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We are not numbers.

  • Mar 05 2024
  • Shahd Safi
    is an Arabic/English translator and writer from the Gaza Strip. In addition to We Are Not Numbers, she has contributed to the Palestine Chronicle, Palestine Deep Dive, and MZEMO.

The weather was slightly chilly, with a refreshing breeze carrying the delicate scent of lemon through the air. As I slowly opened my eyes, I realized it was morning, and I found myself in the place I had always longed to be – my grandparents’ garden.

This enchanting space was adorned with olive, fig, and guava trees, each holding its own allure. However, it was the fig tree that held a special place in my heart. With a desire to embrace the day ahead, I settled beside it, taking in the lush greenery that surrounded me. Clad in my cherished Palestinian thobe, a stunning black dress embellished with an upside-down triangle-shaped red Palestinian embroidery heart on its top portion, I felt at peace. The fabric of this dress was incredibly soft against my skin and exuded an aroma reminiscent of a luxurious perfume.

I observed an aircraft soaring high above, gracefully gliding through the air, leaving behind a long white trail. Shortly after, another plane zoomed by at an astonishing speed, capturing my fascination. More planes followed suit, prompting me to ponder the unusual presence of these aircraft in our typically empty city sky. Normally, our sky remains empty, only interrupted by the terrifying presence of Israeli attacks accompanied by the deafening sounds of bombardment. However, these planes appeared serene and beautiful, causing me no alarm. 

Nevertheless, I felt compelled to ensure that everything was alright. I contacted my parents, who reassured me with immense joy, declaring that Palestine is finally free from war. They promised that more planes would grace the sky without terror or bloodshed, as the nightmare of occupation had come to an end.But within a second, my daydreaming was interrupted by reality. As I landed in Egypt on my way back to Gaza in my country, Palestine, the Moroccan girl I was sitting next to on the plane abruptly woke me up. It was a harsh reminder that my dream of a free Palestine was still just that – a dream, and that the nightmare of our situation was far from over, and the hope I held onto was just a small sip in comparison.

Lost luggage

This was my first journey back home to Gaza. Six months previously I had traveled as an Erasmus student to study in Spain and was now returning through Egypt, since Gaza’s (and Palestine’s) only airport had been totally destroyed by the Israelis. Due to the absence of airports in Gaza. I was gaining first-hand experience of the numerous challenges Palestinians face when traveling as a result of restrictions imposed by Israel’s occupation forces.

Since 2007, Israel has enforced a lockdown on Gaza, severely limiting Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Only those with scholarships abroad or requiring medical treatment outside of Gaza are granted permission to travel. Tragically, many talented Palestinians from Gaza who have received scholarships abroad have been unable to travel. Others, in need of medical treatment, have also been prevented from traveling, some even passing away while holding onto the hope of someday being able to receive treatment.

Once in Egypt, I approached a policeman at the airport with a question. I wanted to know if there was any way for me to go directly to Gaza without entering Egypt and paying for a visa. My plan was to avoid spending any nights in Egypt, but he informed me that unfortunately there were no other options: I would have to pay for the visa in order to continue my journey to Gaza. This came at a cost of $25. All the money I had left was 170 euros.

Upon reaching the baggage claim area, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that my two large bags, one black and one gray, were missing. Desperate for answers, I approached an airport employee, who informed me that all bags from passengers who had flown in from Spain via Royal Moroccan Air were still in Morocco. Despite explaining that I needed to return home to Gaza that day, she told me that my bags would only arrive the following morning at 8:00 a.m. She presented me with two options: either wait until tomorrow for my bags or return to Gaza while they sent them on separately.

Having heard the stories of other Palestinian travelers who had never received their lost bags in similar situations, I reluctantly chose the option I least desired. I was both emotionally and financially unprepared for an extended stay in Egypt.


As soon as I left the airport premises, I encountered an Egyptian driver, whom I told about my predicament in the hope that he would assist me in finding an affordable hotel.

The driver in whom I naively confided demanded 350 Egyptian pounds from me for a mere 15-minute drive from the airport. I was taken aback by this exorbitant fee, as I knew it was significantly higher than what was fair. The return journey to Gaza would cost 400 Egyptian pounds and take 12 hours by car. However, in my exhausted, fearful, and lonely state, I did not want to find myself in any further unfavorable situations, so I reluctantly handed over the requested amount. Then I rented a hotel room for 670 Egyptian pounds, only to realize later that I had been overcharged due to being a foreigner unaware of the local prices.

The following day, I woke up early and arranged for transportation back to the airport. However, what followed was a grueling, four-hour ordeal of wandering through various airport buildings in search of my bags. Each time I approached a police officer for directions, he would send me to the wrong location. Exhausted and disheartened, I eventually found myself sitting in a nearby chair, sobbing uncontrollably.

