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A glimmer of hope for Victoria woman with family trapped in Gaza

Amal Alhaddad, 49, was shopping in Hillside Mall when she received a call that her parents were safe in Egypt
Amal and daughter Mai Alhaddad at their home in Victoria. They are travelling to Spain on Tuesday to reunite with Amal’s parents, who were able to leave the war-torn Gaza Strip recently. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Every day for the past seven weeks, Amal Alhaddad has woken up wondering if her family survived another night of bombing in the Gaza Strip.

“We have a chat group with my family. Instead of good morning, [it’s] who’s still alive?” she said from her home in Saanich, where mementos of Gaza, her birthplace, are scattered about the living room.

But last week brought a glimmer of hope. Alhaddad, 49, was shopping in Hillside Mall when she received a call from a Spanish consulate worker telling her that her parents were safe in Egypt, after leaving Gaza at the Rafah border crossing, and would soon be on their way to Spain for medical attention.

Unable to contain herself, she shouted for joy in the middle of Marshalls.

She and her daughter Mai, a lab assistant at Royal Jubilee Hospital, plan to leave Canada on Tuesday to reunite with her parents, who were able to escape thanks to efforts of the Spanish consulate in Tel Aviv and the advocacy work of a Barcelona lawyer and Sahar Bolbol, Alhaddad’s brother in France, who is studying for a PhD in organic chemistry.

Alhaddad, a former schoolteacher who arrived in Canada as a refugee with her now-adult children in 2018, has stopped going to language school in Victoria since the war began in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

Alhaddad’s parents, along with her siblings and their children — some 30 family members in all — fled their homes in Al-Rimal, Gaza City’s coastal administrative district, once known for its beaches and gardens, after it was largely destroyed by Israeli aerial bombardment.

In those first days of war, everyone huddled together in the ground-floor unit of their five-storey family home. When she tried to run from one particularly close round of bombing, Mahasen Bolbol, Alhaddad’s 75-year old mother, fell and broke her arm.

Al-Shifa Hospital turned her away with only a sling and some painkillers because there were no more medical supplies available to treat her arm, Alhaddad said.

The rest of the family is still in the Gaza Strip, largely staying in tents set up in schoolyards after they made the arduous eight-hour journey to the south, first by truck, then by donkey cart, and finally by foot — a trip that would take only 25 minutes by car during times of peace.

The first night after they left home, the family had to sleep in the streets because all the schools were full with other displaced Palestinians, she said.

Prior to the war, her brothers worked regular jobs in accounting, marketing and furniture-making. But now, the days are filled with basic survival tasks — waiting hours in line for water, bread and a spot at the solar-powered phone chargers.

Alhaddad catches glimpses of those scenes in hurried phone conversations and videos sent to her phone when her family in Gaza has a steady internet connection.

There’s one video of her nieces and nephews cheering when the first rains fell because it meant there was finally an opportunity to shower.

Another shows her accountant brother Abdallah walking to the hospital with his son on his shoulders — the son coughing from asthma triggered by smoke and debris — while bombs can be heard falling in the distance.

There’s one scene of Jamal Bolbol, her 76-year-old wheelchair-bound father, sitting with his chair parked in dirty rainwater in a crowded schoolyard with nowhere else to go.

The eldest of eight, Alhaddad still tries to look after her younger siblings from afar, telling them to take care and trying not to frighten the diabetics in her family with the information that their dwindling supply of insulin is no longer effective due to the lack of refrigeration.

With the failing telecommunications infrastructure in Gaza, she is sometimes the only means of communication between her family members, who are spread between Khan Yunis, a city in the south part of the Gaza Strip, and Rafah.

When she gets a call from Gaza, she hunches tensely over her phone, concentrating on the Arabic words on her speakerphone.

Tears flow freely, even when the speaker — this time, it’s Zaki, her brother calling from a school in Khan Yunis — tells her they’re safe for now.

Rest does not come easy these days to Alhaddad, who now uses sleeping medication and experiences occasional panic attacks.

One day, Zaki, who is a furniture-maker, told her that he would prefer to die instead of losing an arm or a leg because it would be impossible to provide for his family after the war, she said, adding dozens of her extended family members have already been killed by the bombings.

The worst days are those when the communication lines are cut, she said. Her three children gather by her at night, where they watch the only livestream of Al-Rimal they can find on TV, the outline of their former home just barely off-screen.

Some days, Alhaddad loses hope and only wants her family to die swiftly and without hunger or lingering pain. “If they are killed in the beginning of the war, they can [at least] find some people to put them in the ground.”

But in an interview on Saturday, Alhaddad was in better spirits as she hurried to pack her bags for their trip.

“The luck is running for us because I applied for travel documents around one year and seven months ago. I received it the same day when my parents arrived [in Spain],” she said.

The rest of her family is also breathing easier for now, she said.

But her sister still waited four hours in line the other day to only receive two pieces of flatbread no bigger than her palm to share between her four children, she said. And shockwaves from bombings flattened her parents’ tent in Rafah shortly after they left.

“My dream now is a [full] ceasefire,” Alhaddad said.

When that happens, she said, she’ll throw a party. “My house will be open for everyone.”