Kinda and Zaina in the rubble of Gaza, hoping to reunite with their mother and two younger siblings in Canada after over 2 years of separation. Image used with permission.

Last Sunday marked the third Father’s Day in a row that Brampton medical responder Abdallah Alhamadni has been unable to hug his children.

Sunday also coincided with World Refugee Day, and it’s precisely because of his status as a person in need of protection that Alhamadni found himself alone.

Escaping Gaza in 2019, Alhamadni was recognized as a refugee last December, and in February, he submitted a permanent residence application for his family that could on average take an additional 39 months to process. That could mean three more Father’s Days alone for someone who received much applause as a health-care hero, having spent the past year transporting COVID-19 patients to hospital care.

Like many refugees, Alhamadni checks his phone daily for progress on his file. Because his wife and three boys live in a war zone, he also worries constantly when he does not hear from them. Last week’s missiles fell less than a kilometer from the family home. He hopes it’s the poor electricity and internet in Gaza that prevents them seeing one another virtually, and not the heartbreaking news he fears every time missiles fall from the skies, like the ones that exploded a kilometer away from his family’s home June 15.

Over a dozen Palestinian refugees in Canada undergo such trauma every time violence escalates in the Gaza Strip. In addition to his long hours as a front-line health-care worker, Alhamadni coordinates a group of de facto single mothers and fathers, talking them through their suffering, trying to provide solace, looking for signs of hope.

One such sign was the news that Ottawa Palestinian refugee Jihan Qunoo, an aid worker who also fled Gaza two years ago, was able to reunite with her traumatized kids and husband earlier this month after she took her family reunification plea to the airwaves during last month’s bombing. Qunoo shared harrowing images of her girls screaming from the ear-shattering explosions and concussive effects of a direct hit on the building next door to their apartment, which took the lives of twelve neighbours.

Alhamadni and the other in-Canada Gaza refugees seek the same early-entrance temporary-resident permits that Qunoo received for their own children and spouses. They argue in a well-shared petition that the conditions they face dovetail almost exactly with those of Qunoo’s family, and note this immigration measure is designed to urgently respond to humanitarian crises like the one still gripping Gaza.

The trauma of life in Gaza

Last month, UN secretary general António Guterres declared: “If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza.” 

A 2020 Frontiers in Psychiatry study found that nearly 90 per cent of Palestinian children and adolescents in the Gaza Strip had experienced personal trauma.

Alhamadni and the families he works with see from afar the direct evidence of such trauma in their own children. These kids are afraid to sleep at night, fearing the return of bombs or the resumption of nightmares. They don’t go outside during the day because the drones that constantly patrol overhead represent the possibility of instant death. One of Alhamadni’s own sons, Qais, whose elastic frame enables him to perform remarkable gymnastic stunts and back flips, is unable to find a park to play in that hasn’t been damaged or cratered by bombs.

The escalation of violence on June 15 and 16 was a frightening reminder of the ceasefire’s fragility, as tensions remain high and Global Affairs Canada warns against travel to the area due to “the possible resumption of armed hostilities.”

Against this backdrop of crisis, these families believe their request for early-entrance permits is a modest one in keeping with Canadian responses to other disasters, including the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 tragedies, last summer’s Beirut explosion, and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

It would be difficult for Canadian officials to argue that the situation in Gaza is anything but a humanitarian crisis, not just because of the most recent attacks but also given the devastating impact of an almost 15-year blockade.

In December 2020, Canada’s Minister of International Development Karina Gould recognized the importance of responding to the needs of Palestinian refugees.

“The needs of Palestinian refugees are undeniable, especially during a global pandemic: they face high rates of poverty, food insecurity and unemployment,” she said.

Those conditions are long-standing and unlikely to improve in the near or medium term. In fact, they only confirm the United Nations prediction, made in 2012, that by 2020 Gaza would be unliveable.

Even before the latest attacks, the health-care sector was simply not up to the task of providing the support needed for Gaza’s two million residents. Life in Gaza is unhealthy given poor water, poor education, serious problems with the electrical grid and frequent food shortages.

The emotional and psychological traumas faced by the children of these families have been confirmed by a variety of studies and news reports as common to most Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, Jess Ghannam, a professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in the health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological effects of armed conflict on children, points out:

“(What) children in Gaza are exposed to on a regular basis exceeds anything, anything that any children anywhere else in the world experience. There’s basically no place to go for these children. They are unable to escape.”

A 2020 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that among Palestinian children and adolescents in the Gaza Strip, nearly 90% had experienced personal trauma and more than 80% had witnessed trauma to others. In Gaza, it is virtually impossible, experts say, for children to access mental health care. Needless to say, that trauma has been compounded by the most recent round of attacks.

Members of Canada’s Gaza families group have been sharing stories of their kids to remind Canadian officials of the human impacts of years-long separation against the backdrop of the blockade and endless war. During the May attacks on Gaza, air strikes hit within 200 metres of five-year-old Yusuf’s home. He and his brothers and sister lost their school friends in the Al Rimal neighbourhood, where several buildings were flattened to the ground with more than 45 casualties. Yusuf’s oldest brother, Nidal, who is only 13, had to hug and keep his crying younger siblings calm while shelling was going on and buildings were flattened around them.

One parent in Canada, Mahmoud, told me he has not seen his family for three years. The family recently had to flee to a refugee camp for safety during the May war, and are now among 17 people living in a 1600 sq. foot home. He shared a diary entry about recent conversations with his kids:

“Lana is 15, and says on a phone call, ‘I miss you with every event in my life, I miss you with every joy I have, I miss you with each tear that comes through my eyes waiting for your hand to wipe this tear. I miss you when I see a father speaking and laughing with his children, I miss you in all moments of my life. I need you Dad, I need you. My mother is doing her best, but we also need our father.’

“Khaled is 13. During one of the daily calls, I saw fear on his eyes, and I started to ask, what is wrong with you, son? My son did not answer. I repeated the question to him, oh son, what is wrong with you? Suddenly my son broke out crying and kept calling, ‘I need your hug, Dad, I need your hug to protect me.’

“Hazem is 11 years now. He can only sleep while he is holding my pillow. When I asked him why, he said, ‘I smell you in it, so I feel safe, so I can sleep because you are next to me.’

“Mamdouh, my oldest, is 18. He tells me, ‘the burden is too big, Dad, and my mother and I can’t stand for longer periods without you.'”

For one Gaza refugee parent in Ontario, the pain of separation is added to the daily worry about her young girl’s rheumatic heart disease, inflamed during the stress of the most recent attacks on Gaza. Doctors there say they do not have the facilities needed to treat the girl. She needs to get to Canada too.

Few would argue that a parent should go without a hug from one of their children for 5 years. But that seemingly endless limbo will remain the plight for health-care hero Alhamadni and the families he works with absent urgent action from Ottawa. Despite the rising tensions in Gaza and the roadblocks they face, they hope their organizing and speaking out will soon translate into a belated World Refugee Day celebration.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image credit: Used with permission. 

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Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...