When she arrived in Canada 2019, Palestinian refugee Jihan Qunoo had no choice but to leave her three daughters behind in Gaza. Her application for permanent residency to include her three little girls, then aged ten, six and one, had still not been approved.
She had to watch helplessly as the TV images came in of the death and destruction caused by Israel’s recent bombardment of the besieged enclave. Her children are among the thousands in Gaza traumatised by the 11-day Israeli onslaught.
The worst part for Jihan was being a mother unable to calm her daughters. She told me of attempts to console her children from the other side of the world; of putting on a brave face to give them a sense of security and reassurance that everything will be alright. Any parent would do the same.
“It was very hard. I was terrified myself. My daughter’s mental state deteriorated severely during the offensive. She was running around the house crying hysterically when she heard the bombs.”
Young people were among the most affected groups during the latest Israeli offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza. The air and artillery attacks killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, and left more than 1,900 people wounded. Eleven of those children had been receiving trauma counselling from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Aged between five and 15, they were all killed while sheltering inside their homes.
The psychological consequences of the years of conflict and loss on those who have survived, many of whom have only known life under siege, are unfathomable. Meanwhile, the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007 means that most are unable to leave.
“Life in Gaza is not easy,” explained Jihan. “It’s very crowded and most of the water is contaminated. Then there’s the electricity, which is available at most for eight hours a day. Since the latest offensive, the children tell me that they don’t have any electricity at all for the whole day.”
The hardest part, she pointed out, are the travel restrictions imposed by Israel, which restricts the ability of Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip, even for work and study purposes.
“Most requests for travel permits are denied by the Israeli authorities for no particular reason. Even if approved, it can take months to come through. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a child.”
There is no transparency around the travel permit system. COGAT, the Israeli military body in charge of civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, said that it considers individual requests and allows travel for humanitarian cases. Each request, it said, receives “a thorough examination that involves all the relevant professional offices and is subject to security considerations.”
Rights activists, however, argue that the system violates relevant international laws and hampers the right of free movement of the Palestinians.
“It’s easy to be a target in Gaza when there’s constant bombing and my children suffered all of that without me. There was nowhere for them to run. Very few people can leave.”
The air strikes are particularly terrifying in Gaza, because it is so densely populated. It is home to around two million Palestinians, who have no bomb shelters to protect them from Israeli onslaughts.
According to Jihan, her daughters, Aleen, Mariam and Kenzi barely eat or sleep and cannot muster the will to even play. Moreover, they suffer at night and are too scared to go to the bathroom alone.
They cry all night and can never sleep. Even with the ceasefire, my kids still need me because they are traumatised. They can’t stay in a room alone. They prefer to sleep altogether. And they don’t eat properly. They need me by their side, their mother.
She added that her middle daughter has been diagnosed with depression and cries inconsolably for hours on end. Medical reports documenting the children’s vulnerable mental state were included in her submission for the residency application to be expedited swiftly so that they can join in her Canada.
For many of Gaza’s children, this was not their first experience of life under Israeli bombs. Jihan found herself reliving the tragic memories of the 2014 Israeli offensive when she read of the air strikes hitting Gaza last month.
“We had the same thing in 2014 but at least the girls were very young so didn’t really understand everything. But this time, when the bombing started, it was all around the apartment so everything around them was getting shattered.” The children told her about the walls shaking and houses being broken.
In the midst of all this anguish, though, there is a ray of hope for the family. Earlier this week Jihan finally received the welcome news that Canadian immigration officials have approved temporary resident permits for the children, allowing them to go to Canada while their applications for permanent residence are being processed.
“It feels like a dream since I received the news from my lawyer,” she said. “It’s almost over. My family are on their way to Egypt right now where I will go to meet them. We’re all so excited. I must be the happiest mum in the world.”
The approval came a day after Jihan and a dozen supporters took a petition signed by 25,000 people to the offices of the prime minister and the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship to ask for urgent action to bring the children to Canada. “I’m grateful to everyone who came out to support me. Even now people from different communities are reaching out to help me with supplies and furniture to help my kids settle in once they arrive.”
Having waited since July 2019 to see her children, the first thing that she plans to do when she’s reunited is hug them tight. “I want to hug them. Now that it’s summer, I’m going to take them to the park and teach them how to ride a bike. Then I will show them how beautiful Canada is.”