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  “As soon as I get a permit I will come back to you”
 Lama Hourani, Palestine
 September 10, 2006

"As soon as I get a permit I will come back to you. Next time I will let Dad travel alone. I want to stay with you.” Luai always tells me this when I talk to him. He is anxiously waiting for the permit to come home. He's been travelling between Nablus, Amman, Damascus and again Amman. Next week he will be going to Nablus to wait for the permit to Gaza.

When others hear that a four year old child is traveling to three countries in one summer, they might envy him and think to themselves, “What a lucky child with rich parents!” So would I. However, this is the only way that allows the child to see his grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunts. It is like this because they are not permitted to meet in their homeland, or in any other country nearby, together in one place, because they are Palestinian refugees.

My husband and his family are refugees from Jaffa, who have lived in the city of Nablus (the ancient city of Neapolis) in the West Bank since 1948. Of course, my husband, Adi, is not that old. He was born in Nablus in 1963.

Adi has three brothers and two sisters. He is the youngest. The two sisters are married and live with their families in Amman. The oldest sister, Faten, still has her identity card from Nablus and is keen to have her children issued identity cards from Nablus as soon as they reach 15 years of age despite the fact that they live in Amman. All of Faten’s children were born in Kuwait, where she lived until the first Gulf War on Iraq in 1991. The other sister, Abeer, lost her Nablusi identity card years ago when she married a relative in Jordan. Abeer also has three children but the family is not allowed into the West Bank because they have no identity cards and have not been issued permits nor visas by the Israeli Embassy in Amman for more than six years. Two of Abeer's children were born in Baghdad, which she left to go to Amman in 1989 where her third child was born.

Adi's brother, Riyad, also has three children. Two were born in the United States and one was born in Saudi Arabia. Riyad lost his identity card in the mid-70s when he was active with the PLO, left Nablus, and moved between several countries: Egypt, Jordan, USA and finally, Saudi Arabia. Of course, he has a U.S. passport, which allows him to visit his homeland but with difficulty.

Mousa, Adi's second brother, never left Nablus. He has four children who were all born in Nablus and live there. He owns a laundry shop, but, because of the bad economic situation since the first Intifada, it does not bring any income to the family. Adi's mother lives in Nablus in the same house with Mousa and his family. Of course, she has an identity card.

Ahmed, the last brother, also has four children. He lost his identity card when he was active in the PLO in the 80s, married his cousin in Amman, and had four children. He decided to risk coming to Nablus as a visitor with his family in 1997. He applied for an identity card, but until now, neither he nor his family has received one. For this reason no one can move outside of the city of Nablus because of the checkpoints on the city borders.

Adi has an identity card because he was always keen while he was studying abroad to renew it and renew his traveling permits with the occupation authorities.

Now I will tell you about my family. Both my parents are refugees who lived in Syria and never had the chance to visit Palestine since 1948 as is the case of most refugees. My two sisters and I were born in Syria. The whole family always had Syrian Travel Documents for Palestinian Refugees and a Refugee Identity Card. My youngest sister, Laila, lives in Damascus where she is married to a Syrian. She now has a Syrian passport, which allows her to move more easily in the Arab world. Unlike my mother, who also lives in Syria. She still has refugee documents so she is not allowed to visit most of the Arab countries.

Lina, my other sister, is married to an American and has two children. All have U.S. passports. This is the reason that she and her husband could come to live and work in Ramallah in 2002. They stayed there until it was difficult for them to obtain the three-month tourist visa issued by the Israelis for foreigners staying in Israel and the Occupied Territories. This is a new procedure implemented by the Occupation Authorities to forbid foreigners of Palestinian origin to come to Palestine.

My father lives in Vienna for many reasons, none of them because he is rich or because he loves the quiet life of Vienna. He is married to a woman from the United States. He has a Palestinian Authority Travel Document Identity Card. My father was born in Al-Masmiyya, which was destroyed in 1948 (the land of the village is now in Israel) but was not permitted to visit the Occupied Territories until 1995. However, he has never been allowed to travel through Israel so whenever he comes to Gaza (Asia) and wants to visit the West Bank he has to return to Egypt (Africa), travel by plane to Amman (Asia) and go to the West Bank (Asia) through Allenby Bridge.

I am the only daughter whose husband is Palestinian. And for this reason I was able to obtain a family reunification approval from the Occupation Authorities, which allowed me to come and live in Palestine with my husband in 1994. Now I'm living with Adi and Luai in Gaza.

People might say: “Wow! What a rich life these families have, the children have the chance to visit so many countries and to be introduced to so many cultures." This might be true if the families were not Palestinians. Because they are not allowed to move and meet freely. They can never meet all members of the families in one place, for instance the house of the grandparents, even once in a life time. Because if one person is allowed in one country, the other is not allowed.

That is why Luai has to travel to three places to meet his closest family members. He is lucky that his grandfather was able to come to Gaza from Vienna at least once a year, but this year it seems that he won’t be able to because the crossing point is closed and Luai will have to go to Vienna to see his grandfather and his wife.

I know you might still say that we are lucky. If you know that most of the time one of us is out of work and that we always must save money, not for the future but for the costs of such trips, at least every two years. Then you won’t say that we are fortunate.

Are we the only such case? Of course not! I gave you a sample of a typical Palestinian family. I described only our small, extended family. I didn't mention Adi's uncles and aunts (some of them are still living in Israel but we have not been able to see them for years), or his cousins. I didn't talk about my aunts and uncles and their children. So it is a typical Palestinian family. I can take any other Palestinian family and describe a similar situation.

It is easy when we talk about the difficulties of seeing my sister in the United States or my brother-in-law in Saudi Arabia, but when we are not able to visit my mother-in-law, who lives in Nablus, just two hours away from Gaza, it’s just too much!

Well, thanks to technology I can now see my mother and sisters through the internet. I'm doing that every time I have electricity at home. My son, his father and my family in Damascus even celebrated my birthday this way. Luai prepared the cakes and candles and sang for me while I was watching and listening to him by the internet.

Still it's hard. He is enjoying the experience of seeing cinema and theatre for the first time and was able to go to the circus. These enjoyments and activities do not exist in Gaza. Luai can sleep without hearing the sounds of the F16s and helicopters.

But at the same time he is still waiting for the permit from the Israeli Army to let him come back to his mum. Today, when I spoke to him he said: "Do you know which of the houses I've been to is the most beautiful?" "Which?" I asked, expecting him to mention one of his aunts’ houses. “Our apartment in Gaza," he replied.

Lama Hourani is coordinator of the Palestinian Working Women’s Society for Development.