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SLU student hangs onto words from mother in Gaza: 'I don't know if we are going to stay alive'

A woman sits on a ledge wearing a gray coat and white scarg
Andrea Y. Henderson
St. Louis Public Radio
Intimaa AbuHelou, a St. Louis University graduate student is terrified that her family in Gaza will not survive the Israel-Hamas war. She said Gazans are familiar with death and destruction because of their decadeslong struggle for an independent Palestinian state, but this war is more devastating than other recent conflicts.

Intimaa AbuHelou is familiar with death and destruction. She saw her first dead body in the seventh grade, while living in the Gaza Strip.

“We were taking final tests. We were excited that it was going to be the final exam and then we're going to summer vacation, and the bombing started,” said AbuHelou, 27. “We had to evacuate school and we were running in the streets, and there were a lot of dead bodies in the streets.”

Now a graduate student at St. Louis University, AbuHelou said the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas is more terrifying than any of the previous wars she lived through in Gaza.

Hamas attacked Israeli settlements and bombed Tel Aviv with a barrage of rockets on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,400 people. Hamas also took more than 200 hostages. In response, Israel launched weeks of heavy airstrikes on Gaza and ground attacks in recent days. The Israeli Defense Forces’ counterattack has killed more than 8,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Every image or video shared on television or on social media of Palestinian children being rushed to hospitals, the destruction of villages and places of worship by shelling or people screaming for help has triggered horrific flashbacks, said AbuHelou.

“I know what my parents are going through,” she said. “I know the smell. I know the sounds. I know the smoke. I can imagine the amount of death and destruction, but this war is just so inhumane.”

AbuHelou moved last year from Nuseirat, a Palestinian refugee camp in central Gaza to St. Louis to pursue a master’s degree at SLU in global health. Nineteen of her relatives are still living in the refugee camp. She has heard from her family members only a couple of times since the Oct. 7 attacks. When she last heard from them, they were sheltering at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school in Nuseirat.

“It's the first time in my life that I sense that they're scared,” AbuHelou said. “My mom’s words to me were difficult. She told me: ‘I don’t know if we are going to stay alive, but whatever happens just stay strong. Take care of yourself. Take care of your health. Take care of your studies, and also keep in contact with your sister.’”

Intimaa AbuHelou, right, listens to speakers while rallying for the end of a war between Hamas and Israel along with other Palestinian supporters on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, at Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Intimaa AbuHelou, right, listens to speakers while rallying for an end to the war between Hamas and Israel along with other Palestinian supporters on Oct. 15 at Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis.

Never the same

AbuHelou describes life in the Gaza Strip as living in an open-air jail. She said she does not remember much of her childhood because it was filled with terror. She trembles when she hears roaring sounds of airplanes overhead, because it triggers memories of the loud hum of Israeli surveillance planes.

She does have some good memories in Gaza — playing on the beach with her friends and spending time with her family — but said her life there will never be the same. She said her home in Nuseirat was burned on Oct. 22 after an airstrike caused a gas explosion.

There are reports of Israeli strikes in the Nuseirat camp and other locations in central and southern Gaza. Those came after the Israeli Defense Forces dropped leaflets in Gaza City and northern Gaza telling people to evacuate and head south to escape the bombings.

Nuseirat is home to about 85,000 refugees and is about a quarter of a square mile in area, slightly smaller than the Lafayette Square neighborhood in St. Louis. It is one of four refugee camps in the central Gazan city Deir el-Balah.

Ishraq Saleh, 17, of west St. Louis County, raises peace signs in the air on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, during a pro-Palestine rally at in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Ishraq Saleh, 17, of west St. Louis County, calls for an end to the Hamas-Israel war along with thousands of demonstrators on Oct. 15 during a rally in downtown St. Louis.

Seeking support

Since AbuHelou cannot be with her family at the moment, she is advocating for all Gazans by protesting the war at rallies and demonstrations throughout the St. Louis region with thousands of others. She says she appreciates the humanitarian aid that has arrived in Gaza in recent days, but she wants the fighting to stop.

“It's time now for people to act as a human, not to act as countries, not to act as politicians, not to act as religious groups,” AbuHelou said. “It's a matter of humanity now.”

AbuHelou and others in the St. Louis area are demanding that Congress and President Joe Biden's administration call for a ceasefire. Israel has so far dismissed calls for a break in fighting, saying that would allow Hamas to regroup and further attack Israel.

Over the past three weeks, AbuHelou has lost her appetite and energy, as she constantly worries about the well-being of her family in Gaza. She terribly misses her 5-year-old nephew, who she said is too young to have to experience death and war. She said she feels guilty for having a safe, comfortable place to lay her head at night while her parents and family are starving.

“I am physically here, but my heart and my mind is with my family and my people,” she said. “I wish to be there with them.”

To hear more from Intimaa Abuhelou, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Intimaa Abuhelou speaks with STLPR's Andrea Henderson

Editor’s note: No one story can capture all perspectives, experiences or emotions in this conflict. If you have a personal connection to what's happening in Israel, the Gaza Strip or the West Bank — and you want to share your experience — send an email to: talk@stlpr.org.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.