easy to become a leader. You need to know how to be responsible and be able to deal with different people and children, but it was still so much fun. It made my personality stronger. It made me learn how to deal with others, especially since I used to be so shy. I didn't have the skills, but after the leadership courses I became stronger, and I realized it wasn't that bad to deal with people. I also got to meet so many amazing people, and I've been friends with them for so many years through the YMCA. I will continue that.
I Want To Travel
There are so many procedures to get out of Gaza.
The Egyptian crossing never opens - perhaps once a year, and even then, if I decided to leave I wouldn't because there are tons of people, who are also trying to leave for so many different reasons (maybe to visit their families outside of Gaza, for health care or other things). It's a mess, and not everyone is granted access to cross, so it takes a lot of time.
I wouldn't tell you that life sucks, because life is so beautiful, but sometimes, some days when I see my friends travel around the world, when I see people going to Jerusalem (the capital of my place), it just kills me. It's like a fairy tale you hear about, and you can never go there, so it does hurt me. Sometimes I just want to cry, because I want to travel. I want to try new things, but there's nothing to do. We will keep sharing that, and nobody will care, so I don't know what to do.
There are so many places that I would love to visit around the world, but my first priority would be to go to Jerusalem - maybe even just for one day to go to the place I was told about as a kid.
I would love to go to the Maldives, or to Ukraine again and see my family. I would love to visit my sister in the States. I want to see her badly.
The Ugly Part
So many people think that Gaza is a really scary city, where people just die every day, and houses are destroyed, and you see nothing but death, hunger, and destruction. Part of it is true, because during the war the media only shoots disparaging scenes, they only film the destruction and the death, but there is another side of Gaza.
We have that part, the ugly, scary part of death and destruction - it's still here. On every street in Gaza you can find destroyed houses, and in every house you will find a family, who lost maybe one, two, or three family members.
Even me - I lost my uncle during the first war in 2008. He didn't join any groups. He didn't have anything to do with politics, not Hamas, nor Fatah. It's okay. It's something we're living with and have gotten used to.
He used to live near the sea, near the beach.
The Israeli side said that it was a mistake. The rocket that hit his house was a mistake, and they just apologized. But does an apology bring him back? No. He was in his house, and he felt that he was going to die that day, and he told his children to go to their grandmother's house, and he would say that he would stay in his house and wouldn't leave it.
There is something in the Muslim faith here. Muslims always believe that whenever they are going to die, they will feel it. I don't know how; the just feel they're going to die. He told his children that it's dangerous to stay here and to stay in the house. He said that he would stay in the house, just like that. In the morning we heard that he had passed away.
It was so hard for me. I was sitting in the house, and I just woke up and found my dad. He was crying, and I had never seen him crying like that before. I didn't know what happened. I started crying as well, because my dad is always strong, and seeing him cry was so hard. When I asked what was going on, and he told me that my uncle passed in the morning, I couldn't believe it. I hear about it all the time, but I couldn't believe it. I didn't imagine that it would be like that. I always hear about it and see people die, but I never thought it would come close to my family.
There is this amazing thing that Gazans have: how patient and strong they are, no matter how hard the situation is, or how hard life is.
People are so strong, and they have so much faith in beauty and peace. We've been through a lot. Maybe I'm a person that didn't go through a lot like other people have (like those who have lost their house and their parents). I know people who lost their houses, their parents, and I didn't lose anything other than my uncle. I consider myself lucky.
That's the most amazing thing about Gazans, and that's what makes Gaza unique. If someone loses their house, people will invite them over for food. People give each other a hand.
I really feel like I'm so weak, when I need these people. I feel helpless, but I try to show them that we are strong, that everything is going to be all right. I just try to make them believe that good things are going to happen, no matter how hard life gets. That's the least that I can do for them.
Each war is so different from any other war. Each one was harder than the other, and the last one just killed me. I stayed at my house for 51 days.
I didn't go anywhere because it was so dangerous. We listened to the radio. We didn't have electricity. We didn't have water. We didn't have much food. Everything was so hard on us. You could get killed at any moment. Every day I would go to my bed, and I would say that maybe I would not make it to tomorrow.
It was hard for me to stay there, seeing destruction, seeing fear. My family always makes me feel strong, but seeing them scared made me also feel scared.
We didn't go out because it was so dangerous to walk in the street. Dad would go out to buy food food and all the essential things that we needed in the house, but we didn't go out. We wouldn't risk it.
