Fawziyya, donna di Gaza

Far from Gaza

Emma Garroni7 June 2024

“Losing Gaza meant losing my home; I no longer have a country, a homeland. Initially, I was supposed to return, but the war blocked every road. Now, I have to focus solely on Omar’s health.”

The room buzzes with voices: Arabic and English blend together in the smiles and cordial words exchanged during introductions with people they genuinely wish to know.

We are in Bethlehem, in the office of Pro Terra Sancta, where the women of the city learn to sew and embroider thanks to an online training course taught by Maha, a young woman from Gaza who was stranded in Egypt after the war broke out. Maha reinvented herself this way, transforming her craft into a digital course, thus overcoming the distances and barriers imposed by the war.

Maha is not the only woman from Gaza forced into unwanted exile: among the women sitting in this room, there are three who come from Gaza and can no longer return. The colorful veils modestly cover their heads, framing faces marked by the pain and strength needed to remain steadfast.

The women of Bethlehem, along with those from Gaza, during the sewing course.
The women of Bethlehem, along with those from Gaza, during the sewing course.

“We arrived in Bethlehem before the outbreak of the war,” recounts Najiya, “and now we can’t return.” Najiya is twenty-four years old and has a one-year-old daughter named Hana, who suffers from severe heart problems. It is for Hana that Najiya is here: “In Gaza, there are no facilities to ensure my daughter gets the necessary treatment. Initially, we went to the Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv, where my daughter underwent open-heart surgery, and where they implanted a cardiac battery to help her heart survive.” Hana’s gaze is clear, and her smile holds the innocence of all children as her mother holds her in her arms.

“My son Omar also had heart surgery,” interjects Fawziyya, “because he was born with only half a functioning heart.” All three women share a common story: a sick child, the need to treat them, journeys from one hospital to another, and then the inability to return home: “We also went through Tel Hashomer to treat the infection in my daughter Nour’s eye, but they couldn’t find the right medicines. Nour is only six and a half,” sighs Dima. “We were then transferred to Ashdod, and then here, to Bethlehem, where we are forced to stay.”

“If we were to leave Bethlehem to return to our city, we would have to accept that we could no longer leave Gaza, that we could not come back here.” Najiya, Fawziyya, and Dima look at each other with an understanding that only shared pain can give, a comprehension that goes beyond words. “We can’t afford that: our children need treatment, we can’t risk not being able to return to Bethlehem. We have to wait for the permits” — “which means waiting for the war to end.”

Najiya and Dima would like to return to Gaza: “I have lost almost everything: my house is destroyed, my brother died in this war; but that’s where my home is, that is my land.” Najiya falls silent, her words hanging in the air; then Dima speaks: “I would go back to Gaza immediately, even if they gave me permission while the war is still ongoing, because I have my children there.” She pauses, her eyes filled with the anguish of a mother who knows she cannot do otherwise: “But I can’t do it: I would be condemning Nour to certain death. It’s hard, very hard.”

Fawziyya remains silent as the others express their desire to return: her gaze is deep and almost piercing if it falls on you. Then she explains, “No, I wouldn’t go back. I have nothing left in Gaza: my house is destroyed, my husband died ten years ago; and this war took my children too. I had five: four died under the bombs and armed attacks. Only Omar is left.”

We have given fictitious names to these courageous women to protect their safety; we named Fawziyya after Fawziyya Al-Sindi, an Arab poet from Bahrain, whose verses emit the same painful firmness:

For whom is the blue of this dress
that has vertigo like the depth of the sea
on which you quickly abandon yourself?
It is without hesitation
that you wear what resembles blood if he dies
don’t you know it’s wasted ink?
[…]
For whom, for whom do you fight?

“Of course I miss Gaza! It’s my home. Losing Gaza meant losing my home, I no longer have a country, a homeland. Initially, I was supposed to return, but the war blocked every road. Now I have to focus solely on Omar’s health.”

Little Omar misses Gaza too, but “he’s afraid to return.” When we ask what scares him, whether it’s the images he sees on television or the news he hears, Fawziyya sighs: “He is not afraid of the images he sees in the news, but of what he has seen and known. Omar lost his brothers in this war: that is what scares him.”

“The greatest need now is peace, for all people and all nations; and then Omar’s health.” This is what Fawziyya asks of God: “I am afraid of losing Omar, he is my last child, all that I have left. I am not afraid for myself,” she emphasizes, no longer trying to hold back her tears, “but I am afraid for Omar, for his illness.”

Behind the woman, there are two paintings, resting on the surface of a piece of furniture: they are painted directly on two wooden boards with irregular edges. They depict two faces of women staring straight at you: are they looks of accusation? Or of request? Perhaps they want to be seen as they look at you, not ignored like distant people to whom terrible events happen, but events that, after all, always concern someone else. Perhaps they suffer, as Fawziyya suffers: her eyes are full of pain, the pain of a woman who has lost everything. Everything, except faith.

But her eyes do not accuse anyone; perhaps it is the painted women who accuse us and our indifference, perhaps they only ask us to listen, not to let a mother’s tears and her words of faith in a God who continues to make her feel his embrace fall into the void.

Fawziyya with her deep gaze, and behind her, the painted women.
Fawziyya with her deep gaze, and behind her, the painted women.

The three women from Gaza, in fact, cling to their unwavering faith, finding in it a quiet refuge: “What is written for you happens, and what happens to you is written for you. Everything follows God’s will,” explains Dima. “Our family members who are no longer with us are now in Paradise, and I always pray that they are.” “I don’t know why we are experiencing what we are living through now,” Najiya continues, “but I hope that one day it will be clear how everything served a purpose: for the liberation of Palestine.”

“We thank you so much for the attention you give us, for your interest in us and our story: it makes us feel seen, supported, not abandoned.” Fawziyya even consents to being photographed, because “Telling our story means, in some way, doing us justice, finally letting our voice be heard.”

Dima is particularly grateful for the opportunity to receive psychological support for herself and her daughter: “Right now, for the people in and from Gaza, the most important thing would be to have access to psychological help: parents no longer know how to take care of their children because of the anxiety of not being able to feed them and provide a safe haven for them. We can survive without food, but not without the support and care of those we love.”

Alongside basic needs, psychological and emotional support and faith remain essential to keeping hope alive for themselves and those left in Gaza: “I pray for my and my daughter’s mental and spiritual peace,” says Najiya, “I don’t need anything else. My needs have become very simple in this situation; I don’t have enough money to pay all the medical expenses or to ensure a home even for the coming month. I pray for peace and for the people of Gaza, that God continues to be with them, and I pray that those who are no longer with us are in Paradise now, next to Him.”