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.