My First Journey Abroad
Spending one day in Gaza is nothing like the fifteen days I have spent in three other countries around the world; Egypt, Thailand, and Malaysia. Indescribable feelings I have in every inch of my body. The smell of the Palestinian sand is beyond description. Remembering what first happened; I kneeled to the ground and thanked Allah for bringing me back home safe and healthy. On that day, my whole life flashed before me.
I am a refugee, a Palestinian one. Being a refugee, originally from Jaffa and born during the first Intifada, for me means I can never give up my right to return home. My grandma used to tell me stories about our land; whenever she told me about the orange trees, it filled me with a sense of longing. I used to always say, “I want to see them.” She seemed to always have the same reply: “Malaka, do not give up. Fight. Be strong and do your best to have your right back.” She taught me not to be silent when I see others abusing our rights. My grandma died, God bless her soul. Yet, she is still alive within us, within her children and grandchildren. Since birth, I have witnessed destruction, ruins, and violations of human rights. I have seen phosphorus bombs with my own eyes. What I witnessed and experienced is beyond words. Sometimes, I have sleepless nights; at other times, I lack the ability to focus and study. As I live at Al-Shijaeyah, to the east of Gaza, the closest area to the Israeli border, this place will likely be Israel’s first target during any invasion or escalation. We also suffer power-cuts on a daily basis. My dear granny, I wish you were alive now so I could share with you my first experience of traveling. It was quite a surprise, and I got so excited already merely thinking of being abroad. I found myself leaving from my Gaza, to different places where I will not smell or see any sign of occupation. I still remember how all the males in my group were deported to the Egyptian airport and my friend and I were forced to enter Egypt alone. We did it, though it was really hard for two girls to travel alone in Sinai Desert. After a long 7-hour journey, we reached the hotel. I had the chance to live in the Grand Pyramids Hotel in Egypt for two days. One of the best moments was when we went to the Pyramids and held banners for Samer Issawi, the Palestinian hunger striker, everywhere. The reason is that many people there started asking who Samer Issawi is. I loved when we spoke out about his issue among many foreigners. After that, I put the banners on some high spots on the pyramids and many started taking photos beside them.
How I became involved
I had heard about the Malaysian-Palestinian Youth Committee (MPYM), and was among the 600 who applied for the opportunity to travel there. Being the youngest applicant, 22, I was a little bit frightened that I might not be selected, and my dream might not be achieved. Also, on the date of my interview, I was very busy leading the international campaign to release Samer Issawi. Still, I was sure I could do it, and I passed with flying colors as I got the highest grade among females and the second highest grade among males.
I remember so much about that first flight on Egyptian Airlines, especially after having watched the film of our Earth. I was sitting beside a window and spending the whole 13 hours looking at those beautiful scenes. For the first time, I stayed for a long time in the same seat, enjoying the nearness of the clouds. I slept a lot, ate 3 meals, watched films, read books, talked to my mates, and enjoyed the whole trip. I had expected it to perhaps be a difficult experience, and that I might get severe headaches, but none of that materialized. As I neared the end of my long flight, I looked out of the window and watched Thailand’s endless green forests from the sky.
We had to leave the plane and wait in Bangkok Airport for two and a half hours. I stepped out of the plane and into the tropical humidity of the beautiful city. It was almost like a balloon filled with hot liquid air, yet I still liked it. I strolled around the airport, visited some shops, tried to get to know a bit more about their products and culture, met with Thai people, and spent these hours talking with friends from Thailand about Samer Issawi, and how we should all work together for his release. In those few hours, I felt I learned quite a bit about this beautiful country.
Towards Kuala Lumpur (KL)
We went back to the plane heading towards Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The moment we reached, we drove through the hot and humid city to have dinner in a big and moderately run down Malaysian restaurant. I found a piece of beef – which I didn’t appreciate, because I am a vegetarian! – and some appetizers on my plate. I chose various curries and salads to go with the rice. The place may have been unpretentious, but the food was more than incredible, especially the beef that was more like sweets than like a meat dish. I used to imagine Malaysia as being not so clean or modern, but turned out to be quite the opposite.
