Mis­sion of hope con­tin­ues


Af­ter Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three daugh­ters and his niece in a shelling in Gaza, Star read­ers were deeply moved by the tragedy and his re­sponse. The doc­tor, who now lives in Toronto, re­mains an in­spi­ra­tion with his re­fusal to hate This week, as we count down to the Star’s 125th an­niver­sary, we re­visit sto­ries that have in­spired read­ers and changed lives.

Izzeldin Abuelaish and his daugh­ters are sit­ting in their liv­ing room in a quiet pocket of For­est Hill. They are eight years re­moved from the hor­ror of their for­mer life. But it’s never far away.

On Jan. 16, 2009, Is­raeli mil­i­tary tank shells killed three of Abuelaish’s daugh­ters and his niece and de­stroyed their home in Gaza.

Ear­lier this year, Abuelaish, 62, a doc­tor known as a cham­pion of peace, re­lived the tragedy in an Is­raeli court. It was part of the wrong­fuldeath suit he launched against the state of Is­rael six years ago, and he and two of his daugh­ters fi­nally tes­ti­fied in March.

“It was very painful. It was very hard for Shatha, for Raf­fah to tes­tify,” says Abuelaish of his daugh­ters, now 25 and 18.

“It evokes and adds salt to the open wound,” he says, of try­ing to prove his late daugh­ters were vic­tims. A third daugh­ter, Dalal, 27, didn’t tes­tify be­cause she hadn’t been home that day.

Their story made in­ter­na­tional head­lines af­ter Abuelaish made an an­guished call for help to an Is­raeli tele­vi­sion sta­tion im­me­di­ately af­ter the ex­plo­sions.

In 2009, he came here to ac­cept a teach­ing fel­low­ship at the Univer­sity of Toronto, an of­fer made by two pro­fes­sors on be­half of an anony­mous phi­lan­thropist who wanted his fam­ily to es­cape the war in Gaza.

Star re­porter Oak­land Ross was the first Cana­dian jour­nal­ist to do a ful­l­length in­ter­view with Abuelaish. That was a few days af­ter the tragedy, at the Sheba Med­i­cal Cen­ter cam­pus in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, where Shatha was be­ing treated af­ter the ex­plo­sion.

Ross, who cov­ered wars and tragedies as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, says the time he spent with Abuelaish “were the two most heart-rend­ing hours I have ever spent as a jour­nal­ist.” The story he wrote then, and ar­ti­cles he wrote about the fam­ily later, al­ways gen­er­ated a re­sponse from read­ers, who were moved.

On this day, the fam­ily comes in and out of the liv­ing room dur­ing the in­ter­view, Abuelaish to get his first cof­fee of the day — Turk­ish spiced with car­damom and served with dates from his home­land.

Raf­fah, a Grade12 stu­dent at Bishop Stra­chan School, takes a seat on the couch. Ab­dal­lah, 15, a stu­dent at North­ern Se­condary, es­capes as soon as the photo is taken. An older brother, Mo­hammed, 20, is at the li­brary study­ing.

The fam­ily moved to Canada in 2009 shortly af­ter the shelling, when Abuelaish took the job at U of T.

The shelling was near the end of an Is­raeli mil­i­tary in­va­sion of Gaza in re­tal­i­a­tion for Ha­mas’s fir­ing of Qas­sam rock­ets into Is­raeli bor­der towns.

The fam­ily launched the suit af­ter Is­rael re­fused to apol­o­gize and pro­vide com­pen­sa­tion. The gov­ern­ment has said it wasn’t re­spon­si­ble for the deaths be­cause they oc­curred dur­ing an “op­er­a­tion of war.”

Shatha says that in the days be­fore she tes­ti­fied, she was shocked to hear news sto­ries in Is­rael that said the mil­i­tary be­lieved Ha­mas was fir­ing from her house. The mil­i­tary has also claimed it thought the Abue­laishes were Ha­mas look­outs, and has said that some of the sub­stances in shrap­nel re­moved from Shatha and a cousin who was wounded do not match ma­te­rial in use by the Is­raeli mil­i­tary, ac­cord­ing to a story by the Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz.

“You just have to stay strong and an­swer,” says Shatha of re­liv­ing the tragedy in court.

Her un­cles, who lived with their fam­i­lies on sep­a­rate floors of the same five-storey house, weren’t given per­mis­sion to leave Gaza to tes­tify.

Aya, 13, Ma­yar, 15, and Bes­son, 21, died in the strike, as did Nour, their 14-year-old cousin. Another cousin, Ghaida, 14, was in­jured af­ter run­ning up­stairs with her fa­ther when the first shell struck. Shatha lost sight in one eye.

The mil­i­tary strike took place a month af­ter a fam­ily out­ing to a beach in Gaza — where the three sis­ters who died wrote their names in the sand, and where they all talked about re­lo­cat­ing to Toronto. Abuelaish had al­ready been in­vited to come to U of T.

Shatha says the first three years in Toronto were such a blur that the fam­ily barely re­mem­bers liv­ing in their first house, a rental on a street not far from where they are now.

