“We were in Israel when the war broke out. Our journey home to Canada was terrifying”

“We were in Israel when the war broke out. Our journey home to Canada was terrifying”

Kinney Butterfield-Morrison and Yaron Butterfield were in Israel visiting family when Hamas attacked. Here, the siblings recount the harrowing early days of the war—and how they made it safely back to Pearson

Kinney Butterfield-Morrison and Yaron Butterfield with their father, David, in Israel before the war broke out

In early October, Canadian siblings Kinney Butterfield-Morrison and Yaron Butterfield travelled to Israel—where their late mother lived for two decades—to mark the one-year anniversary of her death and visit their extended family. Then the unthinkable happened: Hamas made a surprise attack on Israel, launching rockets across the country and brutally murdering and kidnapping civilians. As war broke out, the siblings raced to find a way home. Here, they describe the horrors of those early days and recount their journey back to Toronto.

Kinney: My dad, David—who at the time wasn’t Jewish—travelled the world in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He worked in the cotton fields on a Kibbutz in Israel in 1970, and that’s where he met my mother, Yaffa, an Israeli. My mother was born in Baghdad, a Kurdish Iraqi Jew, but with the discrimination against Jews there, her family was forced to leave everything behind in Iraq. In 1951, when she was six years old, she moved to Israel with her parents and three siblings. The rest of her siblings were born in Israel. After she met my dad, they moved to Canada in 1973, got married, and had twin boys—Yaron and Noam—and a daughter, me. Over the years, we regularly visited Israel to see our extended family. When I was 10, I lived and went to school in Mevaseret Zion for six months. Yaron spent a year living in the country too. Israel has always been a special place for us. 

Yaron: It’s like our second home. We have a very large family there, since my mom was the oldest of 10 children. Unfortunately, she passed away a year ago. So this year, Kinney, Noam, our dad and I decided to travel to Israel to honour the one-year anniversary of her death—in Judaism it’s called a Yahrzeit. First, my brother and I spent a week in Amsterdam. We visited the Anne Frank house and reflected on the atrocities of the Holocaust. When we got to Israel, we visited our family and friends. For about a week, it was just me, my brother and my dad. We went to a cousin’s moshav—a type of Israeli cooperative community—for a huge party. There was lots of food and vodka. It’s too bad you weren’t there, Kinney.

Kinney: I arrived on October 3. The next day, one of my aunts hosted a get-together at her house in Mevaseret Zion to remember my mom. So many people came. We cried, we laughed and we were all so happy to be together. The rest of the week was busy. We visited family in and around Jerusalem, went to Jerusalem’s old city and market to buy gifts, ate great food in Beit Zayit, and went to Abu Ghosh, a Muslim Arab community, to eat the best baklava and coffee. We also went to the Kotel—also known as the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, the most religious site in the world for Jewish people—to pray for my mom and put prayers in the wall. On Friday, October 6, I was thinking how amazing the trip had been so far. We had seen so many things, done so much. My dad and I settled in at my aunt’s home in Rehovot—a city just south of Tel Aviv—for the night, ready to take a trip up north in the morning. Then, Saturday morning, everything changed. 

At 6:30 a.m. I woke up to the sound of sirens and booms. I was sleepy and confused, thinking, What’s happening? Are we being bombed? In the past, I had been in Israel during conflicts and ceasefires, but I’d never experienced anything like this. My aunt brought me and my dad to the stairwell, the safest place in her building because there are no windows. Many families had gathered there, and the staircase was full of children. I kept thanking God that my kids, who are two and seven years old, were at home in Toronto. How would I have explained to them what was happening? I felt a bit scared, but because of the Iron Dome—an Israeli mobile air defence system that detects and intercepts short-range rockets—I mostly believed we would be okay. Still, with the shattering of every boom, some part of me thought, Holy shit, we’re going to get hit

When we took a break from the stairwell and turned on the TV, the newscast showed all the incoming rockets, all over the country. We later learned that five rockets had hit Rehovot. The report said that there were terrorists in our country. People were calling into news stations saying that there were terrorists in their houses and that they were trapped. We didn’t hear from the Israeli government for many hours. It was surreal. These people were being brutally murdered and kidnapped, and no one was saving them. It was a time of sheer terror. I was so consumed with the horror of what was happening on the Kibbutzim and surrounding border communities. The sirens and explosions continued constantly for half the day until they became more sporadic that evening. Night was quiet, I think, but my memory is foggy. I tried to get some sleep, but I was, at times, crying uncontrollably. 

