Refugees and the Israel-Gaza war

by Dana Sachs, 7.11.23

A few days after the Israel-Gaza War began, an editor at a literary journal asked if I knew anyone from the Middle East who might contribute a personal essay about the crisis. I contacted two friends, a Palestinian and a Syrian, thinking they might like to share their perspective. Both declined. The Palestinian, an academic living in Greece, explained that she was trying to control her emotions by maintaining a professional distance. “It is very hard for me to write something personal,” she said. The Syrian, a refugee, told me, “I think it won’t be good for my mental health.”  For each of them, I imagine, the war pokes at painful wounds. They understand that this is not just a catastrophic armed conflict; it is a refugee crisis in the making, one that will mark not only the lives of those fleeing war zones today but also the lives of their children and grandchildren.

When I was conducting interviews for my book, All Else Failed, refugees described for me the wrenching act of leaving home. How, for example, do you decide what to bring? Some items seem obvious: educational records, marriage certificates, passports, and medication. But what else do you stuff into one small bag? Family photographs? Perhaps a saucepan so that, when you get wherever you’re going, you can cook your family a meal? Should you bring your heavy wedding album? A child’s favorite doll? Years down the line, would they regret leaving something behind? Would the act of keeping, or abandoning, spur its own grief?

Often, people fleeing must make these decisions within a few minutes. And they make them again and again, each time they move from short-term housing to short-term housing, culling the things they can no longer carry. One family I know moved seven times before they finally resettled. And they were relatively fortunate.  My friend from Syria, the one trying to protect his mental health, is still on the move eight years after he left Damascus.

The United Nations estimates that, since October 7, a quarter million Israelis and 1.4 million Gazans have fled their homes. Some will eventually return to their towns and villages. Many, many more will remain among the ranks of the displaced.

Witnessing this tragedy from countries at peace, we might feel powerless. It seems impossible that this war will end without visionary leaders to guide the warring parties in the direction of peace. But, we are not powerless. More than anything, refugees need homes, and we have the power to advocate for better resettlement policies. Refugees need not spend the rest of their lives on the move. Our nations and our neighborhoods must welcome them.

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