After 40 days trapped in Gaza’s oldest church, four Palestinians from the Taraji family have finally been safely taken to Sydney.
It’s a bittersweet moment for 86-year-old Laila Al-Kubti, her two daughters Minerva and Lina, and her six-year-old grandson Nicholas.
On Friday night, when Minerva was reunited with her Australian sister Maha, she expressed fears she might never see her homeland again.
“I’m worried about the people left there. Right now I’m worried about my brother and his wife and all the brothers who are still there,” she said.
The family was among dozens of Palestinians arriving at Sydney Airport as part of the war. The Australian government has issued 860 visas to date. For those who fled the Israel-Gaza war.
The visa is valid for up to 12 months, but there are currently no plans to extend it.
The foursome took refuge at the Greek Orthodox church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza City to escape Israeli airstrikes.
However, on October 19, the building was bombed, killing nearly 20 people.
Minerva described the situation as “genocide.”
“They are repeating the Nakba of 1948. This is a forced expulsion for us,” she said.
Nakba means “catastrophe” in Arabic.
It commemorates the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, in which more than 760,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes, losing their land and homes.
The ongoing claims of a second Nakba are fiercely disputed by Israel, which denies targeting Palestinian civilians and says its actions could amount to war crimes and genocide. It rejects the claims of UN experts that this is the case.
More than 500 people were also evacuated to the church, most of whom are still there.
Nicholas said his mother and aunt told him the airstrike was a firework.
“I was brave…I covered my ears so I wouldn’t hear the bombs,” he said.
“20 minutes felt like 100 years”
After securing Australian visas, the group headed to Egypt’s Rafah border crossing. But first they had to escape from northern Gaza, which is under Israeli Defense Force control.
Minerva said the area, which was supposed to be a safe passageway, was terrifying.
“But it’s not a safe road…The 20 minutes it took to cross felt like 100 years,” she said.
“My mother was in a wheelchair and we had to put her in a donkey-drawn carriage. When we got there, they made us raise a white flag.
“They teased us and ordered us to stand around… Those they told to stay stayed and those they allowed to leave, left.
“As you pass through, please raise the white flag, show your ID, and pray 100,000 times.”
After spending two days in Cairo, the family was able to board a Qatar Airways flight to Sydney.
Minerva said she was grateful for Australia’s safety.
“I want to thank this country for opening its arms for us…I want to thank Australia from the bottom of my heart.”
“Entering Australia with nothing”
The family’s Sydney cousin Jabra Taraji made their trip possible.
He applied for more than 50 Australian visas, spending countless hours and thousands of dollars trying to secure safe passage for his besieged relatives in Gaza.
“It takes time and effort… These people mostly don’t have documents or information because they fled their homes and left everything behind,” Taraji said.
When he saw that the church they had taken shelter in had been bombed, he decided to take action.
“I didn’t know if anyone in my immediate family was affected. I quickly realized that this had killed a lot of people,” he said.
They are currently in Australia and cannot work or access Medicare or Centrelink.
Members of the Palestinian community are scrambling to raise funds to support the new arrivals.
“They’re in a war zone and they’re coming into Australia without any toiletries or personal belongings,” said Susan Wahhab, president of Palestinian Christians in Australia.
The group is collecting supplies and helping find accommodation.
“Who can take care of this family? Where can they live? Someone’s grandma’s apartment? Does anyone have a spare room in their house?” she said.
Starting over is not something Minerva really wants to do.
“Everything I have was lost. Everything was burned…imagine everything you have is gone,” she said.
“I left home with my blouse and pants. I didn’t take anything with me except my personal identification.”
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-11-25/palestinians-fleeing-gaza-arrive-in-sydney/103149208 Dozens of Palestinians evacuated from Gaza arrive at Sydney airport after federal government issues temporary visas