Seven stages of grief for Palestinian expats in UAE

Some go to sleep at night without knowing how they will talk to their families in Gaza in the morning — and when others ask how they are, they say, 'they're alive', a reply laced with both relief and fear

By Anamika Chatterjee / Sa'adia Reza

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Palestinians gather as others search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah on November 23. — Reuters
Palestinians gather as others search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah on November 23. — Reuters

Published: Fri 24 Nov 2023, 10:26 AM

Last updated: Fri 24 Nov 2023, 10:22 PM

Life, in the aftermath of October 7, has not been the same for the Palestinian diaspora that resides in the UAE.

Picking up the pieces of memories of a home they have never visited, some of them are processing what is unfolding in their own way. Some by keeping their traditions alive, others by ensuring that Palestine resides in the hearts of the next generation.

Khaleej Times spoke to Palestinian expats who, with their narratives, paint seven stages of grief.

Shock

When Dalia Alqadhi first heard about the air strikes in Gaza, she was overcome with a wave of emotions: from being dazed at the turn of events, followed by a sense of exhaustion, to finally a feeling of ‘almost defeated’.

“When anyone hears this sort of news, sees such atrocities, I don’t think there can be any other reaction but shock and outrage,” says the UAE resident who has family in West Bank.

Dalia, even though her grandparents live in Palestine, could never visit the country herself. The fear of “what could happen to me and my family” was too deep-rooted, further reinforced by horror stories she had heard from those who had visited her native country.

Cocooned in the safe haven of UAE, Dalia is even more aware of the misfortunes back in Palestine. Every tragic news leaves an impact, and she often tries to put herself in the shoes of those going through the struggle every single day.

With the war in Gaza taking a turn for the worse, the emotions have cemented further. “It’s surreal to think about it. When something like this happens, I always imagine that it could’ve been me, had a few things landed up differently.”

She voices her bitter concern about how, when it comes to Palestine, the world had become desensitised, given that it’s a long-standing issue. “But that’s not right. If we were to take the exact same situation and place it somewhere else, people would be shocked and outraged. It’s sad that because it’s happening in Gaza, and because we’re almost used to it, it doesn’t create a deep impact.”

Denial

For Haythan, being a Palestinian brings as much a sense of pride as a deeper awareness and understanding of what has been unfolding. An avid psychology buff, the 25-year-old explains the mindset of his people.

“For us Palestinians, we keep getting stuck between denial and depression, because in reality, we never get a chance to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” he says.

“In fact, one of the key emotions is denial.” The recent events in Gaza have left a lasting impression on Haythan, as tragic images and videos from the war-torn enclave populate social media. Just watching such content triggers a sense of denial in the young man that quickly morphs into questions that reverberate in his mind.

“When I saw such content, part of me was asking: how is it justified that we have to see these?” he questions.

While he doesn’t live in Palestine, Haythan’s family connection with the country has sensitised him to the horrors of what his people must be experiencing. He talks about a young Palestinian girl who had surfaced on social media a couple of years ago when she lost her entire family in an air strike.

A few days ago, Haythan saw her again dealing with her loss when the house she lived in was reduced to rubble. Once again, she lost everything.

Giving an interesting example of the Palestinian children, Haythan talks about how they grow up far more emotionally mature than many other kids their age living elsewhere.

“Kids in Gaza, as young as 12, have developed the capability to handle emotions of a  25-year-old anywhere else, simply because they have had to suppress and internalise their feelings for so long. But eventually, those feelings tumble out.”

Anger

For as long as she can remember, Eman Msm has been obsessed with tatreez, an intricate form of Palestinian embroidery, known for its repetition of the cypress tree motif. The art is an integral part of the Palestinian heritage — a slice of culture that Eman wants to preserve for the love of the homeland she has visited rarely. She was fortunate enough to return to pursue higher studies at An Najah University in Nablus in 2010, even if only for a few days. But an ongoing conflict brewing in Nablus at the time meant that she had to return soon.

Today, looking at the events unfolding in Gaza, Eman says she has been experiencing something akin to survivor’s guilt that emanates from anger.