Yaron: My brother and I were separated from Kinney and my dad. We were at my aunt and uncle’s house in Jerusalem. We didn’t have the same experience, where we were constantly hearing bombs. My aunt and uncle didn’t seem too worried, but my uncle did check the bomb shelter in their building a few times. For days, we were glued to the TV, watching all the missiles exploding. The only time I’d experienced something like this was in 2014, when I was in Israel with my daughter Hana, who was six years old. There were bombs coming in from Gaza, and we had to go into a bomb shelter. But this time was different—there was a massacre happening, and it felt like there was a real lack of immediate response from the military and the prime minister. The news kept showing this image of a white truck and terrorists riding their mopeds through a hole in the fence into Israel. I had never felt like security was an issue in Israel before. The borders were managed by the Israel Defense Forces, but this was a huge failure. 

Kinney: The massive intelligence and security failure shocked everyone. How did it happen? Israelis and Jews are shaken. We talk as a community about rising antisemitism. After the Holocaust, we said, Never again. Jews know that there are people who want to kill us. When we question whether there’s anywhere that we’re truly safe, the answer has always been: we have Israel now. But Hamas came into Israel and murdered our people. And it wasn’t only Jews. There are non-Jewish heroes as well, Bedouins and Arab Israelis who fought back and were killed trying to save others. I wanted to learn all of the stories coming out from the attack, but I also had to protect myself from how brutal they were.

For days, we stayed at the house, and eventually I started feeling stuck. Since mornings seemed to be pretty quiet, we started venturing out for short walks. Some stores were still open, some were closed, and there was collective grieving in the streets. We would go to buy parsley, but what could we say to the person at the cash? It was such a horrific situation, and it’s one that we will never recover from. The minute it happened, we knew a war was going to start. That’s when my immediate family started searching for flights to get out. By that point, it was clear that the only airline that would reliably be flying was El Al, the major Israeli airline. 

Yaron: When my brother and I started feeling unsafe in Jerusalem, another cousin offered for us to come stay at his house in a city southeast of nearby Netanya. We drove there, and it felt a bit better. It was quieter—we didn’t hear the bombs or sirens. We kept giving the Canadian government our passport information. On Wednesday, October 11, we got a message saying that we’d hear back within 24 hours. I had a phone call with my daughter, and within minutes I heard sirens for the first time in that area. We rushed to the bunker. That day was my cousin’s daughter’s birthday, and we sang happy birthday to her in the bomb shelter. It was unbelievable.

Then I got a message from a reporter I had been in touch with from Radio-Canada. They sent a picture of a Royal Canadian Air Force plane, explaining that it was coming to the airport in Tel Aviv. My brother and I decided to go to the airport to see if we could get a flight anywhere. I’ll never forget the hour-and-a-half drive there. We wondered if a bomb would land on our car. When we arrived and saw big Canadian flags inside, my stress levels went down almost immediately. A volunteer from the Canadian embassy told us that there were two spots on an upcoming flight. I said, “How about two more spots for our sister and dad?” He said that, if they could get there in 20 minutes, they could board too.

Kinney: Beyond processing everything happening in Israel, I had started worrying about my kids back home. Jewish communities all over the world were growing more concerned about the possibility of antisemitic attacks. When Hamas called for a “day of rage” on Friday, October 14, I reached out to the Jewish day school and daycare that my kids attend to ask about their plans for heightened security measures. By that Thursday, something in me had changed: I thought, I have got to get home now. My brothers felt the same way. Noam and Yaron texted me and my dad to say that they were heading to the airport. Some hours later, they told us that, if we could get there within 20 minutes, we could get on the flight. 

Miraculously, we made it. We flew home through Athens, sleeping at the airport overnight. The journey home was draining. Leaving Israel, with so much of our family still there, was also tough. When I arrived in Toronto, I was exhausted. My two little kids came with my husband to pick me up from the airport. When we finally saw one another, we broke down. It felt good to be home, and I was grateful for the outpouring of support from Canadians over what was happening in Israel. But I also knew that a war was underway and that there would be much suffering for Palestinians as well.

Yaron: I live in Vancouver, so Toronto wasn’t my final stop. When I returned west, my 15-year-old daughter gave me a big hug. That’s when I finally felt safe. 

Kinney: I slept for a long time when I got home. Now I’m spending every spare moment reading the news, scrolling social media and checking in on my extended family. We have many family members serving in the military, on active duty and as reservists, including cousins’ kids who are stationed along the Gaza and Lebanese borders. This attack was the worst day Jews experienced since the Holocaust. October 7 will be burned into our brains forever, and the suffering is endless. War is brutal, and innocent people are dying. This cannot happen again. I’m scared for my family in Israel, for those serving in the military, for the trauma inflicted on a people still dealing with intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust and endless wars. In Canada, we’ve already seen a rise in antisemitism over the years. It’s horrifying. I think about my mom, and sometimes I imagine her crying as all this is unfolding. I wish I could give her a hug. I think about my kids as Canadian Jews and the world they’re growing up in. I’m totally consumed by all of it, and I continue to feel shaken.