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As a Gazan Daughter in Exile, I Wish I Could Be With My Loved Ones

My family are surrounded by death and destruction, doing everything they can just to survive. They are not numbers.

A woman mourns as she holds the body of a child killed in Israeli air raids on October 28, 2023, in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

I called my father at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 7, after hearing the news my mind could barely comprehend: the Qassam Brigades had broken through the siege of Gaza and captured scores of Israelis. He spoke to me in a tone I had not heard before, a combination of joy and dread of what awaits the people of Gaza.

I could not contain my tears when he told me that no words could describe what Israel was going to do to our bereaved people. He went silent for a moment as if he was holding back tears and trying to project strength. “Rima, I need you to be strong, even if you come to visit Gaza and none of us are left.”

It has been one year, one month, and seven days since I left Gaza. I clearly remember the moment I realized that this was the first time I was going to experience a war on Gaza far from the barbarity of missiles and body parts strewed everywhere. I did not know it would be the most ferocious war yet, and I did not know that those missiles were less powerful than the hallucinations that would haunt me through the night. I did not know that remorse and fear for my family would so utterly destroy me.

I called my friend, gripped with shame at having left that great city. I was ashamed to ask her how she is. I could not recall any words in the entire Arabic language that might have helped me in that moment. “Tell me everything in detail, no matter how inconsequential,” I said. “I want to cool the fire of helplessness inside me.”

She told me that they left their house, and then saw it on the news, completely destroyed. They fled to her brother’s house in the middle of the Jabalia refugee camp, only for Israel to blindly rain down a barrage of missiles that destroyed dozens of houses and killed scores of people. One of those killed was her uncle’s wife, who was nine months pregnant. They still have not found her body. I wonder, how can a child be born under the rubble of this destruction? How can a child greet life amongst all this death? I picture her uncle looking for his family members in the hospitals of Gaza and writing down: “This one has been martyred, this one injured, and that one missing.” They are not numbers. I ask her to talk at length. Listening was the least I could offer.

I had never seen my close friends this powerless. My heart broke when she told me, “Pray for us, Rima, we’ve been humiliated.” My tears betray me every time I try to feign strength when I hear those wails. My friend likened fleeing to the south as the Israeli Occupation authorities instructed them to the horrors of Judgement Day. When they arrived at the UNRWA schools on caravans, they found nothing that could possibly sustain life there. They had to wait long hours just for a few loaves of bread if they were even lucky to get any at all. She tells me of a night she spent sleeping on a chair because there were no mattresses, and that she had to perform her prayer ablutions with damp tissues. “There was no drinking water, and I had to stop drinking so as not to use the bathroom. I had to wait long hours to even go in.”

My family lives in the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Gaza. The enemy’s warnings to leave to the south mattered little to them. My mother said, “How can I leave my house while our relatives are seeking shelter with us? How can I leave it and repeat the mistakes your grandparents made when they fled the 1948 Nakba?” My father told me the same thing, as do my siblings. I told them, “I am ashamed to tell you what to do, I am with you in my heart and in my prayers. Just be okay, please stay with each other even if you decide to leave for the south.”

At noon, the sound of an F-16 bomb interrupted a phone call with my mother. I couldn’t remember what she was even telling me. I knew exactly what that sound was from experience. I was cut off from my family for the rest of that day. My neighbor’s house was bombed and collapsed on its residents. “They bombed Alaa’s house without warning,” my sister Nour told me. It is the house adjacent to my family’s, as is the case with all houses in the camp. I asked her to tell me what happened in detail, and she was terrified at the horror of the scene. I remember the number of family members there. “It’s been six hours, and they haven’t been able to recover a single body. They found a leg and a hand that might be Alaa’s wife’s.” I shuddered and found no answers to my questions. What are these missiles they are using that cause such devastation? I kept trying to call my father so he could tell me something. He finally answered me at 9 p.m. and said: “Mohammad’s wife, his four children, his mother, his brother Hamza and his wife, his brother Ra’afat and his wife and child, his sisters Ghida and Haifa and Diyaa, all were martyred. The rescue workers worked really hard, and they’re still unable to recover Ghida’s body.” How will Mohammad and his father — the only two survivors of the entire family — bear this calamity? How?

My four-year-old cousin Jad tells me, “Don’t cry, Rima. I’m not afraid of the bombs because we’re going to go to heaven like Uncle who died.” I collapsed into tears. How could a child so young speak about death and bombardment and heaven? How can they be so strong as to reassure me, when it should be me reassuring them?

My mother tried to minimize the danger of the situation and pretend they were okay. “What did you have for lunch, darling? How was university today?” I told her that her words wracked me with guilt and pleaded with her to tell me how the rest of the family and our neighbors were doing. “How is my cousin Lama, the child who has kidney failure? How is she able to undergo dialysis three times a week in this tragic situation?” I was stunned when she replied, “Her older sister Haneen does it with some basic materials, so if she doesn’t die from the bombs, she’ll die from lack of proper health care.” My mother is afraid to tell me that my cousin Joury’s medication is about to run out, knowing that without it, she will be paralyzed. But I know and feel everything my family is facing, because I left my heart in Gaza when I came to Lebanon.

On October 16, my older brother Tamer told me that my father had decided to evacuate them to the south. For a moment, I thought they would offer them rooms inside the college, but then I learned that my dad had pitched a tent made of bedsheets and blankets to shelter them while they slept. It doesn’t protect them from the heat or the cold. They found a grocery store that still had some canned goods and water. That is not sufficient for them by any means, but they have no choice.

I asked my little brother for details about their daily lives, about their feelings, about everything. He said, “Rima, I lost six kilograms in less than two weeks. We eat one meal a day because there is not enough food. But that’s probably best because then we won’t have to go to the bathroom and wait hours in line. Our cat, Bees, got depressed and died. Don’t worry, I made her a coffin and buried her. I take advantage of any lull in the bombing to sleep. I wake up, I wait for night to come, and then I sleep again. I don’t know what to do. There’s no school, no internet, no football. We’re broken, we’re living the most primitive life. I walked under the bombs for about 45 minutes to find the internet to speak to you. I know it’s late, 1 a.m., but I know you can’t sleep, and I know how your heart aches for us.”

My loves, how I wish I were there with you.

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