Yasmine Ayyoub in her home in Gaza City near the start of the war.Courtesy of Abeer Ayyoub
By Jodi Rudoren January 19, 2024
“My sister is trying to leave Gaza,” read the Facebook text message I got on Christmas Eve from Abeer Ayyoub, a Palestinian journalist from Gaza who helped me cover the place a decade ago for The New York Times. “Can you please share this with anyone who can help?”
Abeer, who is 36, now lives in Istanbul with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, and is helping her parents, nine siblings and 30 nieces and nephews inside Gaza navigate this devastating war as its drags through its fourth month.
She’d sent a link to a GoFundMe page for the youngest of those siblings, Yasmine, a 30-year-old psychologist who specializes in trauma among children. She and her husband, Mohammed Ghanem, and his parents have been displaced five times since the Hamas terror attack on Israel that started the war. Now, she is trying to raise $39,240 to cover permits and crossing fees into Egypt and basic living expenses for six months, plus GoFundMe’s transaction costs.
“Gaza encapsulates my dreams, my devotion to my work,” Yasmine wrote. But “the continuous cycle of violence has left us in a state of constant uncertainty and instability” and “the need to find a way out has become an urgent necessity.”
I donated $36, a tiny token. As of this morning, the GoFundMe had 48 donations totaling $2,906, or 7.4% of what Yasmine said she needs. And hers was one of 986 GoFundMe pages with Gaza in their titles.
“Choosing to make a restart in your life is not easy,” Abeer told me Wednesday via FaceTime. “But choosing to stay in such a place at this time, choosing to stay in a place where you are starving and could be killed at any moment, is much harder.”
I met Abeer on my very first day in Gaza, in May 2012. Our regular Gaza “fixer” — a local journalist who helps international correspondents with translation and reporting — was unexpectedly called into court for a dispute over a family inheritance. So he arranged for Abeer, then a translator for Human Rights Watch, to work with me.
She was wearing jeans and a black hijab lined with hot pink that matched her shirt and nails. She was 24 and single — unusual in Gaza — and told me she had too many nieces and nephews to count and that when they all came over on Thursdays she would leave, “because she can’t stand them turning the place into a kindergarten.” She was applying to a State Department program for journalists that became her first trip outside the coastal enclave.
“She is desperate,” I wrote. “She is stuck in the prison that is Gaza, where there are iPhones but few trees.”
Abeer and I spent the day visiting a tent in Gaza City where relatives of Palestinian prisoners who were on hunger strike were keeping vigil. We worked together or hung out a few more times over the next years — she helped me find a gym in Gaza where I could work out — and have kept in loose touch via Facebook since.
She left Gaza in 2016. She spent two years in Jordan, where she got a master’s degree in new media, and the last five in Istanbul. Her husband, Abdullah, is also from Gaza, has nine siblings and countless nieces and nephews of his own, and has a company that makes perfume. Their daughter’s name is Jumana, Arabic for “pearl”; they call her Juju.
“We made a decision if we are bringing a child, this means we are not going to go back to Gaza,” she told me this week. “I wanted Juju to know where she is from, but not to live there, not to know what the F-16 is, what the ground invasion is.”
It is a big emotional deal to leave Gaza at any time. Living with or close to extended family is a core element of Palestinian life, and the bonds to the land are both cultural and political. Every Gazan who leaves— or “flees” or “escapes,” depending on your perspective — can face criticism and ostracism from relatives, peers, the public.
Even now, after more than 100 days of war that has killed some 24,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza healthy ministry, and displaced 1.9 million. Gazans who create GoFundMe campaigns or whose names appear on the daily lists of about 200 people approved to leave face taunts across social media.
Yasmine and Mohammed, Abeer told me, suffered their own personal nightmare before the war began.
It took Yasmine three years and the help of in vitro fertilization to get pregnant. In her sixth month, her face and body swelled up and her blood pressure skyrocketed. She had to deliver early to save her life, and was lucky to get a transfer permit to an East Jerusalem hospital; baby Sophia weighed only 600 grams, or 1.3 pounds, had incomplete organs, and spent three months in an incubator.
