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Gaza To Canada And Back To Gaza: Why A Family Chose To Return

Ihab al-Aloul (left) and his sons Abdel Rahman, 9, and Ahmed, 22, at the family's pool in Gaza City. The Aloul family left Gaza in 2008 and moved to British Columbia, Canada, but returned to Gaza in the fall of 2014.
Emily Harris
Ihab al-Aloul (left) and his sons Abdel Rahman, 9, and Ahmed, 22, at the family's pool in Gaza City. The Aloul family left Gaza in 2008 and moved to British Columbia, Canada, but returned to Gaza in the fall of 2014.

What would make you move to Gaza?

The small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast is run by Hamas, the Islamist group Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization. Earlier this year the World Bank said Gaza probably had the highest rate of unemployment in the world. It can be difficult to get into Gaza, and, if you are Palestinian, very difficult to get the necessary Israeli or Egyptian permission to leave.

Three wars between Israel and Hamas since 2008 killed more than 3,000 Gazans, the majority civilians.

But the Aloul family was living elsewhere during those wars. In November 2008, Ihab al-Aloul and his wife, Somaya, left Gaza City and took their six children to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Last fall, they moved back.

The benefits and drawbacks to that decision play out differently for each family member and provide a glimpse into life in Gaza.

One benefit for the Alouls in Gaza is a private swimming pool. On a recent afternoon, workers installed a new lawn around the pool patio. The squares of grass were grown on a local sod farm. One drawback: the irrigation water is salty; much of the tap water in Gaza is brackish. Aloul says it's not the best for the grass, but "it's not killing that much."

In Canada, the family's apartment had no yard, let alone a pool.

A Weekend Home

The pool is part of what is essentially a weekend home for Aloul. His father bought the land, and Aloul built the home and pool more than a decade ago.

Below the flat rooftop, the Mediterranean sparkles blue, just a few blocks away. Bright cafe umbrellas line the beach, and a Ferris wheel rises high.

Just a few miles north lies Israel. During the war last summer, Israeli military strikes destroyed one corner of the property — and the house next-door. Militants with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, were firing rockets into Israel.

Aloul and his family had been in Canada during the 2008 and 2012 wars between Hamas and Israel. They watched last summer's war on TV from Egypt. The plan was a long summer visit. But by the time they finally could enter Gaza in September, they had decided to stay.

Aloul says a big reason was family.

Ihab al-Aloul with his son Abdel Rahman outside the family's weekend house near the beach in Gaza.
Emily Harris / NPR
Ihab al-Aloul with his son Abdel Rahman outside the family's weekend house near the beach in Gaza.

"I miss my parents," he says.

Money, too, played a role. Aloul is a software development manager and had his own company in Gaza before moving to Canada. He says despite earning an MBA, it wasn't so easy to get on his feet there. Here, his father helps.

"Here my dad is rich, he has his land, he has business, so he can support me," Aloul says.

His father bought land relatively cheaply decades ago. With the population growing and the amount of available land for building shrinking, real estate became a source of wealth.

Besides the pool compound, which Aloul may turn into a business, Aloul's family has use of an apartment on the upper floor of a building his father owns.

The Kids Adjust

Aloul's two youngest sons are happy in Gaza. There are cousins to play with, though 9-year-old Abdel Rahman says he misses his oldest brother, who stayed behind to finish college.

Two other children, also college students, feel they have more freedom in Gaza than they did in Canada. Their father, Ihab, didn't like the influences of Western culture on teenagers, concerned they'd drink or start romantic relationships.

But in Gaza, 22-year-old Ahmed can hang out with his cousins in cafes past midnight. Nour, 20, says she does what she wants, too.

"My parents, they gave me all the freedom here. I go out, I do whatever I want," she says. "You walk in the streets, you know that no one will do something bad for you."

Although she says she liked the diverse range of friends she made in Canada, Nour says she feels more like herself here.

"I'm around people who really like me," she says. "People with same religion, people with same thinking. I walk around, no one talks about my scarf."

She says she was teased about her headscarf in her Canadian high school. Her mother, Somaya, 41, also loves Gaza and being with family, but calls Canada her other home. Cheerful and outgoing, she says she found more freedom and more opportunity as a woman in Canada. She studied English, volunteered and helped other immigrant women adjust.

Her days in Gaza are spent "just at home" caring for her children.

The Difficulty Of Traveling

Somaya calls Gaza a box with no exit. The border with Egypt is mostly closed. Even though they are Canadian citizens, each family member needs a permit to leave Gaza through Israel because of Israel's security concerns. Ihab wasn't allowed to accompany his sick father recently for medical care in Jerusalem.

After 10 months in Gaza, it is 14-year-old Kareem, who started first grade back in Canada, who seems to struggle with the blended identity most. He's nuts about hockey, while his friends in Gaza care only about soccer.

Just out of eighth grade now, he started the year far behind his classmates in Arabic literacy. He mostly feels different from his peers here because he has no experience with war.

He tears up as he talks about this. Friends have told him what explosions sound like. They sometimes sound confident, he says. But he can't really imagine.

"I'm, like, so scared, because I haven't lived one," he says, one tear spilling over. Then he bravely adds, "So I'm gonna try it." And he laughs a little.

The Aloul family is still debating whether to stay in Gaza. Unless things change significantly, there is a presumption there could well be another war. If that happens while they are living in Gaza, they hope being Canadian would help them get out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.