“We are not just numbers”. Until four days ago, Suhair Anastas was living in Gaza City, where she had found refuge in the Latin parish of the Holy Family. She is part of the group of Palestinians who met Pope Francis in the Paul vi Hall, on Wednesday morning, 22 November, just before the General Audience.
“I was able able to flee Gaza together with my 16-year-old daughter thanks to my Canadian passport. ... Actually, at the gathering that we all had, [with the Pope] everyone was just telling the stories of what they’d gone through. Everyone had a different story, but they all ended up the same: people are dying”. The Palestinian woman explained how “lucky” she had been to be able to take shelter in a church, but at the same time, it was not a safe place: “Nowhere in Gaza is safe. You just go to sleep not knowing whether you will wake up the next morning. It’s really a bad experience. You really feel guilty leaving there, leaving them all behind”.
It was precisely this guilt and the fear of danger along the way that delayed her departure from Gaza City, even though she had obtained permission in early November to travel south to the Rafah crossing, and then onto Egypt. Once the decision to leave had been made, the journey was a nightmare: “There was a seven-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy. We kept driving. We started walking. There was fighting, there was the exchange of fire, there were bombings. You don’t know whether they are close or far, but you can hear them. You just keep walking, holding your hand up with a white flag. It was scary. The seven-year-old girl that was with us, every minute she’d say, ‘Mama, are we going to die?’ And the mother kept on saying: ‘No, we’re not going to die’. Just keep walking, we’ll be okay’. It was a very devastating experience. I’m happy that we left. But there are a lot of people that are still there”. They are still there in besieged and destroyed Gaza City, there in the Latin church where Suhair and her daughter had also taken refuge since 13 October. “No one could go, leave the church, because it was not safe”, she recalls. Only two or three people could go out to get food supplies.
Suhair and all the members of the Palestinian group received by the Pope lost friends and family members due to the Israeli bombardment. “The hardest part”, says Suhair, “is not knowing what is happening around you. Sometimes you think that if something happens to you, your family will not even know about it”. Instead, her family is waiting for her in Jordan, where her two older kids, who are in university, live. “I dream of a safe life. Now we have nothing. We have no plans for the future after what we have been through. Everyone would like the best for their kids and I hope it will be possible. I hope it will be possible to return to Gaza”.
By Beatrice Guarrera