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Holy Land disaster hits home for Mago

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Mago Shaheen’s family are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees after their street was reduced to rubble. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Mago Shaheen’s family are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees after their street was reduced to rubble. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Mago Shaheen has been crying for days. Though safe in her home in south-west Sydney, the 59-year-old mother of three thinks constantly of her family and friends who are suddenly homeless and fearful, their lives ripped apart by the violence of war.

Her husband Zuhair’s cousin and family are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees within Gaza, moving first into a relative’s home after their street was reduced to rubble on 11 October, then to a church to find shelter.

“Opposite their house also my sister-in-law’s family lost their house, and my friend lost her family house and her brother’s business,” Mago explains.

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“I’ve been crying since it happened.

“I fear for my husband’s health, he has had some heart problems and has been very worried.”

A parishioner of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Varroville, Mago was born in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank around 16km north of Jerusalem. Her husband Zuhair hails from Gaza.

Their family and friends in Gaza are Christians who used to call Al Rimal, a residential suburb in Gaza City, their home.

Now houses, apartments, gardens, streets and businesses are all gone.

The house and apartments where the Shaheen’s relatives lived were reduced to rubble and ash by Israeli airstrikes, in retaliation to the terrorist attacks by Hamas on 7 October that saw hundreds of hostages taken.

Schools and churches, including St Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church where Mago was married, became crowded shelters for families with nowhere else to go.

As water and electricity were cut off by Israel, those in the city and other places in northern Gaza had to choose whether to stay or flee to the southern border with Egypt in the hope of escape before a predicted ground invasion by Israel.

Palestinians inspect damages in the aftermath of Israeli strikes, following a Hamas surprise attack at Beach refugee camp, in Gaza City, 9 October. Photo: OSV News photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters
Palestinians inspect damages in the aftermath of Israeli strikes, following a Hamas surprise attack at Beach refugee camp, in Gaza City, 9 October. Photo: OSV News photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters

St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney offered all of its Masses for the intention of peace in the Holy Land in union with the churches in Jerusalem and the whole world on 17 October, as The Catholic Weekly went to print, and Mago is hoping to attend a special Mass in Rydalmere with other Christians from Palestine.

In a statement from Rome, where he is participating in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP encouraged Catholics to make time to pray for an end to hostilities either at the cathedral or in their local parish.

“Along with many throughout the world, we are horrified at the unfolding and escalating war in the Middle East,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“The images of barbaric and unrelenting violence, largely upon innocent civilians, is unspeakable.

“Tragically, the already immense humanitarian crisis occasioned by this conflict is likely to grow further.

“As followers of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace who became incarnate in the very lands of this conflict, we pray for an end to this war and the devastating human misery that it brings.”

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa offered himself as a substitute for the children being held hostage in Gaza by Hamas.

Asked by journalists on 16 October if he would be willing to offer himself in exchange for the children, he said he was willing to do anything to “bring those children home.”

“Am I ready for an exchange? Anything, if that can lead to freedom and bring those children home, no problem. There is an absolute availability on my part,” the cardinal said.

As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to unleash a large-scale ground offensive in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis had already reached the level of a catastrophe.

More than 1.1 million Gazans, roughly half the population, were asked to move to the southern part of the occupied territory that is already one of the most densely populated places on earth described as an “open air prison” by Human Rights Watch.

A pilgrim prays on the steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo: OSV News photo/Debbie Hill
A pilgrim prays on the steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo: OSV News photo/Debbie Hill

“We do not support Hamas and we agree that the killing of Israeli citizens is not on, but we need to talk about the 76 years of occupation,” said president of advocacy organisation Palestinian Christians in Australia Suzan Wahhab.

“This event has not sprung out of nowhere.”

Caritas Australia has launched a Gaza Appeal to support 17,000 displaced families by supporting partner agencies on the ground to provide emergency cash, shelter, and psychosocial support.

Caritas’ humanitarian emergencies lead Sally Thomas agreed that eight in 10 Palestinians were already relying on international aid before this latest war and said the most urgent need now was for drinking water for everyone in Gaza.

Communication was limited but staff on the ground were safe and had suspended their usual programs to providing emergency relief in the form of shelter, food, water, hygiene and assistance with medical care and psychological first aid.

But the health system was collapsing and hospitals in the north were no longer considered safe, after reports of bombing at the historically-neutral sites.

“Unfortunately due to dwindling resources, the first aid they are able to provide is very basic and conditions are getting harder for them to provide meaningful medical support to those in need,” Ms Thomas said.

Caritas with Australia’s other NGOs are calling for the opening of a humanitarian corridor to allow essential resources into Gaza and the safe passage of vulnerable people out.

Asked how Mago, a breast cancer survivor, is still managing to carry on with her daily activities despite constantly watching for updates from her loved ones in Palestine she simply says, “I trust in God.”

To support Caritas Australia’s Gaza Appeal, visit www.caritas.org.au/donate/emergency-appeals/gaza-crisis/ or call 1800 024 413 toll free.

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