Bethan McKernan & Hazem Balousha
The Guardian / June 27, 2022
Women who relocated to Gaza are unable to visit or contact family, and face similar problems in their adoptive home.
For more than a decade, Natalya Hassoumi’s family in Ukraine have worried about her safety in the Gaza Strip; they have been unable to reach her for days at a time while airstrikes have pummelled the isolated Palestinian territory. Now, Hassoumi is experiencing something similar. She has not heard from her parents and siblings in Russian-occupied Kherson for three weeks.
“I think the Russians must be making people switch to using Russian networks and sim cards, but I don’t know what’s happening,” the 41-year-old doctor said. “It’s very hard not knowing.”
Hassoumi is one of about 830 Ukrainian-born people living in Gaza, which according to community leaders is the largest population of foreigners living in the blockaded coastal zone. Having lived through three rounds of war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group in control of the Strip, the endocrinologist is acutely aware of what her family in Kherson is facing.
“I never thought that war could happen in Ukraine,” Hassoumi said at the house in Beit Lahia she has shared with husband Iyad and the couple’s three young sons since 2011. “No food, no electricity … Gaza and Ukraine have the same problems now.”
The Soviet Union was a major champion of the Palestinian cause, for decades offering scholarships and business visas to people from the West Bank and Gaza. After Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, many of those ties endured: the majority of Ukrainians now in Gaza are women who met Palestinian spouses studying at Ukrainian universities, and moved back with their husbands.
Last May, during the 11-day war between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups that killed 256 people in Gaza and 14 people in Israel, about 120 Gaza families with links to Ukraine were evacuated, but less than a year later, one woman found herself travelling the other way.
Pandemic travel restrictions meant that Viktoria Saidam, 21, had not been able to visit Gaza to meet her in-laws for two years – but after the Russian invasion in February, she and 24-year-old husband Ibrahim, both students in Kyiv, heard the shelling getting closer and closer.
The couple decided to seek safety with Ibrahim’s parents, fleeing her home city of Vinnytsia by minibus and then walking across the Romanian border. They then flew to Cairo and headed for Egypt’s Rafah crossing with the southern Gaza Strip.
She says she was aware of the issues in Gaza caused by the Hamas takeover and subsequent 15-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Its population of 2 million suffers with an unemployment rate of more than 50%, sporadic electricity, a polluted water supply, and the constant and unpredictable possibility of a new round of fighting.
The couple hope their stay will be temporary. “Since we got married, I kept preparing her for what she would see in Gaza,” Ibrahim told local media.
“I tried to make the situation look even worse than it actually is so that when she came, she would not see it as that bad.”
Natalya Mabhouh, 45, has lived in Gaza since 1997. Her mother and sister are still in her home town of Kharkiv, and her eldest son, Ahmed, was also living there when Russia invaded in February. Ahmed and his Ukrainian wife have since found safety in Germany.
“When I came to Gaza the economic situation was good, there was peace, but we got used to wars and escalation since then,” the hairdresser said. “This has been a huge shock. Russians and Ukrainians are like one people … I still don’t understand how this could happen.”
In general, Palestinian society supports Russia over Ukraine in the four-month-old conflict, viewing it as a proxy superpower struggle with the US, Israel’s most important ally. Neither Hamas nor the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has taken a public position on the Russian invasion.
The outbreak of war in Europe has also led to tensions within the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking communities in Gaza: in March, many local Ukrainians were upset after a group of Russians held a pro-Moscow demonstration. Friendships going back years have ended, and vicious arguments continue on social media.
“It is really difficult,” said Hassoumi. “My mother is Ukrainian and my father is Russian and suddenly people are not talking to me. I feel like many people don’t care about the details, but it’s an occupation, like the Israelis.”
Forced to keep up to date with the war from afar, either online or watching television news bulletins, Gaza’s Ukrainian community has been left feeling fearful for the future of both their native land and adopted home.
“We built a life here, so despite everything we will stay,” said Ashraf al-Nimr, one of the leaders of the local Ukrainian community who holds a Ukrainian passport, married a Ukrainian, and lived in Mariupol for a decade. Fifteen of his wife Olya’s family members have gone missing since Russia’s brutal siege of the city began.
“We can help by giving people in Ukraine instructions on how to deal with war, how to hide, raising money. Any way we can help, we will,” he said.
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian
Hazem Balousha in Gaza