“The short version of my story is: I started as a newspaper delivery boy in Gaza. that got me into international journalism. Now, I am the King of Vape in Port Charlotte, Florida (smiles).”
My name is Taher Shriteh, I was born in Gaza in 1960. I lived there for most of my life. In 1995, I moved to the US and filed political asylum in June 2000. Now, I live with my wife and four sons in Florida.
I grew up in Gaza and moved to Cairo to study at university. When I came back, I quickly discovered that I could not find a decent job and moved to the US on a student visa. Studying there proved to be to expensive and
I ended up moving from one job to another: cleaning floors, loading trucks, working as a cashier… I married to an American lady but that did not work out. Two years later, I went to the immigration office in Palm Beach, Florida and told them that wanted to move back. It was 1986: my first passage to the US was not a succes.
“Don’t get me wrong: I like America, but I love my country more. so I went back to gaza. With no money and no job”.
Back in Palestine, I met my future wife. In fact, my mother made sure she did cross my path (smiles). I found a job and started to deliver the first commercial Arab newspaper, Al-Sinara in Gaza. During this time, I gathered experience and built a network in Gaza. This would prove useful for my upcoming career. Meeting Paul Taylor, the editor at the Reuters office in Jerusalem and having nothing to lose, I asked him about reporting in Gaza.
“Distributing newspapers in GAZA, it struck me that Gaza was almost not covered in the press.”
I knew nothing about journalism, but I knew politics. This was three months before the first Intifada. It was the time of the first student strikes and scattered clashes. About a month later Paul Taylor called me to help him write a story on Gaza. I showed him around. At the end of the day, I got a check that covered my expenses: I was a fixer. Paul did spread my name among other journalists. The late Bob Simon, a American Jew and correspondent for CBS News and Paul’s close friend wanted to shine a light on Gaza as a forgotten place. He would come on December 9th. That day the Intifada began in the Jabalia refugee camp in the North Gaza Governate. While I picked Bob up at the airport, the radio was reporting about some clashes there.
We went there straight away. The refugees in the camp were fighting the Israeli soldiers and I could translate what they were saying. Our presence took the Israeli soldiers by surprise, they wanted us to leave but that encouraged the Palestinians even more. From that day on, my name was out there.
CBS News and Reuters had their competitors. CNN, BBC, Los Angeles Times, New York Times,… all called Paul to get in touch with me. Finally, the press had found its way to Gaza. In Gaza City shopkeepers closed their doors, holding a protest strike. The Israeli army responded by smashing the doors open by force. We were there to cover it all.
You know what happened since then: Gaza never left the news. That is how I became a journalist.
“Israel, however, did not want the world to know about the reality in gaza and my work did not stay unnoticed by the military authorities.”
The Israeli authorities would not challenge the truth of my stories. I worked as a journalist in Gaza for fourteen years and I was never blamed of telling lies. Instead, the Israelis beat and humiliated me. That was their way to silence me. One day after midnight, they got into my house and put me out on the street, forcing me to clean it with my bare hands. I was surrounded by dirt and garbage while the soldiers enjoyed my humiliation, kicking me from time to time with their guns.
At the end of the 80s, early 90s, Gaza was under a curfew for long periods of time. Then we would be cut of from the outside World and it became virtually impossible to do my job. Nobody was allowed to leave their homes and the phone lines were cut off. Getting out to buy food could get you arrested.
This forced me to rely on tricks. The hospital was the only place where I could find access to open telephone lines. With my one year old son on my lap as an excuse, I would jump into the car, headlights on and face the Israeli soldiers. If they stopped me, I would say he was ill and was in need of hospital treatment. That way, I delivered Reuters scoops of the situation in Gaza.
In 1995, Arafat signed the peace treaty with Israel. From that moment on, I was at risk for reporting the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. To me, it was clear that they did what the Israeli state told them to do. In the end, I became fed up with everything. Gaza was not the same anymore.
“Israel made my life horrible. it still does. Even today, even as we live in the USA.”
Israel was behind every main problem I faced in life. Me, my family, so many Palestinian friends: we lost our homes, lived in poverty and had to start all over again. We had to rebuild our lives from scratch. I have so many questions about how the people from Israel can do what they are doing, till today. I also have a lot of questions about how the World can let this happen. Why does the World continue to ignore the injustice we are facing? I have to live with the fact that I may never get an answer on these questions. We have to live our new life without being able to forget where we are from and what happened to us.
“I should avoid making statements about ‘all Israelis’. Some of them are good people”.
I have to clarify something: I should not talk about “all Israelis”… Of course, I have Israeli friends. With some of them, I wrote a book. There are many others who have a conscience and support Palestinians in different ways. Unfortunately, they are a minority in Israel as well. But for them, I cannot generalise.
“In 1995, I moved to the United States once again. thanks to my career in journalism, I had the connections to make that happen.”
When we moved, my wife and I needed to travel separately. Holding a Jerusalem ID, she had to go the city to take the plane to Amman and meet me in Cairo. I went with the children directly from Gaza to Egypt. Once united in Cairo, we flew to the States.
After all these years in the US, my wife’s ID is not valid anymore: she left Jerusalem too long ago. She became a US citizen earlier this year. I am still waiting for the approval of my citizenship.
“After I noticed the rise of vaping, My nephew and I jumped on this growing market. we now have two stores.”
Life in the US is hard, I knew that since my first passage. Making money as a journalist was not a viable option here so my eyes fell on business and I opened a convenience store. It was a struggle to run it by myself and support my family.The kids grew and with them the life expenses. In 2013-2014, my nephew and myself opened a smoke store: finally we started making some money. At the time, only a small section was reserved for vaping but that has increased ever since. Now we have become experts in the branch and own two stores supporting four families. Both my son and my son-in-law are now part of the business.
Special thanks to Hassan Hammami for the introduction.
Credits: Frank Ostyn and Marlies Van Coillie