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Palestinians who fled Rafah now live in bombed school: NPR

Palestinians who fled Rafah now live in bombed school: NPR
A man looks over the edge of a bombed school in Khan Younis, May 24, 2024.

A man looks over the edge of a bombed school in Khan Younis on May 24.

Anas Baba/NPR

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Anas Baba/NPR

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Mona Abu Issa cooks canned corned beef in a large cast iron skillet on a rack. A few slices of onion and green pepper are mixed in – valuable fresh vegetables. A wood fire burns below.

“There is no gas, so we have to light a fire,” explains the 27-year-old.

This makeshift kitchen sits outside, and wood smoke blackens a nearby concrete brick wall. It is one of the only walls still standing.

Khan Younis was the epicenter of heavy Israeli fighting, airstrikes and bombings a few months ago. The city is now in ruins. Piles of rubble stretch as far as the eye can see. The skeletons of ancient buildings stand out against the horizon.

One of them is a multi-story schoolhouse that Abu Issa, his two young children and his extended family – 20 people in total – now call home. It is largely crumpled, but four classrooms are partially standing. Four different families live in each.

Abu Issa and his family arrived here from the southern city of Rafah in mid-May, almost three weeks ago.

Earlier in the war, the Israeli army declared Rafah safe and around a million Palestinian civilians fled there from the north. But in early May, Israel launched a military offensive on Rafah and expanded deeper into the city. Today, much of the city is under evacuation orders – and even those not under those orders have not been spared from the violence.

Following an Israeli airstrike on a displaced persons camp last month, Palestinians fled the city en masse. More than a million people have left, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees – but options for where to go are extremely limited.

In the classroom where Abu Issa now lives, children run around the open space. Sheets are draped from the ceiling in an attempt to create privacy. A blackboard still hangs out front, and someone has written a Muslim prayer in chalk. The laundry dries on a string stretched across the classroom like a giant canvas.

“We knew about the displacement because we had hosted families in Rafah,” says Abu Issa, explaining that his family had hosted eight other families in their home at different times, all fleeing the north.

They never thought that they too would be displaced. But then, a few weeks ago, the Israeli army dropped leaflets from the sky ordering civilians in their neighborhood to evacuate.

“I felt total panic,” Abou Issa recalled, saying the displaced families they were sheltering told them: “When the leaflets arrive, you will have to leave. »

“They announced the decision in the morning. We had lunch at home and as soon as we had lunch, the bombings started,” says his brother Ibrahim Abu Issa, 24 years old.

Ibrahim said the family only had time to collect a few clothes and enough canned food to last about a month.

They first fled to al-Mawasi, a sandy area outside Rafah declared a humanitarian zone by the Israeli army. People set up tents there, but the Abu Issa family didn’t have any. So they went further north to Khan Younis, a town they knew was destroyed, but which was the only other place they could think of going.

It was a family they had hosted who gave them directions to the classroom which has been their makeshift home ever since. They feel lucky to have found it.

“When we arrived here, everything was destroyed,” Ibrahim says. “So we cleaned and we wiped. We laid out rugs and organized things.

Members of the Abu Issa family sit in a classroom of a bombed school, their new temporary home, in Khan Younis on May 24.

Anas Baba/NPR

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Anas Baba/NPR

They sorted furniture and supplies and used as much as they could. Ibrahim shows a small toilet cubicle they made in the corner. One wall is a large metal cabinet; the door is a painting attached to the side.

Inside is a toilet that the family bought for about $30, pooling together what little savings they had. There is no running water in Khan Younis anymore – there is barely any at all – so they cut a hole in the wall behind the toilet so the waste could fall underneath.

The toilets were important, Ibrahim says, because his disabled grandmother, Maryam, 80, is with them.

She was a little girl in 1948, when Israel was created and Palestinians were forced during the war to leave their lands and settle in places like Gaza. His family walks there from Jaffa, outside Tel Aviv, a little over 65 kilometers.

“The (Israeli) army told us Gaza was safe, so we moved here,” Maryam recalls.

Her family built their house in Rafah and she has lived there ever since. But today, Maryam is displaced again.

“Where can people go?” Where?” she asks.

Nowhere is safe, she said. There is nowhere to go.

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