Palestinian-Canadians in Ottawa living in dread of the increasingly deadly Gaza conflict gathered Saturday to share condolences and help families grieve their loved ones lost in the war.
Two weeks after the Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas on Israeli citizens and soldiers that left more than 1,400 people dead, Israel continues to launch waves of airstrikes across Gaza and Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israel.
Gaza's 2.3 million Palestinians, half of whom have fled their homes amid the fighting, are rationing food and water. Talk of an Israeli ground offensive to root out Hamas, which has ruled the territory for 16 years, continues. All told, the war has already killed more than 4,000 people living in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials and the United Nations.
Maha Buhisi was born and lives in Ottawa, but the war has hit close to home.
She woke up on Oct. 12 to learn that three relatives — her uncle Mohammed Al-Buhisi, her cousin Hamdan Al-Buhisi, and her cousin's two-year-old daughter, Noor Al-Buhisi — were killed in an airstrike in the central Gazan city of Deir El Balah.
"From what my family explained to me, they had left the house seconds before and they were just outside playing," Buhisi said.
"We're just praying for the time that there's a ceasefire."
Maha Buhisi says she lost three family members on one day of the Israel-Hamas conflict. (CBC)
'Need to be there for each other'
Buhisi's family hosted its own gathering at a Barrhaven mosque where mourners came to pay their condolences last weekend.
But since then, the total number of Palestinian-Canadian families in Ottawa who have lost loved ones has grown to at least 19, according to the Ottawa-based Jerusalem Community Services of Ontario.
The group held a mass condolences gathering Saturday night in the community centre below the Mercy Mosque.
It was the first event of its kind since the organization launched in the 1990s, and was intended to relieve people of what co-organizer Ala Abu Alkheir called "the trauma [of] suffering through this alone."
Two long rows of chairs faced each other in the centre of the room: one for representatives of the grieving families, who wore scarves of red, white, green and black — the colours of the Palestinian flag — and one for visitors.
A whiteboard listed the names of the 19 families in Arabic, while volunteers handed out coffee and dates and speakers like Abu Alkheir addressed the large crowd.
"Losing one beloved person is already a catastrophe … losing two is even more so. Losing 10 is unthinkable," he said.
"But the numbers we have been hearing of over the past few days are worse than a nightmare."
A volunteer at Saturday's event wore this symbol. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
Buhisi, who attended Saturday's event, said it was important for people to be there for each other.
"We're checking in on each other. We're making sure that all of us are in a good mental state, which most of us aren't. Most of us aren't sleeping. We're not eating. We can't function [in] our normal daily lives."
Hala Alshaer was also at the Saturday gathering.
Alshaer lives in Ottawa too and also has family ties to Palestine. Her father and mother are from the southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, respectively.
Ala Abu Alkheir, one of the organizers of Saturday's mass condolences gathering at the Mercy Mosque, is from Jordan but has a lot of family in Gaza. (Patrick Foucault/Radio-Canada)
Alshaer said her family is grieving the deaths of 77 relatives, spread between her father's and mother's sides. One of the oldest was 61, she said, while the youngest was just one year old.
"My cousins that are married with kids ... they're just taking their kids and they're sleeping together inside the kitchen where there's no windows so that — if the building behind them gets bombed and the glass starts breaking in — their kids don't get hurt," she said.
"They're saying that if [they're] going to die, [they] would rather all die together as a family, so that their kids aren't orphaned, or that the mother isn't widowed."
More gatherings planned
As for Abu Alkheir, he's from Jordan but has a lot of family in Gaza.
He described the last two weeks — in which Palestinians have been glued to their phones in anticipation of messages from back home, seven time zones away — as "living on the edge."
Two other mass condolence gatherings are planned, one for Oct. 28 and Nov. 4. Abu Alkheir hopes that by then, the situation in Gaza won't be so desperate.
"Hopefully, we end up cancelling them," he said.