Oregon woman recounts harrowing escape from wartime Gaza

Palestinian-Oregonian Falasteen Hjouj has an amazing story to tell about escaping Gaza during wartime.

Hjouj, 20, now lives in the West Bank. She born in the U.S. and attended schools largely in Oregon until moving to West Bank at the age of 17.

Hjouj has attended Gladstone High School, Mt. Vernon High School (Washington state), Lake Oswego Junior High and Lakegrove Elementary. Hjouj’s mother is deceased, and her Palestinian father helped her secure dual citizenship by traveling frequently together to West Bank and back each summer as she was growing up in Oregon.

Hjouj declined to discuss the politics behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but she agreed to tell her story of escaping Gaza after surviving 25 days of Israeli bombardment.

How did you end up living in the West Bank?

I still remember it like it was yesterday. On Sept. 22, 2020, on the day I turned 17, I moved to Palestine with my dad.

My dad and I had been visiting Palestine every summer since I was 3 or 4, but I begged my dad to move there permanently in the summer of 2020. We went to a friend’s house who made a kasba dish with rice, chicken and spices.

When I had this Arabic food, it reminded me of my half-sister who used to make the same thing. I immediately started crying on my dad’s shoulder and asked him if I could move to Palestine.

How do you like it there?

It’s a religious country, so a lot of things that you hear about in the U.S. don’t happen here. Stealing, rape, kidnapping, drugs and alcohol don’t happen here.

The food’s great here, and people are welcoming. I never found that you’re welcome to stop by other people’s houses at any time in the U.S., but in Palestine, you’re always welcome to visit friends and family.

I got married in September of 2023 to someone from Gaza and we’re very happy here.

You got married only a month before the war began?

We married on Sept. 7, so exactly a month before the war broke out. I left the West Bank to Egypt on Sept. 27 on my way to visit my husband’s family in Gaza because they didn’t attend the wedding in the West Bank. On 2 p.m. on Oct. 1, I got through the Rafah border into Gaza. It was my first time visiting Gaza.

From Hebron to Gaza, it’s not far, but it’s easier to go through Egypt. The Israeli government makes it difficult for Palestinians to go through the shorter way.

My father-in-law and sister-in-law met me at the border and took me to their house in Gaza. For those six days, my sisters-in-law and I went out each day to the shopping area to prepare for a traditional wedding celebration on Oct. 6. They bought me a beautiful celebration dress, and all the ladies got together and put on music and started dancing. It was a wonderful evening that we celebrated with no knowledge of what was to come next.

What came next for you?

On the morning of Oct. 7, my sisters-in-law got me up early and told me that bombs and smoke were rising over the border. I told them right away, “If there’s going to be a war, I need to get out of here.”

I made it back to the Rafah border early on Oct. 9 after hearing that there would be availability for people who had humanitarian reasons to get through the border. I couldn’t panic, even though I wanted to, because a woman sat next to me in the checkpoint building who spent hours crying and screaming. I kept doing everything that I could think of to calm her down, from 7 a.m.-2 p.m.

Once we got through the first checkpoint building in the afternoon, a taxi took us to another checkpoint for the Palestinians wishing to enter Egypt.

So you made it through then?

Not even close. I was sitting on a chair in the second checkpoint building when the Israelis dropped a caution bomb that warns you that something bigger is on its way. They opened all the doors in the building so that all the glass in the windows wouldn’t break, and panic set in for hundreds of us waiting to get across the border.

Then a bomb fell right in the doorway where we had to leave toward Egypt. Some of the ceiling fell down because of how strong the bomb was.

After the bomb happened, many people started running back toward Gaza. I found a strong Palestinian soldier who told me I was safer staying in the bomb-damaged building, and going outside would not be any safer.

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Falasteen Hjouj took this photo of a Palestinian border checkpoint building that was damaged during the first month of the war that began on Oct. 7.

They said at 9 p.m. we were going to be able to go to Egypt, which didn’t happen, but then they asked us if we’d be willing to spend the night. I spent the evening sleeping in a chair at the checkpoint.

Around 10 a.m. the next day on Oct. 10, I wasn’t on the list of 55 people who were going to be on the first bus to leave. I was initially heartbroken, but I stayed there in case. As it turned out, they were looking for people to put in the last five seats, and I volunteered.

When we were on our way to the Egyptian border, an Israeli airplane dropped something in front of the bus. It didn’t explode, and the bus was only slightly damaged. When the bus went through the border, we thought we had made it, since we were in the Egyptian arrival area for Palestinians.

But then an Egyptian soldier on the Egypt side of the crossing told our driver, “Who told you to come in? A caution bomb just went off!”

Our bus driver turned around and brought us back to the Palestinian side. Soldiers there received information from the Egyptians that Israel was going to bomb the whole border. From the checkpoint building in Gaza, we all started running away from the border as fast as we could.

How long did you have to stay in Gaza during wartime?

25 days total. I spent the whole time crying until I had no tears left. I couldn’t stop thinking of that bus driver at the Egyptian border, wishing he had let us disembark and run to Egypt.

I had two pieces of luggage that I had to leave at the border crossing. I wouldn’t have been able to retrieve my luggage had one of the checkpoint managers not been one of my husband’s relatives. So, I called in a favor to have them help me get my clothing.

Khan Younis, the city where I was in the southern area, in general was one of the safest places in Gaza back then, because it had several United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools that they were forbidden to bomb. But it was far from safe.

On Oct. 11, I was sleeping on the ground on a balcony when they bombed a house at the end of the street, so my family had to move. We went to the apartment next to the school because it’s safer there, but there were 12 people sleeping in the same room. Our sleep was light, and we would easily wake up because we were scared at every noise.

People there are very creative. For example, they would turn on the electricity for one hour each day using a propane tank so people could charge their phones.

At the beginning of the war, I had filled out a webform for the American embassy. On Oct. 14 and 21, the embassy emailed me that the border would reopen from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Everyone went to the border, but it didn’t open.

On Nov. 1, they started letting out people who are from Jordan and other parts of East Asia, but I didn’t receive another email. Hearing the news, I went as quickly as I could, and the Palestinian border guards let me into the checkpoint.

On Nov. 2, my number was 387 out of 400 Americans they were going to let out. I boarded the same damaged bus that I got into on Oct. 9. This time the driver made sure we were able to step foot on Egyptian soil.

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