It felt as though we were robbing a bank. As the sirens and explosions continued throughout the afternoon, my husband Gabe and I made the snap decision to get in the car and leave for Jerusalem.
We grabbed our backpacks and started stuffing them with whatever was near, threw them in the car and hit the gas, driving 140 km an hour through the eerily empty streets of Sderot, as though we were being chased. I didn’t breathe normally until we passed Bror Hayil, a kibbutz outside the immediate radius of the current missile attacks.
And then the tears finally came. The relief that my life wasn’t in immediate danger. The pain and anger at the situation. The worry of knowing that sooner than I’d want, we’d need to go back.
It’s been almost two years since I enrolled at Sapir College in the Gaza border town of Sderot. For the previous four years, following the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it had been quiet. The south was booming, with hundreds of Israelis moving in. We made our home in a student village called Ayalim.
In Sderot and at Ayalim, I discovered a thriving community and city, an abundance of student programs in the periphery to help the local population, as well as a strong, happy and seemingly normal life. A few months ago, that all changed. Weekly demonstrations broke out along the border between Israel and Gaza and rockets started falling. The city streets began to stink of smoke from the fire kites being sent our way and the anxiety kicked in.
I remember the first time I heard about rockets in Sderot. I watched a video during Operation Protective Edge where you could hear the loudspeaker calling out the words “Tzeva Adom” (Red Alert) clearly three times – followed by the 15-second mad dash to the nearest shelter. The feelings I had then were of pity more than anything else – and gratitude that it was happening to “them” over there, and not to us. I remember wondering why the people there didn’t just leave and move to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Now I understand.
I’ve built a complete life in Sderot including my courses at school, work and scholarships. This year, for my scholarship program, I’ll be directing students volunteering with “Paamonim,” an organization that helps families in need manage their home budgets. I’ve never felt as proud as I did when getting that position, knowing I’d be able to make a real difference. That’s part of the spirit of life in Sderot. Then there is my amazing gym, all our friends in the student village, and my favorite vegetable “basta” owner, David, at the local shuk.
The first time I heard “Tzeva Adom” in real-life, I was sitting in my living room with some fellow students. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the feeling of my heart in my throat was suffocating at the time. It still is.
The weekend of July 15th was the worst. I was studying for my last final exam, when more than 150 rockets were fired from Gaza. Gabe and I moved an old futon into our “mamad,” the safe room, and prepared for a sleepless night. And so it was as we jumped up every few minutes after another explosion, siren or the feeling of our house shaking like it was lifting off the ground. We didn’t sleep more than a couple of hours that night and prayed for a quiet morning and a hoped-for ceasefire. As the afternoon went on, and the sirens and explosions continued, we finally decided to drive to our parents in Jerusalem.
A study that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health a few years ago found that half of middle schoolers is Sderot suffer from PTSD. Others put the number at closer to 80%. Last year I mentored a teenage girl through the school’s scholarship program. When I asked her how she’s been coping with the situation, she simply shrugged. “It’s no biggie for me, definitely better than when we lived in Ashkelon and didn’t have a safe room in the house and had to go sleep in the stairwell,” she told me. “Now my dad and brothers come to my room in the mamad, and it’s really not so bad. Kind of like a big family sleepover.”
Her nonchalant attitude broke my heart. This is her reality.
Even still, when people ask me how it’s going living where we live, I so badly want to answer like her and say “you know, it’s life. We handle it, we’re Zionists and we are brave!” But I don’t. I feel sad and scared that the apartment we spent so many hours transforming into our first home as a married couple doesn’t feel much like that right now. Sometimes I even feel that I may have made a mistake choosing to live in Sderot, because of the anxiety it causes me. Because of the emergency medication in my wallet for the panic attacks I know are bound to come when the next barrage of missiles begins.
But then, I breathe. I close my eyes and weigh all parts of this complicated reality. I imagine the hot summer afternoons, the DJ jamming in the main square of the campus, the popsicles that the student union passes around. I remember the first Sderot marathon a few months ago where the entire city – including me – came out and ran alongside the fear. I think about the resilience I need to prove to myself every single day there. I think about gratitude and how every quiet moment is never taken for granted. Every day with no siren is a gift, a day more appreciated.
Yet I feel I have changed, become more fragile than I’d hoped. I’ve never been one to quit anything. A few of my friends are moving away from Sderot or are leaving school. That’s not going to be me. I’m going to see it through and stick it out, whatever toll that takes.
I am just one story – one student who chose during a time of supposed peace to move to a blossoming city, but who is now confused. There are thousands more like me. With stories of fear, bravery or both. We are the reason our country still thrives, because we don’t leave, no matter how scared we are. Because we know how to weigh the enormous benefits of life in the periphery against the equally enormous challenges.
One of our favorite places in the south is Zikim beach, just a few meters from the border fence with Gaza. Sometimes we see surfers riding the waves there. That’s how life is for those of us living in Sderot. We don’t allow ourselves to get swept away. We know the next wave will come but will always settle down again. We’ve learned how to get back on our surfboard and ride each crest out, appreciating to the fullest the moments of pure bliss when the sea is calm and all is still and at peace.