'Everything here is fine. The only thing I don’t like is that it’s impossible to leave,' says Elena, one of hundreds of women from the former USSR who are married to Palestinians and are living in Gaza
Elena Hamida and her husband Hazem. Courtesy of Hamida
Lydia Salah sends me photos but asks me not to publish them, anywhere. It’s a family history. Here she is, with short, blond hair, early-1990s style, light skin, glossy pink lipstick, in a white muslin dress. He’s next to her – brown-skinned, black forelock and almond eyes, wearing a floral-patterned vest and a white shirt. She looks focused and a bit upright; he’s smiling lightly, proudly. They’re both young and beautiful.
The pictures tell the story of their love. In this one she’s sitting on his lap and hugging him, in another they’re standing and smiling, a spring sun lighting up their faces, against a background of bare trees and a structure that looks like a Russian Orthodox monastery. Here they are in the snow, here’s a shot of them hugging their firstborn child, Lydia’s head covered with a checkered keffiyeh. In this one she’s standing with the carriage and the baby next to a typical Soviet housing block, and here she is again, this time with two children, in a different setting – palm trees, and afterward on the seashore.
There are many more photos: Lydia with one of her daughters against the backdrop of a Christmas tree, with something written in Arabic in the background, he and she by the side of a pool. They change with time – her hair gets longer, his fills with gray, the faces grow round, the bodies are heavier, the children grow up – but the eyes are still luminous.
“I love him just like 24 years ago,” Lydia writes to me. “It’s personal, and I know that many people who are hostile to us call us ‘those dumb women,’ or worse, ‘mattresses for Arab men,’” she adds, which is why she doesn’t want the pictures to be published. “I’ve heard that more than once from your people. I’m a simple woman who loves her husband very much. He was never my enemy, and it doesn’t frighten me that he’s an Arab.”
She continues, “There are no pure nations, they all intermixed long ago. My name from home is Romanovskaya, my grandmother was German. I am Russian according to my passport, but no one ever asked me about it, and I don’t care. What’s important is that I’m happy with my husband and my children. The only thing I want is for the occupation to end and the borders to be open, so we will be able to travel where we want.”
Since 1997, Lydia, 43, an accountant by profession, and the mother of three children, has lived in the Gaza Strip with her husband, Ihab, a dentist who has his own clinic.
Tatyana Zaqout with her cat, Sonia. Courtesy of Zaqout
‘Israel Loves Cats’
For me, it all started with the story of Sonia, a mixed-breed cat – Angoran-Persian – which was sent to Israel from Gaza for lifesaving medical treatment. The cat’s owner, Tatyana Zaqout, 39, mother of three, who lives in Beit Lahia, says she contacted most of the animal-rights organizations in the world, told her story on the Russian-language Facebook page “Israel Loves Cats,” and managed, exceptionally, a few weeks ago, to get Sonia through the Erez checkpoint and into the hands of an Israeli organization called Let the Animals Live. The cat’s condition has improved somewhat since, but the treatment is continuing and she is staying in Israel for the time being. Tatyana is in regular touch with the clinic. That story was cited in the Hebrew-language media and covered extensively on Russian-language websites in Israel. It also cropped up on social networks in Arabic and outraged many users, who berated the government in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the owner of the cat herself, as Tatyana told me in an interview conducted via Facebook Messenger. “Children who are in need of treatment [here] are dying in the hospitals,” she wrote. “That’s the reason for the negative reactions to the story with Sonia.”
Tatyana Zaqout with her husband, Ayman...
... with her son, Amir, and with her daughter, Ayat, in Russia in 2008. Courtesy of Zaqout
A kidnapping averted
Tatyana came to Gaza in 2005 with her husband, Ayman, after he completed his dentistry studies in Poltava. Many Palestinians, from both Israel and the territories, attended institutions of higher education in the Soviet Union, together with thousands of other students from countries that were in the communist giant’s sphere of influence. That tradition continued after the collapse of the Soviet empire, in 1991, with many Palestinian men still coming to Russian and Ukrainian cities to attend medical schools and other institutions.