Though it was the first time I traveled abroad, Kuala Lumpur itself did not impress me, but you do not know the taste of freedom from occupation until you have lived both. Transportation in Malaysia is mostly focused on buses and cars, but I did get a chance to try out the Malaysian train. It was both wonderful and awful. The seats were okay, and the scenery of green hills covered in a carpet of jungle trees was amazing, and really made us aware that we were in a foreign land. In contrast, in the centre of the city, high buildings and landmarks alongside narrow roads and streets are all you get to see.
In the streets of KL, many people are carrying umbrellas to protect their skin from the extremely hot weather. More than once, I was walking and enjoying the sun, suddenly being caught by surprise by heavy rainfall all around me. I was reminded of the walls in Gaza, since many carried images and words written with colorful sprays, in support of Palestine. “Stop Israelis” is one of the phrases I have seen written on a wall just beside KLCC towers, the highest two buildings in Malaysia.
I tried to explore the streets on foot, but crossing the busy roads was terrifying as there were no pedestrian crossings so you had to wait for the rare opportunity to cross quickly, which happens only once every half hour – and you get only 5 seconds to try to make it. We went to the massive transportation factory in KL and entered the exhibition to see its products, and even tried to drive cars and motor bicycles. The founder of the factory started thirty years ago under a tree and now his company is one of the biggest in the world.
Places engraved in my mind
Our hotel was in the near vicinity of KLCC towers. All I could eat there were fruits for breakfast, and there were some shopping malls that I could easily reach on foot, to buy some snacks or drink some juice. Our first step after going to the hotel was to relax in one of the central parks where I saw a greenish lake. I enjoyed the scene for a short while, until suddenly a magnificent army of strange-looking bugs invaded our personal space, and we had to spend the rest of the time hitting ourselves to force them to leave us.
On that same day, despite being sleepy and tired, I decided to go and visit the fountains beside the KLCC towers. I wandered for around 2 hours, but suddenly my legs almost gave way. It was embarrassing to watch old ladies walk past me full of energy and balance! After this tour on the first day, I returned to Duta Vista Hotel and I saw monkeys playing around the place, something I had never seen before. It was truly relaxing to watch them and other kinds of wild animals playing in the treetops of the surrounding jungle.
On March 5th, we headed to the Central Vocational Training Building in KL and to the Malaysian Youth Parliament. The meetings we had there were very fruitful, as we obtained no less than 44 scholarships for Palestinians from Gaza to be trained in the principles of vocational education rules in Malaysia, for 6 months.
The Best Day in KL
On Saturday March 2nd, I toured around Kuala Lumpur to feed the homeless, along with my best Malaysian friends. It was a long journey to the border, so we stopped to have dinner in one of the public restaurants, where I saw food being cooked in traditional ways on open high fires. This may sound romantic and fun, but the reality is one of daily hard work, where food takes hours to cook and homes are filled with toxic smoke which causes severe diseases and eye infections. I met with more than 60 of the voluntary workers including a Palestinian guy from Hebron who is studying his PHD in Florida and came to spend his holiday in KL. He, unfortunately, missed the Palestinian meal I brought from Gaza as he left us for some urgent issues. Knowing how to tease him, when seeing him again, I said, “You missed a lot. We have eaten some dishes from Gaza.” Believe me, he was almost about to cry, since it had been a long time since he has eaten any Palestinian food. How cruel is that?
Some things I learned
On Sunday March 3rd, we went to Limkokwing University, the place of innovation, where we met with many Palestinian refugees representing our cause in good ways. I was amazed that many there knew me and said, “Are you Malaka Mohammed, the leader of Samer Issawi campaign?” I felt truly blessed.
Entering the university, my eyes fell upon an epigram with an ancient adage: “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” They really know how to stimulate creativity; any student who comes up with a novel idea or an effective campaign gets his work featured by the university in the central exhibition hall, so that all visitors get see it before entering the campus. I have learnt that willingness to share is one of the most important principles of success. If we want to change our strategy, we should start with internal support and strength as the main steps to help improve ourselves. It should also be very important for us to develop ideas on how to use this power.
We need to collect data if we want to make a plan; we should then identify the objectives of our study, and define who may be against it, and who could prevent us from accomplishing our goals. It is important to be brave, knowledgeable, and focused. We should also learn how to identify our problems, and develop ways to solve them. Sometimes we have to copy the ways of successful people, since it is not always the best idea to spend time on developing original solutions.
To be continued…