Haunted and uncertain: the story of one Gaza family’s exile in Turkey | Israel-Gaza war

IIn a dark backroom of an Istanbul hotel full of Gaza refugees, the light from Ahmed Herzala’s phone screen illuminates photos of his destroyed home in Gaza City. With its black-and-white striped facade that curves around a street corner, the building was once a celebratory place for birthday parties, graduations and family gatherings when sisters came home for the start of the summer.

The apartment where Ahmed shared his wife, children, parents, two brothers and their families was filled with the aromas of relatives, singing and homemade pastries and sweets. Mahturchicken and couscous stew. But the photo he displayed on his phone was spliced ​​with another photo to show the entire block reduced to rubble. His relatives are now scattered across the Gaza Strip or in exile around the world.

Ahmed Herzala’s family home in Gaza City before Israeli bombing. Photo: Ahmed Herzalah

“My parents were afraid that if we left we would never come back in our lifetime, and unfortunately that’s true,” Ahmed said. “Not only was our building destroyed, the whole neighborhood was destroyed.”

When a relative emailed him photos of the destruction of his home earlier this year, he spent hours gazing at them, zooming in to examine the piles of rubble that symbolized the disappearance of years of memories.

Exile left Ahmed, his wife Diana, and their children in a strange world. Turkish authorities evacuated the pregnant Diana and her family so she could give birth in Istanbul., The government has given them two-year residency permits on humanitarian grounds and arranged for them to stay in a hotel — a move Ahmed describes as a stroke of luck and a saving grace — but there is little information about how long they will stay there, how they will find work or whether their children — Dana, 14, Abdullah, 12, and Omar, seven — will go to school.

The remains of Ahmed Herzalah’s family home. Photo: Ahmed Herzalah

Ahmed’s phone is ringing with news from his remaining siblings, including a panicked voice message from his sister who worries she won’t survive the bombings. On October 7, after Hamas fighters attacked a series of Israeli towns and kibbutzim, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostage, Israel immediately launched an offensive into Gaza from land, air and sea. More than 35,000 people were killed and the entire Gaza Strip was devastated, including the neighborhood where Ahmed once taught English, which was the economic heart of the strip.

More than 80 percent of homes in northern Gaza, once home to more than a million people and home to densely populated cities and refugee camps, have been destroyed, said Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

“Everything that makes housing ‘decent’ – access to services, jobs, culture, schools, religious institutions, universities, hospitals – is equal.” He said.

All three Herzala brothers who lived with their parents in their Gaza City home fled. Ahmed’s older brother fled south as food supplies ran out in the north. His parents also fled, joining their eldest son who had fled to Romania early in the war, but Ahmed’s father died shortly after arriving in Bucharest.

“Sorrow killed him,” said Ahmed, pointing to the hardships of life in exile. He learned of his father’s death in Istanbul in February, just weeks after Diana gave birth to their youngest child, Rayan, and was unable to attend the funeral. It was two months before Ahmed was reunited with his family.

Despite the problems and trauma associated with exile, escaping Gaza is considered a luxury afforded to only a few. Israeli forces have seized Gaza’s only southern crossing, Rafah, making it impossible to leave and costing those who can raise the funds thousands of dollars in intermediary fees.

After 15 years as a teacher in a school run by UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, Ahmed is unsure what his future holds.

“UNRWA was doing its best but it was set up to alleviate the situation of refugees. It couldn’t change anything,” he said, recalling how with poverty rates at a low 1.5 percent, he often bought sweets and juice for his students during breaks because many came to school hungry. 80 and more And then 16 years of Israeli blockade.

He took pride in his work and was shocked when his school’s principal posted in a WhatsApp group for teachers there that anyone who fled Gaza would be put on leave without pay. “This is a punishment for those who manage to escape,” Ahmed said.

Unra said financial difficulties have posed a dilemma for the agency, with doubts still running among senior management over whether it will be able to pay the salaries of staff who have been evacuated from Gaza and whose work has been halted.

The Palestinian Authority is facing a severe funding crisis and is threatening major cuts to its role as a provider of education and basic health care to Palestinians across the Middle East, as well as the jobs of some 22,000 teachers, after Israeli authorities accused 12 of involvement in the October 7 attack.

A subsequent independent investigation found that Israel had not provided any evidence to support its claims. Some of UNWRA’s major donors have suspended funding in recent weeks, but the UK and the US remain reluctant. The US Congress has voted to block any efforts to resume federal funding for UNWRA until 2025. The decision was announced by a UNWRA spokesman. Said During the years when the United States was the largest donor, it caused a budget shortfall of 87%.

As Ahmed desperately searches for work in his new home and tries to envision a new life beyond his teaching career, the thought of escaping Gaza City haunts him. The only way to escape was by foot. Ahmed, his pregnant wife Diana, and their children walked two hours to cross the Gaza River.

Their route also passed through the barrels of Israeli tanks, with Ahmed putting himself at the front of the firefight, with his wife and children flanking to his right.

“I told my wife I’d give her the money and the address of where I was going, so if I got killed, I could just go. I pretended to my kids everything was OK, but it wasn’t,” he said. Later he added: “I still don’t understand how I did it.”