“A girlfriend of mine who was then married to a Palestinian from Jenin introduced us,” Tatyana relates. “He had economic difficulties during his studies. I worked and helped him as best I could. My mother also helped him.” Tatyana says she came to Gaza “without giving the matter any thought and without knowing anything about the place.” During the first two years, she had problems adjusting, she says, but immediately adds that, “now, I am completely used to it and have integrated into local life.”
Subsequently Tatyana wrote me, “There are many difficulties here, but I have learned to shut my eyes. In a foreign country, you will never be one of them. With our concepts of life, it’s not so easy to accept what is happening here.”
For Elena Hamida, who also arrived in Gaza in 2005 from Poltava when she was not yet 25, the first years in her new home were filled with suffering. She met her future husband when he was a medical student and she was studying nursing. The couple married and had a son, and her husband’s father wanted to see his grandchild. Ignoring the importuning of friends and relatives, Elena agreed to let her husband take their 2-year-old son to the Gaza Strip. She was then pregnant with a daughter and stayed behind to continue her studies and have the baby, she tells me by phone. She hoped her husband would return soon in order to continue his studies. But a year later he called to ask her to come to Gaza.
Elena Hamida. Courtesy of Hamida
Elena: “My mother tried to persuade me not to go. She was against it. ‘Where are you going?’ she asked. ‘You don’t know the language, you don’t know anything at all.’ I got organized, took my 8-month-old daughter, and went.”
Her ordeal began on the minibus that took her from the airport in Egypt to the Rafah crossing. “We stopped in Sinai to eat. They have cafes along the road,” she relates, recalling a dramatic incident. “I didn’t want to get out – I wasn’t familiar with anything and didn’t know the language. The others said, ‘Come with us, at least eat something. The girl is sleeping. Don’t touch her.’ Alright, I thought. I went to the café, and then I had this bad feeling and I ran to the car, and all the others did the same. I entered the cab quickly and saw black hands taking my daughter out through the window. I started to scream, to shout – in short, that person left the child and disappeared in the crowd.”
There followed 10 days of waiting at the Rafah crossing – which is controlled by Egypt – with a baby, with the only source of running water being a hose emerging from the ground. But finally Elena was reunited with her son. “He was already 3 years and 8 months old. He looked so thin, tall; I didn’t recognize him. He spoke Arabic, and with me not understanding anything I was saying. Gradually he got used to me.”
Doing what’s needed
Like most of the women who came to the Strip from the former Soviet Union, Elena moved into her husband’s home – which is to say, the home of his extended family, in Gaza City. “I lived together with his parents and my sisters-in-law,” she says. “I tried to do everything the way they wanted, like you’re supposed to. Naturally there were also quarrels, scandals, misunderstandings. And there was a period when I wanted to drop everything and leave. There were also insults. Female relatives – not those who lived in the house, but aunts twice and three times removed, and young girls especially – really didn’t like it that I was there. Because the regular custom is that if someone goes abroad to study, he gets married after he comes back. My arrival spoiled the plans of many families. There were also fights, my children were insulted. Even now, kids in school sometimes call them, ‘Russians, Russians’ – but they don’t pay attention anymore.”
My phone conversation with Elena went on for a while. She says she loves Gaza. “I’ve gotten used to it, as far as I am concerned everything here is fine. The only thing I don’t like is that it’s impossible to leave [the Gaza Strip].”
What about the electricity?
“You can live without electricity. It used to be hard, now it’s alright. But I don’t want to return to Ukraine. There’s a war there, too, and I have children, I worry. There are those gangs there I am afraid that my boy would become a junkie, or start drinking. There, I simply would not be able to keep an eye on them. If it’s one child it’s possible, but not three. One of them for sure would find himself in bad company.”