From Gaza with the Worst News: Orphaned While at College in America
September 1, 2014
Sara Hassan / Al Jazeera America
It began as a normal day for Iman Abu Aitah, a Palestinian student going to college in the United States. A rising junior, she was making plans to visit her relatives back in Gaza for the first time in two years. But as she did her routine Facebook check, she knew something was off. The news was the worst it could be. Abu Aitah's parents had been killed in an Israeli airstrike, along with her two eldest brothers and a 4-year-old nephew. Suddenly, she was an orphan.
MASON, Michigan (August 30, 2014) -- It was a normal day for Iman Abu Aitah, a Palestinian student going to college in the United States. A rising junior, she had spent the month of Ramadan with her host family in Mason and was making plans to visit her relatives back in Gaza for the first time in two years. But as she did her routine Facebook check of the Gaza Now news feed, she knew something was off.
"I saw that the Ajrami family's house was bombed in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where I live, so I called my family, but no one was answering," she said, describing a neighbor's home. "Finally my sister answered and was crying. I couldn't understand her."
The news was the worst it could be. Abu Aitah's parents had been killed, along with her two eldest brothers and a 4-year-old nephew. Suddenly, she was an orphan.
They died in the recent 50-day conflict between Hamas, which governs Gaza, and Israel, which recently invaded the territory, with the stated aim of preventing rockets from being fired and destroying the tunnel network being used to infiltrate border areas. As the conflict raged, more than 2,100 Gazans were killed and almost 11,000 others injured; 69 Israelis also died, most of them soldiers.
The conflict caught the attention of the world, but with the loss of Abu Aitah's family, it suddenly struck in Mason too. This small city near Lansing is home away from home for Abu Aitah, where she spends all her vacations with her host mother.
Her situation has shocked the organization that brought her to the US "Iman's situation has affected all 40 students in our program," said Nancy Qubain, director of the Hope Fund. "They've all been traumatized and concerned about their own families, and they've been very supportive of her."
The Hope Fund coordinates working partnerships with American universities for Palestinian students living in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. It is now creating a scholarship in honor of the Abu Aitah family members who were killed. "We will be there for her not just over the next few months but until she graduates," said Qubain. "We're hoping she will continue on to graduate school."
Abu Aitah first arrived the US as a high school student through the State Department's Youth Exchange and Study program in 2010. It was the first time she had left the Gaza Strip. "It taught me so much about myself," she said. "I learned that I can do anything."
She said life is difficult in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in the North Gaza Governorate, even when there is no war. "The electricity comes on seven or eight hours," she said. "It makes it difficult to get water because an electric motor is needed to supply each house. My family had to wake up really late at night or early in the morning to do normal chores like making bread or laundry, depending on when electricity is available. Many days there was no electricity at all." Abu Aitah was one of nine children. Her father was a retired Arabic teacher.
She is majoring in literary studies and biology at Columbia College in South Carolina, a Methodist-affiliated women's liberal arts college. "My expectation would be that Iman does not feel alone," said Tracy Bender, a representative for the college. "As an institution, it is not a political thing. We are a community of people, and one of our own is suffering. This an opportunity for our community to show love and support for her, following this unspeakable and horrific incident."
Abu Aitah has felt an outpouring of support. "I received emails from the college president and my professors," she said. "They are all working hard to help me graduate in a year so I can go back to my family. I'm not going home without a degree."
Faculty and alumni have established a fund for her. "This is certainly an opportunity for us as a community to learn about the issues and invite conversation," Bender said.
Abu Aitah, through her grief, also sees it that way. "My hope is that Americans would understand what's going on before taking sides," she said. "I realized that people are just uninformed, so I've tried to simplify what's going on for them. Many people think the conflict is a religious fight. Some of my classmates were surprised to know that there are Christian Palestinians."
She has created a nonprofit organization, Youth for Change -- Palestine. The goal is to empower young people in Gaza to build their own futures.
"When I was in second grade, I said goodbye to a friend after school. That night her house was bombed, and she died. For the longest time, I was traumatized and cried every time I heard an F-16," said Abu Aitah. "Everyone deals with trauma in different ways, and I want to help these kids become leaders."
Through her organization, she plans to engage youth in community service and help them build on their talents.
She says she's doing her best to stay strong. "I have been living without my family for a while, so I've gotten used to that," she said. "But I talked to mom every day, even if it was for only five minutes. It's hard to think she won't be there when I want to call her."
Abu Aitah's host mother in Michigan agreed it would be better for her to spend the rest of the summer with a Palestinian family in Minneapolis. From there, Abu Aitah plans to visit her sister -- whose skull was fractured in the strike -- at a hospital in Cairo.
But Egyptian authorities say her documents need review, since she holds a Palestinian passport that is up for renewal soon -- a process that could take weeks.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.