‘They are in prison’: Canadians desperate to help family in Gaza struggle for options

'They are in prison': Canadians desperate to help family in Gaza struggle for options
Canadians with families who are under bombardment in Gaza say they are terrified and desperate to help loved ones in the sealed-off territory but don't know how. London, Ont., resident Reem Sultan, seated in the centre wearing a blue jacket, is seen with her family at a beach in Gaza in an undated handout photo prior to the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel.

Reem Sultan said she’s been struggling to hold herself together after recently losing loved ones in Gaza and is desperately looking for ways to help family still in the sealed-off Palestinian territory.

The 49-year-old London, Ont., resident said she doesn’t know how to best support relatives in the region being bombarded by Israeli warplanes in retaliation for a deadly weekend attack by Hamas militants.

“It’s been sheer hell. I’m trying to be strong for my children, and hiding so much fear,” Sultan, a pharmacist, said through tears in a phone interview.

“I’m just praying and constantly thinking how can I help my family.”

Sultan is among the Canadians with family in Gaza who have said they are terrified for their loved ones and desperate to help.

The war, which has claimed at least 1,900 lives on both sides, is expected to escalate.

Hamas militants stormed into Israel on Saturday morning, slaying hundreds of residents in homes and streets near the Gaza border and bringing gun battles to Israeli towns. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza hold about 150 soldiers and civilians hostage, according to Israel.

The weekend attack that Hamas said was retribution for worsening conditions for Palestinians under Israeli occupation has fired Israel’s determination to crush the group’s hold in Gaza.

Israel’s military said Tuesday it had regained effective control over areas Hamas attacked in its south, and of the Gaza border. Israel was warning civilians in Gaza to evacuate neighbourhood after neighbourhood and then bombarding the area.

In Ontario, Sultan said her family was displaced from their home in Gaza in 1967 and eventually moved to Canada in 1989.

She said her family in Canada regularly sends money to support dozens of loved ones still living in Gaza, a densely populated strip of land wedged among Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 2.3 million people and has been governed by Hamas since 2007.

Sultan said her relatives have had to flee their high-rise apartments and take shelter in cramped spaces with no electricity and little water and food. Some have died, she said, while others have told her they fear for their lives.

Sultan said she currently sees no way to help her loved ones leave Gaza. The sole remaining access point with Egypt shut down Tuesday after airstrikes hit near the border crossing that is the only one that doesn’t lead into Israel.

Humanitarian organizations were pleading for the creation of corridors to get aid into Gaza, warning that hospitals overwhelmed with wounded were running out of supplies. Israel has stopped entry of food, fuel and medicines into Gaza.

“We just have to hope for a ceasefire for us to send funds to help them, but what is money going to do right now anyway,” Sultan said.

“They need the supplies to come in. They need the border open. They need the water, the medicine and the food to come in by trucks. They’re in an open air prison right now.”

Sultan also worried she would soon lose contact with her loved ones as many of their phones were low on power.

Dalya Shaath, a resident of Montreal, said she was also struggling to figure out how to help loved ones in Gaza.

“I have not been able to be in contact with some of my family members because there is no internet, there is no communication,” the behavioural therapist from Montreal said in a phone interview.

“So I have no idea if they’re still alive or they’re dead.”

Shaath said it has been a difficult and emotional few days.

“We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, how things are going to end but definitely we want the war to end,” she said. “The civilian’s life does matter.”

Global Affairs Canada has urged Canadians in the region to limit their movements but did not immediately respond to inquiries on how Canadians can help friends and family in Gaza or how Ottawa is supporting its citizens stuck in Gaza.

“Global Affairs Canada has responded to 785 enquiries since the beginning of the conflict on October 7th, 2023,” the agency wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

“Most enquiries relate to Canada’s Travel advice and advisories for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, status of the airport/flights and options for departure, the overall security situation; as well as families and relatives seeking information on wellbeing and whereabouts.”

Shaath and Sultan both said they’d like to see Canadian politicians show some kind of support for Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

“I really pray and hope for humans to stand up and protect these people that cannot protect themselves,” Sultan said

– With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2023.

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