Rana Nassrawi had one request when she staggered into her spacious Mississauga house last Thursday, her first time back home since leaving to visit family in the Gaza Strip early last month.
She appreciated all the “Welcome home” gifts – the baklava, the flowers, the balloons – and the well-wishers clamouring to see her.
But she just wanted some sleep.
Ms. Nassrawi had lain awake for the previous 30 nights, listening to the windows rattle as Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza and wondering if she and her two youngest boys, five-year-old Kareem and seven-year-old Fares, would make it out alive.
And so, shortly upon returning to Canadian soil, she had perhaps the longest and deepest sleep of her life.
“It was almost 24 hours,” said Ms. Nassrawi, seated in her spotless living room, where the only clamour comes from a garbage truck outside. “I was hungry for sleep. With all the sounds in Gaza, we didn’t sleep at all at night.”
Last Thursday, she and her boys were among the first known Canadians to get out of Gaza and return home safely since the war broke out on Oct. 7. By this week, 367 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families had managed to leave the besieged territory with help from Global Affairs Canada. The department is in touch with another 386 people who have requested help.
After a week of acclimatizing to their quiet suburban street, Ms. Nassrawi and her family are pausing to reflect on a thwarted holiday.
It was planned as a sentimental journey. She hadn’t seen her birthplace since getting married and leaving for Dubai at the age of 17.
Rana Nassrawi, a Canadian woman who escaped Gaza with her two sons, says she feels more grateful for her life in Canada after enduring the war for a month. The 43-year-old resident of Mississauga, Ont. says now she worries for her family left behind.
The Canadian Press
“I thought Gaza was on a pause from war, so I could steal two or three weeks to have fun with family,” she said.
On Oct. 3, she returned to Gaza City, eager to visit the beach, the YMCA where she played volleyball, her old school. They made it to the seashore on a Friday. The next day came the explosions.
That was the Saturday that Hamas fighters poured over the border with Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and taking another 240 hostage. The surprise attack prompted immediate Israeli air strikes throughout the territory, including the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood where Ms. Nassrawi was on vacation. She held her boys’ hands and told them the sounds came from thunderstorms or the vibrations from earthquakes. Within days, the elder child got wise.
“He started to ask why there was no rain with the thunderstorms,” she said.
Three days into the bombardment, she took her boys to the Rafah border crossing, an hour south. As she handed their passports to a border agent and talked with her husband by phone about booking a hotel in Cairo, the ground shook. Outside, a cloud of debris rumbled into the air as Israeli air strikes hit perilously close. People screamed. She gripped her boys tightly as people pushed past to flee the border station.
“It was like hell, like last day on Earth,” she said.
Gaza health officials say about 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air strikes.
They returned to Gaza City, but leaflets dropped by Israeli planes told them the family home was no longer safe. They sheltered for several days on a church floor before staying a night in the southern city of Khan Younis with family friends so they could make another attempt at crossing the border. When that failed, they discovered that the road back to Gaza City was no longer safe to travel. They would remain with the family in Khan Younis for 17 days.
“They were strangers, and they treated me like a daughter, provided shelter, food for me and my kids,” she said.
Ms. Nassrawi couldn’t bear the thought of her boys navigating Gaza alone if she died, so she insisted they stay nearby at all times, even during trips to the bathroom. Live or die, they would do so together, she reasoned.
Kareem and Fares learned to stay away from windows, to run from danger the moment their mom said so and to evacuate buildings in the dead of night. She promised them a pet when they got home. With Israel cutting off water and electricity, they washed, bathed and drank infrequently.
Meanwhile, her husband and three children back in Mississauga reoriented their days around the Middle Eastern time zone, peppering Global Affairs with calls and checking in on Ms. Nassrawi frequently. In early November, they heard the border would reopen.
At 8 a.m. on Nov. 7, Ms. Nassrawi walked hand-in-hand with her sons toward the border gates. A few hundred metres away lay Egypt and three reserved seats aboard a Canadian government bus to Cairo. Injured civilians took priority, then foreign nationals from other countries. For hours, they sat on a wooden bench as Ms. Nassrawi scanned the horizon for Israeli jets.
Around 5 p.m., they finally made it to Egyptian soil.
“The second they made it we were on the phone with them,” said her eldest daughter, Reneé. “After that, we were knocked out cold exhausted. We all went to sleep.”
After the eight-hour bus ride, Ms. Nassrawi and the boys collapsed in a Fairmont hotel, paid for by the Canadian government. She wanted to stay and sleep. Her husband, still racked with worry, booked them a same-day flight to Toronto.
Yellow balloons flutter outside the family home. Ms. Nassrawi thinks constantly about the family left behind. Her 85-year-old father and 75-year-old mother are still sleeping in a church. There are nephews and nieces she has never met. The Nassrawi family is working on sponsoring some of them, but the timeline is unclear.
As for Kareem and Fares, one returned to school this week while the other was home sick. They took some time to adjust. A trip to Chuck E. Cheese seemed to help, as did their new kitten, Sukar. Their mom had been opposed to pets, but a promise is a promise.
“Kids everywhere should have a right to live in peace,” she said. “They should be studying and playing, not worrying about war.”