“It was three months of hell,” Abeer recalled. Yasmine was not allowed to stay in Jerusalem, she said, and had to reapply for permits each week to visit. The baby gained little weight, and eventually needed open-heart surgery. Finally, they were allowed back to Gaza.
Sophia was still very sick, and Yasmine took her to the hospital regularly. When she was 10 months old, she spiked a high fever, and died. This was three months before the start of the war. Yasmine, Abeer noted, “was traumatized already, and then this happened.”
The couple lived in Gaza City’s Al Nasser neighborhood, which was hard hit in the early weeks of the war. They followed the Israeli military’s evacuation order and spent three weeks at her parents’ home. “The artillery shelling didn’t stop for an hour, she didn’t sleep for the three weeks,” Abeer said Yasmine told her. “It was so risky, shrapnels were everywhere.”
Yasmine and Mohammed then headed south. They rode a donkey cart along the corridor Israel had established, spent two weeks in a tent outside the Nuseirat refugee camp, then stayed at a relative’s home in the mid-Gaza town of Deir al Balah.
“She stayed there for two nights, and said, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to go to Rafah,’” Abeer recalled. “That night, the house next to where she was staying was destroyed, and she was rescued from under the rubble.”
Once in Rafah, Yasmine heard Egypt was letting people in — but that it cost $6,000 to get your name on the list. That’s when she decided to try GoFundMe; a friend in the U.S. created the campaign because it requires an international bank account.
“Her decision was to leave and not to go back to Gaza,” Abeer explained. “She said, ‘Enough of being traumatized. Maybe I will decide to be a mother again and this won’t be in Gaza.’ The place is full of negative memories.”
Abeer’s relatives created a new WhatsApp group on Oct. 8 titled “Abu Hussam Family for Wars and Battles” (Abu Hussam is her and Yasmine’s father).
The family relies on Abeer to share news of the war, including Israeli announcements of evacuation orders, safe passage zones and humanitarian aid, because they rarely have enough internet connection to download the information. Lately, Abeer said, they have been using eSIM cards, which cost about $4 each for a gigabyte, and allow connection through Israeli or Egyptian cell service. The posts are how Abeer knows they are still alive.
The other day, a niece went for a walk in Gaza’s old city and shared photos of an Ottoman-era Turkish bathhouse and mosque hit by Israeli airstrikes. A nephew recently posted an eight-second video from the flattened seaport.
Then there are pictures of the youngest in the clan, Farah, who was 3 months old when the war began. In a yellow shirt that matches the frosting on the cake her mom managed to make for her 4-month birthday; standing with the help of a toy; covering her ears to drown out the noise of the war outside.
“When they shave, when they take showers, they send photos,” Abeer told me. “We joke sometimes. Every time we send a happy picture, we caption it, ‘Despite the hard circumstances.’”
The GoFundMe pages with Gaza in the titles provide a particular window onto the war. They are filled with moving — and graphic — photos of death, destruction, displacement, desperation.
Most, like Yasmine’s, seek money for evacuation — to Egypt or Turkey or, for those with relatives in the west, Canada or Australia. One on behalf of a journalist and women’s rights advocate named Bisan Oudeh with a large social media following has raised nearly 3 million Norwegian Krone (about $281,000), almost triple its initial goal. Another has collected some 270,000 euros ($294,000) to make and send winter jackets to Gazans via Egyptian Red Crescent.
A Palestinian American medical student in Tennessee is trying to get his 30-plus family members out of Gaza; he has raised $73,000 on a goal of $250,000.
“Your support means more than just financial assistance,” the student wrote. “It is solidarity, compassion in the face of injustice, humanity, and a commitment to preserving human lives.”
The donations listed on Yasmine’s page range from $5 to $1,000. Many are anonymous (including the $1,000). I shared the link a couple weeks ago on my Facebook page. Now, alongside my donation, there’s one from my best friend from middle school. Thank you, Jill.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to join us.
Correction: The original version of this column misstated the sponsor of the journalism training program that first took Abeer Ayyoub out of Gaza. It was the State Department, not the United Nations.
Jodi Rudoren has been editor-in-chief of the Forward since 2019. She previously spent 21 years at The New York Times, including a stint as Jerusalem bureau chief. Twitter: @rudoren. Email: [email protected].
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