'Rather be with them': Gaza students in Egypt fear worst for families

AFP , Friday 20 Oct 2023

The last time Saja Samy heard from her family in Gaza, they were sheltering, along with thousands of others, at a hospital compound under threat of Israeli air strikes.

Palestine
Wounded Palestinians at the al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. AP

 

In her dorm room in Egypt, the 20-year-old medical student clutches her phone, desperately scrolling for any clue as to whether her family is still alive.

Under siege and battered by relentless Israeli strikes that have killed more than 4,100 Palestinians, Gaza's 2.4 million people have been deprived of electricity and, by extension, most contact with the outside world.

"I can't think straight. I don't know where my family is. I don't know if they're okay," she told AFP.

"Every time I talk to my mom, she tells me that she doesn't know if they'll survive this and how I have to take care of myself. But what am I supposed to do on my own?"

Like 6,000 other Palestinians studying in Egyptian universities, Samy has been forced to watch the war in Gaza from afar.

Dozens of them sat in an exam hall last week, willing themselves to focus on a test -- and not their families suffering barely a five-hour drive away.

When her mother last spoke to her from Shifa hospital in northern Gaza, she said she was afraid that "if the air strikes don't kill them, the children will die of fright".

Samy doesn't sleep, thinking of her six-year-old sister lying awake on the ground in the hospital courtyard, shivering in the cold.

Every time she sees news of a bombed-out hospital, her heart stops.

Panicked group chats
 

Like Samy, 21-year-old Ghaidaa Jaber stares endlessly at her phone screen, begging for her messages to go through.

The last message from her mother on October 12 said she was leaving their home in northern Gaza to head south with Jaber's four sisters and three brothers in a desperate attempt to flee the relentless bombardment.

"I haven't heard anything since," she told AFP.

In panicked group chats, Jaber and other students try to triangulate information.

"We're trying to see on social media where they've bombed, what's nearby, what roads our families could be on, going through lists of martyrs and families that have been killed."

"All you can do is pray" and hope you don't come across your own surname, she said.

Haya Shehab, 21, learned from an Instagram post that her extended family's home had been bombed, killing 45 people -- dozens of them cousins.

"Just like that, 45 of us gone," said Shehab, who studies at a private university in Cairo.

This time is worse
 

Jaber was six when she first felt her home tremble under the force of Israeli air strikes, and remembers clutching onto her family for dear life as bombs rained down from above.

"I know what it's like, but this time is so much worse," she said.

The formative memory of Jaber, Samy, and countless others' childhoods was the war on Gaza in 2014, when Israeli forces killed around 2,250 Palestinians.

"That was 50 days. There were as many martyred now in the first week of the war," Jaber said.

For years, Samy's father insisted the family stay put despite the violence, reminding them "our home is all we have".

But on October 7, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared "a long and difficult war", the family packed up and left their home which within days was reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble.

"We always used to say they don't bomb western Gaza, but this war proved to me that nowhere is safe," Samy said.

Shehab also thought her family's home in the southern district of Khan Yunis was relatively safe, where "bombings were limited".

"But not this time."

Israel's deadly assault has hit residential buildings, roads they had designated as safe escape routes and southern Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have fled after Israel ordered them out of the north.

And for the terrified students who are unable to go about their lives, there is also the overwhelming sense of guilt.

"How dare I be so far away? How can I eat when they're hungry? How can I sleep?" wonders Jaber who has been locked in her room for two weeks.

Samy has also been blaming herself.

"I hate this feeling, knowing I'm safe and they're not. I wish I was with them, I would rather be with them and die with them than feel like this."

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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