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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 23, 2024

‘I’m tired, but they’re dying’: The reality of life as a Palestinian New Zealander

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A 23-year-old Christchurch woman, originally from Palestine, shares her experience of grief, hope and anger over the last four months. 

It was 4am in Christchurch when the screaming began. It was a familiar howl, the same she had heard three years ago when her grandfather died. Rawaa Elhanafy ran down the hallway to find her mother crying on the floor, and repeating the same phrase. “Huda’s gone, Huda’s gone, Huda’s gone.” 

More than 16,000km away, Elhanafy’s Aunty Huda and her four children, aged 15, 13, 11 and seven, had all been killed after three Israeli missiles were dropped on their house in Gaza. 

Just three days later, Elhanafy stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters by The Bridge of Remembrance. Reading from her phone through tears, she made a plea. “There are so many Palestinians living here in New Zealand right now. We are your pharmacists, your doctors, your teachers, your engineers. We are all one whānau here, because that is what New Zealand is about. I am your whānau, and my whānau are back home suffering.”

Since she made that speech in October, 2023, at least 29,313 Palestinians have been killed and 69,333 injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza. 

Rawaa’s cousins (clockwise from left Malak, Raghad, Issam and Maryam) were killed in Gaza

Elhanafy moved to New Zealand from Gaza with her family when she was eight years old after her Dad got a work visa. The Gaza War had just begun when they left in 2009, but Elhanafy has only “beautiful” memories of her life in the neighbourhood of Al-Remal. “There’s just a vivid vision of the beach,” she says. “There’s so many happy memories of grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins on the beach and the vibes just being so loud and so colourful and so lively.” 

Large scale family gatherings at her grandparents’ house in Tel-al Hawa were also a proud tradition, often featuring her Aunty Huda “just being so silly” amongst all the chaos. “I still have these moments where I just can’t believe that she is gone and all those places have been destroyed,” she says. “Even talking about it now, a part of me still feels like there’s no way it is real. Is this a nightmare? Is this a dream? Am I even awake? It just becomes impossible.” 

After the loss of her Aunty Huda and cousins Raghad, Malak, Issam and Maryam, 23-year-old Elhanafy says her life in Christchurch “literally just stopped.” She was in her intern year after graduating with a pharmacy degree from the University of Otago, but put it all on hold to dedicate herself to raising awareness around what was happening in her home country. “I went off work for four months to give myself over to volunteering, events, fundraisers and rallies.”

“I stopped living, basically, and dedicated everything to Palestine.”

Rawaa speaks at a rally in October 2023. Image: Alex Casey

Speaking regularly at the rallies held at Christchurch’s Bridge of Remembrance, Elhanafy felt a duty to share her family’s story, even when it has been a struggle to speak. “Even though I have very low points I just keep thinking: this is literally the least I can do. I’m tired, but they’re dying,” she says. “The least I can do is to tell their stories, because there’s a story behind each of those 30,000 people killed and the two million that are still suffering.” 

Although she was heartened by the strong turnout in the beginning, Elhanafy says there were also negative responses to the public demonstrations right from the start. “I’ve seen a lot of people that give you looks during protests, or give you the finger or even swear at you,” she says. “I don’t feel like there is a wide understanding or a connection to what’s happening in New Zealand. It’s not even that people aren’t educated, or not sympathetic, it’s that they just don’t care at all.” 

In recent weeks, Elhanafy has also noticed an increase in police presence and aggression. She was in attendance at the demonstration outside the National Party caucus retreat in January, where she witnessed police pushing and threatening to use pepper spray. A few weeks later in Lyttelton, they made good on those threats. “That hit me right in the heart,” she says. “My insights have completely changed about New Zealand, to be honest with you.” 

Still, the people who continue to show up give her hope. “When you’re hopeless, sometimes you just need to be reassured through seeing it with your own eyes that people still haven’t forgotten, that people still care and people still know what’s going on,” she says. “It’s especially good when the old people bring new people to the rallies, because it means more people are being educated and more people are willing to take action.” 

Elhanafy sells food after each rally to raise funds which she sends to people on the ground to distribute to “anyone and everyone” in Gaza. A Givealittle has been launched to help evacuate her remaining family from Gaza, and another for her cousin who has a two year old son. “His lungs haven’t been the best because of everything that he’s breathing, so they’ve been terrified,” she says. “But obviously, they don’t even have money to get food or drink, let alone safety.”

Elhanafy’s cousin Hossam and Aunty Huda haveboth lost their lives in Gaza. Image: Supplied

Following a recent rally, Elhanafy was sitting down and decompressing with her sister at Riverside Market. “We’d just gotten all that anger out, all that hopelessness or hopefulness, when we got a text from our cousin.” It was four words: Hossam has been martyred. Their 28-year-old cousin, an engineering graduate, had been bombed in the street. A few days later she would accidentally see a photo of his body on her mum’s phone – his eyes were open and he was smiling. 

“You’re just afraid 24/7 of losing another family member,” she says. “There’s no safety whatsoever.” Hossam’s mother remains up in the north, where her last correspondence revealed tanks and snipers outside where she was staying. “We didn’t feel like it was safe to call, so we told her to turn off her phone because of the signal.” The rest of Elhanafy’s family is now taking refuge in Rafah, along with 1.5 million others, where a recent text from a cousin reported hearing bombings “very close” to them. 

Although she is in a much better place than at the end of last year, Elhanafy says that getting through every day as a Palestinian New Zealander remains a struggle. “I work at a pharmacy counter so I have to talk with people, so you have to learn to put everything aside and put a smile on and pretend that everything’s OK,” she says. Even at work, she finds ways to raise awareness – a free Palestine badge on her shirt, a Palestine map depicted on her hijab. 

“I tell people I am from Palestine as much as I can,” she says. “Because I’m here for a reason: to be a Palestinian that they can actually see and talk to. I’m real. This is real.”

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