A sympathetic police officer approached me and inquired about my distress. Desperately, I explained everything that had transpired. He took down my personal information and checked my passport before assuring me that my bags would be returned within half an hour. Though I was skeptical at first, he proved true to his word. Half an hour later, a woman arrived with my bags, accompanied by the officer himself. It felt like meeting someone dear to my heart, as my bags contained cherished memories from Spain.


fig. 1


Border closure

I was filled with anticipation of returning home and seeing my beloved family. However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when the drivers informed me that the borders between Egypt and Gaza were closed on Thursdays and Fridays. Determined to find a solution, I contacted a friend who had previously traveled from Egypt to Gaza. She kindly provided me with advice on affordable hotels to stay in and the cost of transportation from the airport.

Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived as I fell severely ill at midnight. Exhausted and in pain, I cried profusely before mustering up the courage to seek help from the receptionist. With debilitating headaches, stomachaches, and a sore throat, I explained my symptoms and gave him money to purchase medicine from a nearby pharmacy. Given the late hour and my fear, I couldn’t go there myself.

The following morning, I realized that my funds were running low. Desperate for assistance, I contacted my mother through WhatsApp and asked her to send me some money. Thankfully, she promptly sent it, and it arrived in just 15 minutes. Time seemed to drag as I tried to push aside my anxieties and explore some of Egypt’s attractions, such as the Nile and Al-Hussain Market. Although these visits were enjoyable, they were overshadowed by my overall negative experience in Cairo.

On Saturday, I discovered that in order to avoid paying any additional taxes, I needed to complete certain documents in Al-Abasiyyah. Reluctantly accepting this unforeseen delay, I spent another night in Egypt before finally being able to continue my journey back home.

A long microbus journey

Finally, Sunday arrived – the day for my journey back home. Near the airport, there is a gathering place called Al-Sheratun where Palestinians gather before returning home. At 11:00 p.m., I arrived there and boarded a microbus at 2:00 a.m. The microbus took us to Al-Emadiyyeah, where we had no choice but to sleep inside the microbus since there were no hotels nearby. In the morning, I disembarked from the microbus and was taken aback by the sight of numerous men sleeping on the ground. To ensure women’s comfort, they were allowed to stay inside the microbuses. Close by, I visited a coffee shop to freshen up, use the restroom, and have some tea.

At 2:30 p.m., Egyptian policemen manually inspected our bags. The first microbus underwent this process at 9:00 a.m., and ours was one of the last ones to be checked. At 3:00 p.m., we proceeded to Al-Arish, where we had to spend another night.

On Tuesday morning, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and had a bar of chocolate and some juice for breakfast. Then I met other Palestinians who had traveled with me on the same microbus – two students, a married woman, a man in his 30s, and an elderly lady. We were all strangers to each other. The driver then took us to the Egyptian hall, where our bags were once again inspected manually and our passports taken away before we finally entered the Palestinian hall. From there, I made my way home, where I hugged and kissed my mother.

As I sit here in Gaza writing this account of my journey, I ponder whether I will ever be able to travel again. My greatest dream is for Palestine to be free and for me to return to Qastina, my ancestral village. I long to visit my grandparents’ home and garden. And I would love to see an airport in Palestine governed by Palestinians, where we are not subjected to humiliation and where no longer is our suffering used against us. I look at the sky from my window: I see sparkling stars, they could be planes someday!

The text by Shahd Safi, written under the guidance of the mentor John Metson, was originally written for We Are Not Numbers and published on October 3rd, 2023.



We Are Not Numbers (WANN) is a youth-led Palestinian nonprofit project based in the Gaza Strip. It was conceptualized in 2015 by the American journalist Pam Bailey. The project was brought to fruition by Dr. Ramy Abdu, the chairman of the board of directors at the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (Euro-Med Monitor). It is registered under the umbrella of Euro-Med, and its fiscal sponsor is Nonviolence International, a U.S.-based organization.

The project came to light after Ahmed Al-Naouq, a WANN co-founder, lost his 23-year-old brother, Ayman to an Israeli missile while he was simply walking on the street near his home in Dir-Al-Balah. Ahmed sank into a depression from which he thought he would never escape. During this time, he met Pam Bailey, who encouraged him to write his story. 

When the world talks about Palestinians living under occupation and in refugee camps, it is usually in terms of abstractions and numbers – how many are killed, injured, rendered homeless, and/or dependent on aid. However, numbers are impersonal and often numbing; they don’t convey the daily personal struggles, triumphs, tears, and laughter, the aspirations that are so universal that if it weren’t for their context, they would immediately resonate with everyone.

The mission of WANN is to create a new generation of Palestinian writers who, by making their voices heard, can create a profound change in understanding of the Palestinian cause.  The project is one of the very few Anglophone endeavors in the Gaza Strip. Thus, it provides the world with direct access to the Palestinian narrative without the need for foreign intermediaries to speak on their behalf.



    Cover: The ruins of Yasser Arafat International Airport. Gisha Access, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    fig. 1: Shahd Safi. Courtesy of We Are Not Numbers.




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