The alternate reality where Gaza is safer than Ukraine

Ukrainian Viktoria Saidam (R), accompanied by her Palestinian husband Ibrahim Saidam, show their passports at their family home in the refugee camp of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip on March 22, 2022
4 min read
30 March, 2022

Samar Atia, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, had been in living in Ukraine for four years prior to the Russian invasion, where she studied engineering.

"I was very happy with my life here in Kharkiv. It was a world away from the day-to-day effects of Israeli occupation, a reality I had experienced since my childhood. When I arrived in Ukraine, I discovered what freedom really was," Samar told The New Arab

Regrettably, this promised life didn't last long. "Overnight life in Ukraine changed. As soon as Russia started its invasion, past fears from Gaza re-emerged. But being away from my family it felt more difficult."

"Wars destroy lives, goals, dreams and futures... I don't if the war will end, or whether life will return to normal"

Samar decided that her only option was to return to Gaza. In a perverse set of circumstances, it seems for the time being Gaza is safer than Ukraine. 

But even her journey back was treacherous. On her way home, Samar faced a number of precarious situations that put her safety in danger. 

"While I was attempting to leave Kharkiv by train, the train was forced to divert its course [due to the bombing]. What was initially a 12-hour journey became a 36-hour ordeal. We didn't know where the Russians were, and whether we were safe or not."

"My mind was catapulted back to Gaza; the bombings sounded the same, the planes sounded the same, and we were filled with dread over whether we would live or die," Samar said. 

In 2014, Samar lost a number of her relatives during the Israeli aggression on Gaza and wanted to make sure her family doesn't go through the same again.

In an interview with The New Arab, Samar's mother expressed her anxiety at her daughter being away from home: "It wasn't easy, my daughter was in a foreign country living through another fierce war. I didn't sleep for a whole week."

When Samar returned home, she was overwhelmed with emotion. "As soon as I saw my mother, I hugged her tightly and cried as I had never cried before in my life. I told her I never want to be away from her again," she said welling up.

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Despite the circumstances, Samar's education fate remains unknown, a feeling Samar knows all too well.

"Wars destroy lives, goals, dreams and futures. I don't know if I'll be able to return to study, I don't know if the war will end or whether life will return to normal. In either situation, it remains difficult."

According to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, about 4,000 Palestinians live in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the invasion, the ministry has been attempting to evacuate up to 3,000 of them. 

For others like Samar, the situation isn't too different. Ibrahim Saidam is a medical student at a Ukrainian university who suffered the same fate as Samar. But for Ibrahim, matters were made more difficult as he is married to a Ukrainian lady. 

Speaking to The New Arab, Ibrahim said that the first few days were especially difficult. For his wife Victoria, this was her first experience of war with Ibrahim constantly having to console his despondent spouse. 

"I have lived through wars in the Gaza Strip so I knew what to do, but this time it has been harder to get basic necessities such as food and drink. The bombing was very close and so we decided to flee. Admittedly at first, I didn't know where to go, but I eventually decided on returning to Gaza. My family is there."

Ibrahim's wife Victoria told The New Arab that throughout the treacherous journey out of Ukraine she was scared for her life, especially when she could hear sounds of explosions nearby. But now she is safe, she has time to reflect. 

"Now all is this over, I'm happy to be in Palestine. But I still miss my family and my country. I hope I can get the chance to see them soon."

Sally Ibrahim is The New Arab's correspondent from Gaza