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Couchsurfing in Gaza
Omar Mohammed, 24 years old, is a young couchsurfer from Gaza
Riccardo Valsecchi (ricky7524)     Print Article 
Published 2010-05-12 19:57 (KST)   
This story has been only lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
Omar Mohammed is a couchsurfer, from the network couchsurfing.com, which connects travelers around the world. But Omar is a special one, because his home is on a land where it is difficult to get in, impossible to get out: the Strip of Gaza.

What are the main rules you shouldn't forget before leaving for a long travel, whether you are planning to stay in a luxurious hotel, you are a traveller seeking adventures in strange places, or you are a crazy explorer looking for unknown regions around the world? Take all your documents, be sure to arrange lodging that's both secure for your baggage and comfortable for sleeping, and, lastly, designate an on-site contact who could be helpful in any situation.

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Omar Mohammed, 24 years old, knows these rules well. "Don't forget your passport," he says, while he is showing his own green one on Skype.

Omar Mohammed is a couchsurfer from the network couchsurfing.com, which connects 1.3 million travelers seeking free hospitality around the world.
Couchsurfing is a simple concept: today you host me, tomorrow I will host you. Couchsurfing is not a trend, but a way of life: it is a means of satisfying cultural curiosities and the desire for true human relationships left in abeyance by the hyper-informative model and formal communicative structure of the Internet.

Compared with the social networks that are aimed towards building a virtual reality, Couchsurfing is an alternative tool that utilizes the World Wide Web in order to aggregate human to human contact, real experience to true daily life.

"Thanks to Couchsurfing," explains Zolthan, my host in Jerusalem, "I travelled everywhere, from China to Colombia, from the States to Australia--everyday in a new place with new friends and new discoveries that Wikipedia never could provide."

Although he lives only one hour away from Zolthan by car, Omar is a special couchsurfer. His home is on a 45 by 6 Km piece of land where, if it is difficult to get in, it is impossible to get out: the Strip of Gaza. Isolated along all its perimeter by an iron border fence with posts, sensors and buffer zones, one can access this territory only though two points: from Egypt, through the border-cross of Rafah, which is almost always closed; or through Erez's checkpoint on Israeli territory, a few kilometers from the town of Ashkelon, a point where only a few credited journalists and trucks transporting humanitarian goods are allowed to go.

"It's not true," replies Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz, when I ask why I must wait so long for the permission card to enter the area and visit my couchsurfing friend, "If you were a prominent journalist, you wouldn't have this kind of problem." Must I win a "Pulitzer" to get in as a journalist?

Omar graduated as a medical attendant from the University of Gaza and now works as a volunteer for local NGOs, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the Union of Health Work Committee. The NGOs are the only hope of surviving for one and a half million people who live in the area.

"Medicines and goods are in short supply and most of the productive and commercial activities are bound for the restriction imposed by IDF - Israeli Defense Forces" explains John Ging, head of the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip. "Since the conflict in January, then, there is no reconstruction, no recovery, no rebuilding in Gaza. A lot of the houses are still damaged in the refugee camp, too, because there is no construction in process. The Israelis don't allow any building materials to enter the occupied territory."

If, according to the Western idea, Gaza Strip is the belly button of Muslim terrorism, for Omar this is simply the land where he was born. Gaza is the place he would like to share with all the travelers from around the world and perhaps one day leave and try the thrill of the adventures about which his Couchsurfing colleagues write on their own bulletin board after every trip. But what experience would shake a guy who grew up between Katyusha rockets, bombs and gunfires?

"The first time I heard about Couchsurfing, it was when some European friends came here with humanitarian help, after the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza. Some of them slept at my house, one of the few still undamaged, and they said, making fun of my hospitality, 'why don't you sign up for couchsurfing.com? You can easily host a lot of people from around the world.'"

"In the beginning, I thought it was something like Facebook -- you contact some friends, write some messages on their 'wall,' and play 'Who Has The Biggest Brain?' But after a while, I realized it was completely different -- with Couchsurfing, people really meet each other, they visit each other in their own homes, traveling to cities and countries that I know only by hearsay."

