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Displaced Gazan baker Nisreen Shehade was able to evacuate to Egypt. Her family’s still in Gaza

Nisreen Shehade hugging her sister goodbye the day she evacuated. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)
Nisreen Shehade hugging her sister goodbye the day she evacuated. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

When 27-year-old Nisreen Shehade learned she was approved to evacuate Gaza, a new torment began. She would have to leave her four younger siblings and parents behind. Sleepless nights and anxiety attacks plagued her. But Shehade knew she had to escape the bombardments and looming famine, so she made the painful decision to leave her family and the only home she’d ever known.

‘We lost everything’

When the Israel-Hamas war began in October, Shehade and her family held on to hope that the violence wouldn’t last long. But then October bled into November, and the constant bombardments and destruction became an inescapable part of their lives.

“During these six months, we lost everything. We lost our houses, we lost our jobs, and we’ve been without any source of income,” Shehade says. If anyone told her back in October that the war would still be ongoing, six months later, she would have told them, “No, that’s not possible.”

Before the war, Shehade worked as a dentist and lived with her husband and their cat, Mesho, in a Gaza City apartment. An avid chef and baker, Shehade enjoyed cooking traditional dishes and experimenting with other cuisines in her cozy kitchen, which was often featured in social media posts about her culinary creations.

As the situation around them grew more precarious, with Israeli forces showering airstrikes on the besieged enclave in attempts to root out Hamas, Shehade and her family fledtheir homes in northern Gaza. It was the last time she’d see her kitchen, with all her aesthetically curated dishes and cookware. She’s since learned, through her relatives who stayed in the north, that the kitchen she spent so much time in is no longer standing.

A photo Nisreen Shehade took of the destruction as she evacuated her home in Gaza City and went further south. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

Shehade also left behind her beloved cat, Mesho, when she evacuated, thinking it would only be a temporary situation and that they’d be back soon. She doesn’t know what happened to him after she was forced to migrate south.

Shehade eventually found herself in Rafah, in the southernmost region of Gaza, where she lived in a cramped apartment filled with several of her and her husband’s relatives. But after months of sleeping on the floor, with barely enough food or supplies to sustain her and her family, Shehade knew her family needed to escape Gaza.

“All these six months, we were waiting for something good to happen, for a ceasefire to happen, for us to be able to go back to Gaza City and reestablish our lives again,” Shehade says. “But that never happened. The situation kept getting worse and worse.”

Deciding to leave Gaza

When the opportunity finally arose for her to evacuate Gaza, Shehade felt deeply conflicted.

The option to leave was offered through Hala Consulting and Tourism, an Egyptian travel company, that permits Gazans with family in Egypt to apply to leave Gaza. Her husband had relatives in Egypt, which allowed them to take advantage of this opportunity. Her family didn’t share that luxury.

Shehade had trouble sleeping in the weeks leading up to her evacuation, debating whether or not to go, knowing that when she left, she would no longer be able to bake bread for her family or paint with her younger sister to distract her from their horrifying reality.

“Leaving my family behind and everything behind, including my friends and my people and Gaza itself, wasn’t easy at all,” Shehade says. “But, if you were a mother, you would like your daughter to be in a safer place – and that’s what my mother and my father told me to do. They wanted me to be safer.”

Heeding her parents’ pleas for her to get out safely, Shehade reluctantly handed over $5,000 to register with Hala. Within several weeks, the Egyptian government granted Shehade permission to enter Egypt alongside her husband and some of her in-laws.

Evacuee’s guilt

Shehade says she wept the entire 9-hour trip from Gaza to Cairo, consumed with guilt over leaving her family behind.

“I’m so worried about them and their safety because at this point they have no place to go,” Shehade says. “If something bad happens, I won’t be feeling okay for the rest of my life and the feeling of guilt that I left them will eat me alive.”

The limited internet signal in Gaza prevents her from speaking with her family as often as she’d like. And even when she can get through, the conversations are hard.

“At this point, I feel so much guilt that I don’t have anything to say or anything to comfort them because I’m in a safer place and they’re not,” Shehade says.

Life beyond Gaza’s borders ‘doesn’t seem real’

Nisreen Shehade says she cried the whole 9-hour road trip from Cairo to Gaza. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

When Shehade arrived in Cairo, the city was celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Shoppers flocked to the city’s night markets and bazaars during the hours of darkness they are permitted to eat.

But Shehade couldn’t celebrate. The joy of the holy month festivities in Cairo brought back memories of the life she had before the war, full of laughter, communal prayer and family gatherings.

“Ramadan somehow reminded us of the things that we lost – the houses that we used to decorate, the loved ones who are lost,” Shehade says. “But right now, we are just shattered.”

Gaza is the only home Shehade has known, and being outside, albeit in safety, has felt like her own version of the “Twilight Zone,” she says.

“Me being in Egypt, it’s very hard to go out and see people living normally while my people – a few kilometers away – are still suffering and are still in hunger,” Shehade says. “Life doesn’t seem real at this point.”

Funding a new life in Egypt

The trained dentist now spends her days trying to fundraise the $5,000 fee for each of her four siblings and her parents to come to Egypt. Her goal is to register them with the same company she used to evacuate from Gaza. Shehade is also collaborating with social media content creators to boost the crowdfunding campaigns of Palestinians doing the same for their relatives.

At the time of publication, Shehade has raised over $45,000, enough to cover the costs of leaving Gaza. According to her campaign page, the remaining funds will go toward “rent and living expenses” for her family in Egypt, along with the website fees and the transfer fees. If they’re able to collect more funds, the page says the surplus will be used to support her and her husband in starting over.

Nisreen Shehade’s suitcases at the Rafah border crossing when she evacuated Gaza. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

Shehade is hoping the funds she raises will also help her three younger sisters continue their education since all of their schools in Gaza are rubble. With one sister in her fifth year of medical school, another who started university the first week of the war, and her youngest sister who was in her senior year of high school, Shehade is determined to have them complete their degrees once they make it to Egypt.

“I really think about their education and about their future because who knows when our life will be restored, who knows when they will be able to continue their education again?” Shehade says. “Even if a ceasefire happens, all the universities and schools and hospitals are destroyed, it’ll be challenging for them to complete their education in Gaza – so I’m hoping to have them complete their education in Egypt until things in Gaza are more settled down.”

When it comes to securing her own future, though, Shehade is much less optimistic. Her plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health once she got to Egypt are on hold, with her family’s current circumstances making her less keen to move forward with her own life while the lives of her loved ones are still stuck in limbo.

“Thinking about my future now doesn’t seem fair because my family and my people are still in danger,” Shehade says. “I have to make something for them first and then I can think about my future.”

Even if she successfully evacuates her family from Gaza and has them join her in Egypt, Shehade says that won’t resolve her pain and stress.

“There are other families in Gaza that are still suffering and still enduring the pain and the fear. I can’t just detach myself from my people and from my country and from my land,” Shehade says. “I think the only thing that’s going to relieve me is for this to end and when a ceasefire can happen.”

Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Micaela Rodriguez. Quraishi adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.