‘We gather here as Russian wives who are married to Gazan husbands, to preserve our culture, language and some of our lifestyle, particularly under these bad conditions in Gaza,’ said Jamila Assersawi, a Russian music teacher who has lived in Gaza for the past 15 years. Jamila and other Russian wives in Gaza gather at a health club in Gaza City twice a week, where they meet, chat and practice some exercises. They also let their children intermingle to preserve the Russian half of their culture.
There are roughly 5,000 Russian women in Gaza. Many, like Jamila, have been living in Gaza for many years. For Jamila, having two children and running a married life has proven difficult with the situation in Gaza, where conditions are totally different from those of her own homeland or maybe any other country in the world. ‘Prior to the outbreak of the intifada, I used to feel more comfortable. But since 2000 and particularly the last year, things have become much worse. There is no gas, there is no fuel, there is nothing,’ she explained.
According to Palestinian statistics, the number of foreign wives in the Gaza Strip is estimated at 15,000, comprised of Russians, Romanians, Filipinos, and other nationalities. These women came to Gaza several years ago with their Palestinian husbands, who, like many Palestinian men traveled to work or get a better education outside of Gaza.
Irina Lozon, another Russian wife in her thirties who also visits this club; echoed Jamila’s sentiments. An unemployed designer, Irina says that the situation in the past year in Gaza has become unbearable, especially for her three children. ‘I come here to let my children enjoy some time away from the violence outside, especially the non-stop Israeli shelling for the past several months. We hope the situation gets better.’
Asked whether she thinks of returning to Russia, Irina replies that ‘some people left Gaza and were successful, others were not, for me sometimes I think of that, but what can we do after nine years here. I have been trying to live as hundreds of thousands of Gazans, especially for my husband.’
Originally from Romania, Monica Al-Afaghani, a 35-year-old staff nurse at Gaza’s Shifa hospital, says that she has become half-Palestinian half-Romanian since coming to Gaza ten years ago. Monica explained that ‘The last year has been the worst ever in the past ten years since me and my husband settled here. Prior to the last blockade on Gaza, we used to have some fun outdoors, especially my two children. But for the time being, we are confined to our houses, from house to work and from work to house. There are no encouraging signs outside, there simply is no life.’
Monica smiled broadly and added ‘If I were in Egypt, for example, I wouldn’t have noticed a great change in lifestyle from Romania. We might have enjoyed some time out in the Red Sea resorts.’ Asked what makes her stay, Monica explained ‘I have become a Palestinian citizen. I have a job at the hospital, and moreover I am now half-Palestinian; Shija’iya, Sabra, Zaytoun, etc.’ again smiling in reference to Gaza’s densely-populated and impoverished neighborhoods.
Her neighbor, Livia Qufe’, a 43-year-old pediatrician at Gaza’s Children’s Hospital originally from Romania, had a similar response. ‘I spend most of my time at the hospital, where I can enjoy something useful among my patients at this hospital. The situation in here is completely different, especially over the past year.’ Livia settled in Gaza in 1994 and says that her life was better then. She added ‘I remember that before the intifada broke out, we used to enjoy some sort of lifestyle in Gaza similar to that in my homeland Romania, but things have become much worse over the past three years, particularly the last year under the crippling Israeli blockade.’
Asked if she might leave Gaza for a better life in Romania, Livia replied that ‘I wish it could work, but it can not. So I prefer to stay here as I have a job and some sort of stable life, and also my husband and I can not begin from zero, at least my husband is an employed physician here.’
Less than two weeks ago, Israel and the ruling Hamas party in Gaza agreed to an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire deal to end the year long siege and crippling blockade of the coastal territory. It remains to be seen if this truce will lead to better conditions for locals and foreigners alike or if Gaza’s 1.5 million residents will remain trapped between Israel’s blockade and attacks.