"Traveling has always been my dream: studying, visiting Europe and the States. My request for a visa has already been sent to the authorities, but I still haven't received any answer."

Omar doesn't give up, he continues to hope, even if he knows that the border is controlled. "It doesn't matter. If I can't go anywhere, nothing can stop me from hosting some friends at my house. This is my mission. You can't understand what happens here without seeing it in person, even if for a short period, just for one night ... this is the reason why I look every day for contacts, new friends, travelers who would make the trip to this land. "Come to Gaza, Samson's land"--this is my slogan. You can't imagine how well it works, even if no one is able to get in."

What could Gaza offer to a couchsurfer? "After sixty years of war, there is almost nothing of the glorious history of the city. Nothing is left of the temple where Samson was chained, nothing of the walls built by King Richard the Lionheart, nothing of the Ottoman citadel, nothing of the Napoleonic fortress. Anyway, there is the sea, from where you can admire the Israeli military fleet which controls the shores; the port, actually almost empty, because the fishing and the navigation are limited; then, in the hamlet of Talet El Hawa, the Barcelona Park, a gift from the Catalan city that was completely destroyed during the raids of January 2009. Finally, absolutely not to forget, you can make a trip to the place where I live, the Jabalia Camp, 110,000 refugees, one of eight refugee camps in the territory with a total of 500,000 inhabitants.

This would be a unique opportunity to know the sufferings -- scratched between the wrinkles, the wounds, the deformations, the disabilities -- of our people, our friends, our children, who are the true victims of this endless conflict."

"Of course," reacts Zolthan, dressed in a T-shirt with the Korda's picture of Che Guevara, while he reads the last message left by Omar on my couchsurfer's board, "the policy of my country, Israel, in the Gaza Strip is something beyond the pale. But ask him why they don't stop launching rockets against our cities, catching and taking into captivity our soldiers along the border, and sustaining the extremists who would seek the destruction of the State of Israel. Please, ask him something about suicide bombers. Do you know how many friends I have lost as a result of a suicide attack in the pub just on the corner?"

After Zolthan's speech, my next message to Omar sounded a little bit perplexed.

Dear Omar, are you sure it is not dangerous to visit your town?

"Do you also think we are all terrorists with Kalashnikovs on our shoulders, ready to kill whoever is not Muslim?" he spoke, "Come on, Gaza is not dangerous; on the contrary, this is a poor city that has suffered the pains of war for a long time. For this reason, we are humble, we are enthusiastic, and we desire rebirth--to rebuild everything from the beginning yet again. We are human beings, we love life as well as you and we are tired of the destruction and poverty we are faced with everyday. How can you judge us without having been here?"

And what if an Israeli couchsurfer were to be hosted by Omar?

"Why do you ask this question? Aren't they human beings like us? Of course, I would have some difficulties accepting someone in my house who might accuse me of being part of Al-Qaeda or plotting the mass extermination of Jews--but this because it would be against the first rule of the couchsurfer: respect of one's host. This is as valid for him as it is for you, as it is for anybody else. You know, don't you think that if I had the opportunity to show an Israeli how we are living here, all the misery, perhaps something could change?"

My contact with Omar ends in Erez, the last Israeli outpost before the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The gate is closed and the access is allowed only to a few journalists. A Norwegian reporter, a medical assistant and I, are all rejected.

In the afternoon I discover that on the other side of the fence the situation is hot; two Hamas men have been killed during an Israeli air-raid. Omar is waiting for me 10 km away from the border. I can only send him a text message and apologize for the missed appointment.

He replies quickly, "Dear friend, please, I beg you to try, retry, persevere to cross the fence which divides us. I need to see you, to know you, to show you how we are living here. I need also to know that there is a world behind the barrier which surrounds the land where I was born."

Now, dear reader, after you have read this little story, Omar is still there, in front of his old computer connected with a 128kb modem, waiting for his visa, for the opportunity to see the world. In the meantime, with total commitment, he looks for couchsurfers to host.

"Come here, come here, traveler, come between the ruins of the temple destroyed by the fury of Samson."
This story has been published in various other forms by many citizen journalism websites.
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Riccardo Valsecchi

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