Glimpses of Gaza: Anwar’s Story

Meet Anwar, a 29-year-old English teacher, his wife, a 25-year veteran elementary school teacher, and their sweet 9-month-old son. Life in the Khanyounis refugee camp turned upside down when war struck.

Another family died yesterday. A dozen families die everyday. They usually manage to pull a few bodies out of the rubble. The rest remain. No one has the energy to dig them out. They’re too busy being tired and hungry. Besides, what would they do with the corpses? They don’t have funerals anymore, just mass graves. Their homes have become their final resting places.

Anwar Ghilan tells me he’s been a refugee in Rafah since the sixty-eighth day of the war. That’s when his apartment in Gaza City was blown up by the Israeli Defense Forces with just a few minutes notice. In his Facebook photographs he’s tall, handsome and well dressed. He’s young, and newly married. His wife’s beautiful, and his baby’s cute. He has a Master’s degree and teaches English. He was living the dream. Not anymore. Now there are no jobs. There are barely any houses. Everyone’s on the streets.

Twelve members of the Ghilan extended family share a small tent. They barely have room to lay down and sleep. They have to scrounge to eat. Everyone has a daily task to complete. Find clean water. Wait in line for handouts. Search for diapers. Yesterday, while the Hamads were being murdered, Anwar’s family consumed three full meals. They haven’t had a day like that since the beginning of the war. All courtesy of his GoFundMe campaign. At least he’s social media savvy. Those who aren’t, don’t raise money. They starve instead.

Anwar says his aunt’s family is dead. Bombed to pieces. They resided in one of three houses that were destroyed by a single missile. I look up Arabic words to say my condolences. All responses listed pertain to the death of one person. That seems so small and inadequate. No words for entire families being exterminated. How could there be? Anyone who sees a whole family being murdered can’t be consoled. Anwar tells me the magic word everyone uses to convey their pain. Silence.

He’s waiting for the IDF to invade Rafah. That’s when there will be no escape. If they die, the family hopes they die together. No one wants to be the sole survivor. The only thing they have left is each other.

Anwar rarely smiles. In his current photos he has the “I hate life” look that refugees all over the world take on, when their lives have been ruined. Everyday there’s a new loss whether it’s weight, sanity, or life. As we talk, my questions tread the line between dignity and denigration. I decided to tell him more about me to ease the uneasiness. I have a foster daughter who spent her early years growing up under the Taliban. Her last name is Anwar. I tell him this and sense him smile through the messaging app. He says she must be a nice girl. Why are the oppressed always so polite?

I detest social media, but that’s where I met Anwar. Some would say that makes social media redeeming. But it doesn’t, because now I find myself worrying about Anwar and his family. I feel sick to my stomach. But I can’t go back. I’ve wanted to help refugees since I watched the massacres in Bosnia on TV. Now the doorway lies open, and I have experience with tragedy. Murder haunts my social worker memories, and I count the suicides among friends and family.

Anwar posts a story on his Facebook of a terrified mother cat, fangs bared, claws out, clutching one of her kittens, surrounded by rubble and soldiers. All the cute, innocent things we post on social media are being infiltrated by horror. How to save the children? Stop them thinking about their fate? Everyone has a smartphone or tablet. We need online programming for refugees. Comedy, puppet shows, education, nature. Distract the children, distract the adults. Keep them all busy. Anything but being real. Then Anwar sends me photographs of kids flying kites. They play in muddy streets, full of laughter, dirt and grime. A brief respite.

For fifty cents a day Anwar gets a Wi-Fi card and a password. He only talks at night. During the day most of the bandwidth is used up. Even so, communications are choppy. The connection breaks off every minute. We can’t do video chat like that. I just hear broken sentences, like he’s an English student all over again. I’m ten hours behind. I sleep in, and wait for his messages, while he’s up early trying to survive. At least he’s not in northern Gaza where the food trucks get swarmed, looted after the IDF causes a stampede by shooting the police. There, desperation prevails. Famine sets in.

Life is expensive. Thirty-five dollar chickens. One hundred dollars for a box of diapers. Want a solar panel to charge your phone? Five hundred dollars. Anwar wants help promoting his GoFundMe campaign. I tell him which states to target. The left coast of course, plus New England and New York. It must be humbling to beg. He needs four hundred dollars a day to take care of everyone in his family. He’s raised four thousand dollars in a little over a month. I don’t know which is more amazing: digital technology or the kindness of strangers. Regardless, it’s still not enough. Ten days of supplies for thirty days of living. The generals should be forced to have fundraisers, not civilians.

I end our conversations with Inshallah. That’s an Arabic word that means God willing. God willing we will talk again. An ominous phrase.

Over the coming weeks the suffering continues. One time Anwar spends three days without sleeping, so he can promote his GoFundMe. He has twenty-three thousand dollars in donations. But he’s not happy.

“I can’t go on anymore. I can’t live like this. I can’t get these images from my mind.”

I try to tell him about people I’ve read about who’ve survived genocide. Many are Jewish Holocaust survivors. He doesn’t care.

“Nothing will erase these images from my mind. Everytime I close my eyes I see bodies and destruction. I saw a pregnant woman with her belly ripped open and her burned baby laying on top of her. I saw a five year-old girl with her insides torn out. I can’t take it anymore.”

I’m as lost as he is. I spent half an hour searching the internet for words of wisdom. No luck there. But then, by a miracle, they appear.

“Anwar, I have watched you over the past two weeks taking care of your family and helping them with your GoFundMe. You have never given up. You are an inspiration to me, and you will be an inspiration to others once they read your story.”

A wave of peace sweeps over me.

He feels it too:

“Thank you so much. We suddenly found ourselves as Palestinian warriors, trying to protect our own.”

That is the answer. To continue fighting for the survival of your family and your people. No matter what the pain, when you share it, it lessens the burden on everyone.

That would be the perfect ending, but there is no perfection in war. The first magazine that read this story accepted it. But then they did the unthinkable, they asked for an attribution for Anwar’s mentions of the dead. Anwar became enraged, and sent me a video of his aunt’s son discovering his mother’s body in the rubble. I listen to the screams. I listen to the pain. I let Anwar have his space. Let him retract the story and give it to someone with more common sense. Someone who knows not to question a victim of genocide, such as whoever put this printed page in your hands.


The following fundraiser will help bring hope to Anwar’s family: Anwar’s Go Fund Me Campaign

Eros Salvatore is a writer and filmmaker living in Bellingham, Washington. They have been published in the journals Anti-Heroin Chic and The Blue Nib among others, and have shown two short films in festivals. They have a BA from Humboldt State University, and a foster daughter who grew up under the Taliban in a tribal area of Pakistan. Read other articles by Eros, or visit Eros's website.