The house was shaking. I thought it would be destroyed by the sounds, because the sounds of the bombings were so strong. Gaza is not that big, so you can hear all the bombings.
Now I'm stronger than ever. If you want to have another war, then okay, I don't care, because people here have lost everything, so we have nothing to lose now. We believe that God wrote everything, something called destiny. You don't know what's going to happen, but God has a plan, and I know that God has a plan for us, so I don't care anymore.
I really can't express, what was felt when the war ended. I called my friends and told them: "We're going out." People went out and they got in their cars, singing, raising flags. We were so happy, but what broke my heart was seeing people, who had lost their loved ones, because other people were so happy, but they were destroyed, and they didn't feel the happiness, because they had lost something or someone. But for me it was a happy day.
[During the last war in 2014] I was afraid that I would get a call from a friend or family member saying that we lost someone, but thank God that didn't happen. But I was also so scared that we would get a call from the IDF telling us to evacuate our house—because it happens.
They called us one, but we found out that it was a recorded call, a fake one. It wasn't the official IDF.
Sometimes they call people on purpose to tell them to evacuate your house before they bomb it, and sometimes they call, but they don't mean it. They just mess around with your feelings. It happens to a lot of people.
When we got the call, my uncle came to our house and told my dad about it. We live in a big house, where my uncle also lives. He told my dad that we got a call and had to evacuate our house. My dad stood there and didn't know what to do. He tried to act strong. He asked if it was a real or fake call.
We're not related to Fatah, Hamas, or anything like that. We're not related to politics. We didn't do anything to them, so why were they doing that? Maybe it was a fake call? They mostly call people who are related to Hamas, but I'm not saying that they don't kill innocent people, because they killed so many innocent people, more than Hamas members.
My dad sat and thought, if it was a real or fake call, and then my mom said, "We're not leaving the house. We're staying here. If we die, we will die in our house. We're not going anywhere." My mom was so brave and strong, but I was sitting with my sister and thinking, "Oh My God, are we going to die today? Are we going to die tonight?" So I stayed up all night, wore my pants, wore my shoes, wore my jacket, and stood there. My dad told me to go to sleep, but I didn't know if I'd wake up the next day. I didn't know what was going to happen next, so it was the first time I slept with my shoes on. I prayed and prayed.
I'm lucky, because I'm alive now.
I don't remember sleeping during those days. I slept maybe two hours a day, and we used to sleep in shifts. My dad and mom would sleep from 12 to four maybe, and then my brother from four to nine, so we could take care of the house, listen to the news, and see if something would happen and be updated. So I didn't sleep. Nobody slept well.
The Next War
You don't hear drones flying around in the sky [in quiet times]. You don't hear F16 [planes]. You don't hear planes or drones flying above you. You don't hear bombs and get scared. It's like living in a scary movie.
You can go out and see life and see people, people smiling. There are no bombs right now. The look of people happy and feeling safe makes you feel happy. During war, you open the door and see people sitting in the street scared and crying, but now people are content and comfortable. I can go out and have fun with my friends and there's nothing to fear right now. There are huge differences between now and then.
I always question myself, and when I sit with my friends, we always think about when the next war will be, because we constantly hear rumors of the next war. Maybe it will happen soon. I don't know, so we always have that question in mind.
My friends and I don't just think about war all the time, we also talk about it. Maybe it's not on purpose, but it just comes up. It's like a routine now. We share memories about the war, and we just try to figure out what might happen in the next one. We always have questions about the next war.
[Electricity cuts] happen every single day and it really kills us, but people here are used to it. We have electricity for six hours a day, only six hours a day.
Most of the things in the refrigerator we throw away, because it's not safe to eat them. There are no refrigerators. These days we cannot have air conditioners or fans or anything, so we could feel fresher. But we have some alternatives. We have generators, but they are not safe because they bring pollution, and the noise is so annoying. We also have batteries that can be charged when there's electricity, and when there is none, you just use the batteries. We always find alternatives.
So Many Dreams
The only thing that makes me feel scared, is to live my life without a purpose, because I always have an idea in my mind.
When I get older I want to help people around the world, not only in my city. I want to help poor people and animals. I want to make a mark in the world. I don't want to live my life without doing anything to help.