Their mother had died of leukemia just months be­fore the bomb­ing. Raf­fah and Ab­dal­lah were small.

“We had to ad­just to new things, to Cana­dian life,” says Shatha. “It took a while but then we learned.”

They bought the house where they live now in 2012. Their neigh­bours threw them a wel­com­ing party.

Shatha and Dalal en­rolled at U of T right away, and Shatha says that be­ing with other stu­dents helped them ad­just more quickly.

Both daugh­ters grad­u­ated from en­gi­neer­ing in 2015, be­lieved to be the first time two sis­ters have grad­u­ated from the pro­gram in the same year. Shatha is a com­puter en­gi­neer and works at a soft­ware com­pany. Dalal is a qual­ity as­sur­ance en­gi­neer for a busi­ness in North York. All of the kids still live at home.

The fam­ily has ad­justed to life here but they live with a def­i­nite pur­pose — to hon­our their fam­ily mem­bers and to in­spire and give hope.

“I re­mem­ber I told them, ‘We come to erase fail­ure. We have to suc­ceed,’ ” says Abuelaish, a pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity’s Dalla Lana School of Pub­lic Health.

Shatha, Dalal and their fa­ther co­founded Daugh­ters for Life, a char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion that pro­vides schol­ar­ships for women liv­ing in the Mid­dle East to go to univer­sity abroad.

“We want them to be lead­ers in their com­mu­ni­ties, to be agents for change,” says Abuelaish. “As I say many times, this world will never ever en­dure and be peace­ful, hu­man, se­cure, safe, healthy and free with­out women’s role and women’s ed­u­ca­tion.

“It’s im­por­tant for them to be sit­ting at the ta­ble, to be de­ci­sion mak­ers.”

The foun­da­tion raises the ma­jor­ity of its money through an an­nual gala, which this year will fea­ture Mar­garet At­wood and Olympic gold medal­list Penny Olek­siak on Nov. 17. Miriam Khalil, a so­prano who trained with the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany, will per­form. The char­ity has given out 50 schol­ar­ships and another 400 bur­saries to cover post-se­condary tu­ition for women study­ing at home.

Any com­pen­sa­tion from the law­suit would go to build five Daugh­ters for Life schools for girls in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, Jor­dan, Is­rael, Syria and Le­banon, and a First Na­tions school here, he says.

Abuelaish is a five-time No­bel Prize nom­i­nee who has given speeches around the world. The day af­ter the in­ter­view, he left for Ja­pan and then Spain. Most of the speak­ing fees go to the foun­da­tion.

He of­ten re­ceives honorary de­grees, which he is thank­ful for, but he says, “For me it’s pa­per. It doesn’t make change.

“I want to make . . . a tan­gi­ble im­pact for young women,” says Abuelaish. “That’s the doc­tor­ate.”

His book, I Shall Not Hate, was pub­lished in 2010. In an in­ter­view that year with the Star’s Ross, Abuelaish, an in­fer­til­ity ex­pert who worked in Pales­tinian and Is­raeli hos­pi­tals, asked, “Whom to hate? My Is­raeli friends? My Is­raeli col­leagues? The Is­raeli ba­bies I have de­liv­ered?”

He launched the law­suit from the same per­spec­tive.

“We are not tak­ing them to the court to pun­ish,” says Abuelaish. “We want to learn the lessons.”

He also did it to be ac­count­able to the “in­no­cent peo­ple who were killed . . . just to re­mind all that we didn’t for­get them.”

The fam­ily still goes back to Gaza and says con­di­tions there con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate. Res­i­dents have less than a quar­ter of the elec­tric­ity they need and clean water sources are ex­pected to be “ir­re­versibly de­pleted” by 2020, ac­cord­ing to a United Na­tions re­port.

Abuelaish says he will con­tinue to have faith in the Is­raeli jus­tice sys­tem un­til the “last word of the judge,” when­ever that comes.

“I hope wis­dom will pre­vail, their wis­dom to be wise enough to ac­knowl­edge and to move for­ward, as we moved for­ward,” he says.

“You see my chil­dren. I am proud of them,” says Abuelaish. “They were able to move for­ward and not to let that tragedy stop them from achiev­ing their goals and con­tin­u­ing to do good things.”

Read more on the Star’s 125th an­niver­sary in Satur­day’s spe­cial In­sight sec­tion and at thes­tar.com/an­niver­sary.

“I told them, ‘We come to erase fail­ure. We have to suc­ceed.’ ” DR. IZZELDIN ABUELAISH RE­CALL­ING WHAT HE TOLD HIS CHIL­DREN WHEN THEY MOVED TO CANADA


Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish with, from left, his daugh­ters Raf­fah and Dalal, son Ab­dal­lah and daugh­ter Shatha. An older son is not in the pho­to­graph.


Abuelaish’s daugh­ters Ma­yar, left, Aya and Bes­son visit a beach in Gaza about a month be­fore they were killed by an Is­raeli tank shell in 2009.

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