Lina Hamed Abu Zubaida, the author, is from the Gaza Strip. She has been in Sitka for 10 months through the American Field Service YES Abroad Scholarship. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The following commentary was written by an exchange student, as part of a personal essay project between Raven Radio and the Sitka chapter of AFS. Lina is one of four students from a Muslim-majority country studying and living in Sitka this year. 

Close your eyes. Imagine: you live your whole life in a small region with people just like you! They do the same things you do – eat the same food you eat, dress the way you dress, have the same religion, and the same traditions.

To get out of that small region and discover other places was my dream.

YES! Traveling!

Hi, my name is Lina. I am 17 years old and I live in the Gaza Strip, an occupied crowded beautiful region at the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is about 141 square miles, but to get out of that area and go to see the world is not easy.

Listen to Lina’s essay in her own words:

Downloadable audio.

You have to wait years and years for the Egyptian border to open, or you have to work really hard trying to get permission from three different governments: Hamas, the Jordanian government and our occupiers, the Israelis.

No one can imagine the feeling I had when my teacher told me and two of my best friends that we got accepted for a scholarship to travel with the YES Program! We were so happy that we hugged each other and we screamed, “Yes,  we made it!” We were all excited to go and see a totally different place, study abroad in different schools, make new friends, get out of our boring routines, and have a totally new life for 10 months!

But when the time was approaching for my departure to the US, my dad and uncles were nervous about me travelling all by myself – living in a different place with different rules and no one from my family to look out for me.  They were afraid for my well-being. They said that it is not our tradition to let girls travel alone to a foreign country!

I was so angry because I worked so hard to get it. I did not want to lose a chance – this opportunity – that very few people ever get. So, I stood up for myself and challenged every single person who opposed me, even if they were adults.  It was my future, not theirs! Reluctantly, my father gave in and permitted me to go.

Then, the night before my departure to the United States, I was told that Hamas denied my exit from Gaza. Again, I was so upset. But with help from the Swiss Embassy, AFS, and the YES Program, I finally was permitted to leave Gaza.  I remember thinking, “Wow! I did it.”

I remember when the other 17 members of the program and I arrived in Amman, by bus.  I was staying in the same hotel room with my two best friends.  We were all so happy that night. We sang, we danced, and celebrated our good fortune.

When we first got on the plane in Amman, we were so excited to experience flight for the first time. I felt like we were on top of the world.

However, when we said our goodbyes after a rushed orientation in Washington DC, I later found myself in the Seattle airport all alone.  I knew nobody, had nobody, and was on my way to Alaska. “Would I be too cold?  Could I do this? How would people there treat me? What would my host family be like? How would my first day of school be?” I thought, “Oh no!”

The road to adjusting to life in Alaska was a little bumpy at first.  However, it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be.  The people were kind and patient.  I began to open my mind to the differences and began to look at my situation more like an opportunity again.  An opportunity to do some things I haven’t done since I was little kid, like riding a bike. Or an opportunity to try new things, like ice skating and skiing.

The freedom for girls to go out and be active is very different in the United States.  Back home swimming, bike riding, jogging, or going to the gym for girls is not socially encouraged.  It has been good to experience this freedom.

Electricity is also a luxury here, that is not an absolute in Gaza.  We can often be without electricity and Internet for large parts of the day, or even the whole day. Normally, we are allowed electricity for 8 hours, but it is very unpredictable.

In my home in Sitka, everything feels safe and secure. When my host family leaves the house, I revert to the scared feelings I have from living in one of the most dangerous places in the world. In Gaza, we constantly live with the fear of bombing and job instability.  We are plagued with terrible environmental conditions that impact our health.

All that said, I do dream of home. I believe Gaza is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Our people are resilient, kind, and hopeful for a free Palestine. I started off believing the grass would be so much greener on the other side. I love the freedom in America, but that love is balanced with my love for Gaza.  

I will return to Gaza a stronger, more tolerant, and more open-minded person. I will be able to share that strength and have impacts in my community that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.  I am proud of this incredible journey, and I would encourage any 16-year-old kid to spend a year as an exchange student.

I believe it is a big responsibility. You have to be brave enough to do it but I also believe you can get what you want if you truly believe in it. So, go for it. Discover yourself and build your future. Thank you. 

Lina’s AFS Coordinator is Krisanne Rice.  With radio instruction from KCAW Reporter Emily Kwong.