“Whenever I see photos of a baby dying, I get cramps. I cannot help but wonder what the mother of the child must be going through. My doctor has actually advised me not to watch news.”

The advice has come in handy because even Eman’s son, who is one and a half years old, wakes up crying, thinking of the images he sees on news with his parents.

What has kept her going is tatreez, through which she hopes to preserve some part of the Palestinian heritage. During her workshops, which she conducts in the UAE, she educates the next generation about the traditional Palestinian embroidery and answers their queries on what their homeland was like. She also hopes to keep Palestine alive in her son by teaching him small things that are related to the culture. “I will make him know what Palestine is to him. I have to,” she says. “And he must do the same to his children.”

Bargaining

Born and raised in the UAE, Faisal Mohammed Alqedra’s connection with Palestine runs deep. With many of his close relatives living in Gaza, including his younger sister, every day in the past month and a half has been largely punctuated with tense moments for the 23-year-old.

“We go to sleep at night, not sure how we will talk to them in the morning,” says Faisal. When asked about his family in Gaza, he answers, “They’re alive”, a reply laced with both relief and fear.

Despite being fraught with anxiety for his family, Faisal’s voice rings of strength and conviction. “The only hope we have is in Allah. The situation in Palestine is not going to get any easier for people living there and their families.”

Utmost faith and love for his family seems to be the single running thread in the conversation. He speaks of how he would love to hug his sister and talk to her. Away from one sibling who’s facing dire conditions in war-ravaged country, Faisal says he’s learnt to value his family like never before. “This war made us realise how important our relations are, helping us to connect better.”

Depression

An F&B entrepreneur, Luma Maklouf has lived in Dubai for years, but it is Palestine that lives inside her. It was in 1948 that her grandparents were forced out of the country. Over the years, they have passed on stories that nightmares are made of. For example, how her grandmother’s neighbour, in sheer panic, accidentally picked up a pillow instead of her baby and ran away from her house during the 1948 conflict. The street they were living in was burned to the ground. Her own grandparents remembered to take the house keys, hoping to return at some point. They never did.

To Luma, these memories are fresh, as though she lived them herself. But the aftermath of October 7 has stirred something in her. And ever since, her heart sinks every time she watches television or goes through her news feeds. Twenty-eight of her grandfather’s relatives have already died in Gaza in the first two weeks.

“What people of Gaza have demonstrated is sheer grace in the face of adversity,” says Luma. “The strength of Palestinians is biggest form of resilience and most beautiful aspect of their identity.”

Today, she admits to feeling depressed and experiencing survivor’s guilt, but then also admits that she’s been feeling the latter ever since she was four. “What we are watching in real time has never been seen or done. We could have lived with our brothers and sisters in Gaza, we could have flourished together. But the truth is that today, we inhabit different realities.”

Testing

Hadil AlKhatib’s Instagram handle is HealWithHadil. But when we speak to her about her ancestory, an otherwise calm and composed Hadil is saddened when she remembers the stories she heard of the homeland her grandfather, who’d lived in Jerusalem, had to leave. While he was fortunate enough to settle down in Jordan and run a business there, the longing for home was something passed down to generations.

Hadil doesn’t mince her words when she says she still dreams of a day when she can experience the beauty of life and nature of Palestine. She has heard numerous tales about them. “I dream of a place I have never been to. I think of all the people I could have met,” she says.

There is a realisation that while she is in one of the safest cities in the world, she hopes that a day will come when the world can be at peace. Hadil says she often thinks about what is happening and why, but the most testing times are ones when her daughters express their desire to visit Palestine. “My daughters often express their desire to visit Palestine, even to this day, and we explain to them that one day, god willing, they will."

As a parent, Hadil continues to instil the traditions of Palestine in her kids by underpinning their life and food choices in a traditional way.

Acceptance?

Acceptance is resolution. What does acceptance mean to those whose memories of a home they have not visited remains etched in the minds? How does one come to accept this lack of belonging? To the diaspora that resides in the UAE, Palestine is not just about geographical boundaries; it is an idea. An idea of a home that even if razed from the ground, cannot be erased from the memory.

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