When Rana Nassrawi got to a hotel room in Cairo, nearly 24 hours after fleeing from Gaza with her two young children, she finally allowed herself to cry.
The Mississauga, Ont., resident was among the first cohort of Canadians who were able to evacuate from the besieged Palestinian territory. She said getting to safety in Egypt after a month of being caught in the Israel-Hamas war overwhelmed her with emotion.
“I had a mental breakdown,” the 43-year-old said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press hours after getting to Cairo.
“(In Gaza), you don’t have a choice but to be strong. I would say, ‘We’re fine, we are good, we will leave safely.’… But when I come to the hotel, I talked to my husband and I just exploded with tears.”
The federal government said 75 people connected to Canada were able to leave Gaza through the southern Rafah crossing with Egypt — the only way out for foreign nationals — on Tuesday as the war entered its second month.
More Canadians were on a list to leave Gaza on Wednesday but a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said in a midday briefing that the Rafah crossing was closed due to a “security circumstance.”
Sitting in her quiet hotel room in Cairo, Nassrawi said she couldn’t get images of death and destruction in Gaza out of her mind. Compounding that was pain and fear for loved ones she had left behind, she said, including her Palestinian parents, who are in their 80s.
“Everything came to my memory again,” she said. “I don’t wish anybody to see what I go through. It’s not humanitarian at all.”
Nassrawi said she had travelled to Gaza for the first time in two decades to visit her parents – she left Gaza to live in the UAE when she was 17 and moved with her husband to Canada in 2009. She said she arrived in Gaza four days before the war began on Oct. 7.
Two days later, Nassrawi said she registered with the Canadian embassy, and hoped for an immediate evacuation for herself and her kids from the besieged Palestinian territory. Back in Canada, she said her husband and three older children were also in touch with Global Affairs Canada seeking information on how Canadians could leave Gaza.
As Israel escalated its bombardment of Gaza, she said her five-year-old and seven-year-old, who were both born in Canada, began questioning the sounds of the bombs dropping.
She said she told them the explosions were just a thunderstorm. When they stepped outside and saw the destruction, she said she told her children Gaza had been hit with an earthquake.
“They were born and lived in Canada and they don’t know what bombings, what injured people mean, what is destroying the houses,” she said, adding she will tell them when they’re older that they were trapped in a war.
A few days later, Nassrawi said she was told by Global Affairs to try to get to the Rafah crossing with her children, but when they arrived, they narrowly avoided an airstrike.
“Everyone was running and pushing. It was like the last day on Earth,” she said.
She tried to get to the crossing two more times, but Rafah remained closed.
As the violence continued, Nassrawi said she and her family took shelter in a church and then a school, before they all made their way to the southern city of Khan Yunis to live with dozens of others crowded into a home. They rationed food and water for days.
On Friday last week, she said she heard from Global Affairs that Canadians could be allowed out of Gaza over the weekend, but escalating attacks by Israel closed the border until Monday.
On Monday afternoon, her husband told her Global Affairs had said she and her children were on a list of Canadians and other foreigners who would be allowed to leave Gaza on Tuesday.
At sunrise Tuesday, she said she packed a bag with their passports and a change of clothes for her kids and herself and got in a car that took them to the border.
From 8 a.m. to around 2 p.m. she said she stood with her kids in a long line ending at the Egyptian border, listening to a man calling out the names of evacuees permitted to leave that day.
“We (waited) for the injured to come and the people from the last two days that was on the list but couldn’t leave to” pass through the border first, she said.
“When they call your name, they scan your passport on the Palestinian side. (Then) you get into a bus and you go to the Egyptian side.”
That’s where she said Egyptian authorities scanned her passport again.
“Then I became safe,” she said.
When she left the area, she said she saw a bus with a large Canadian flag and workers around it. She and her children waited in that bus for another four hours, waiting for it to fill up with others.
Her ride to Cairo was eight hours.
“We arrived to hotel at like 4 a.m. in the morning,” she said.
Immediately afterwards, her husband booked the trio a flight to Mississauga that is set to arrive Thursday.
While at the hotel, she said Canadian officials booked a meeting with her and other Canadians to ask whether they needed financial support or medical aid.
Despite the sounds of airstrikes making it hard for her to sleep for a month, Nassrawi said she was finding it hard to rest.
“Once I reach Canada safely, I will go to a deep sleep,” she said.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.