Since I was a kid, I always had this in my heart: If I saw a homeless person in the street I wanted to help. I would cry to my mom because I wanted to help him, and my mom told me that he's not the only homeless person in the world. There are millions of people who die every day, innocent people, who would love to have the chance to live like others. It kills me to see people living a good life and others who don't have that chance, so I really want to make the world a better place for them. Maybe I could do something for them.
Since I was a child I had so many dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut because I'm a big fan of space, the stars, and the other planets. I'm so attracted to these kinds of topics. I read about Einstein's theories and about other planets. It just attracts me so much.
I always get up on the roof of our house and stargaze. Since we don't have electricity, maybe it would help us [to see the stars].
I [also] wanted to be a writer, because I love reading books, and I was always attracted to write my own book. But then I discovered that it was boring to write, and I loved reading.
Now my dream job is not an ordinary one, like being a manager or an employee. Now I want to found a big organization for animals and people. For the animals, for example, I would go in the streets and find homeless dogs, cats, and any other kinds of animals, and I would take them to my organization that would take care of them, and then people would adopt them. I would have a decent staff of doctors, and they would take care of the wounded animals, and I would spread the work and make teams that would give food to the animals in the streets.
For humans I would try to collect a good amount of money for food and maybe open other branches of my organization around the world.
It needs work, hard work. I want to make a difference, and maybe I would go to Africa and build schools and try to meet people. I would love to have a job where I could travel the world and see other cultures and see other people with different perspectives.
Sometimes Gaza has projects like these, but they don't work, because there is no funding here. There is no money here, so maybe I would try to start from the outside and then I would come to Gaza, when I have good money. I would start from the outside and then bring everything here. Maybe I'd begin with Switzerland.
In the beginning I would finish my Bachelor's degree and my Master's degree outside of Gaza, have a regular job first, and then when I have a solid amount of money I will start my own business, step by step. It doesn't happen that fast.
I See No Difference
I don't believe in anything called Israel, because what I believe in is my country, and it became Israel. People came, with the support of the U.S. Nobody notices Palestine. It's all Israel.
So many people died for Palestine, for nothing. They just took it that easily, and it's like nothing happened.
But, the Israeli people who live inside the Palestinian occupied territories, I don't have a problem with. I have so many friends who live in Tel Aviv and other places, and they don't believe in politics. I don't hate them.
I don't believe in Israel, because it's occupied Palestine, but the Jews that live there, I have no hate for them. I just hate the people, who killed us and destroyed our city. Other people, who did nothing against me, I love them as humans. I see no difference between Jews, Muslims, Christians, French, Americans. I don't see any difference. We are all humans. There's no difference between us.
I have a few friends who are Jews. One of them lives in Tel Aviv, and she goes and protests with Palestinians on the borders. She knows that her government is not good, and that war is not right. She knows all that, because she's a human being. She stood for the right side. I have huge respect for her.
So many people have gone to Tel Aviv and told me that it's a beautiful city. I would love to visit.
I used to be interviewed on the BBC Radio with Jews, a sort of comparison between us and them. It was hard for the Israeli Jews too, but you cannot compare us and them, because Hamas used low-quality bombs, which did nothing. The Israelis just caused fear, because for us they used everything they had. Every single bomb they had, they used on us. They destroyed everything, and they killed so many people. They didn’t live the fear. They didn’t feel the things we felt. They didn’t lose their homes, their loved ones. I understand they were scared, but no, you cannot compare.
I share so many things with so many people around the world. Maybe I listen to some music that a Jew is listening to right now. I horseback ride, and maybe someone in Israel does that as well.
We always have something in common in spite of our differences. We always have something. Maybe so many people in Israel believe like I do, in peace and in a beautiful world, where there is no destruction and killing. I know these people exist, even in Israel, the place that killed us. There are hateful people and good people. There is always an opposite for everything.
I would like the world to know that here in Gaza we are normal people. We have so many good people here. We are not terrorists that are going to eat people alive. We are not zombies. We are simple people, who want to live in peace and have a beautiful life. We're just the same as anyone else, so don't see us as enemies.
Try to ignore governments, because they always force us to do things we don't want to do. They make us forget that we are human beings.
We share everything. We have so many things in common. We are only humans. We need to try and stay together and try not to destroy each other. Why should we destroy this earth? Why wouldn't we just enjoy the little things we have and make everything beautiful around us?
Interview conducted on August 9, 2016