Yara Abualjedian was nine months pregnant when Israel intensified its bombing of Gaza. Her husband, Ahmad, was in Canada, 9,000 kilometres away, with no way to reach her. Then she went into labour. A story about love and perseverance in a time of war

Saving Sila

Yara Abualjedian was nine months pregnant when Israel intensified its bombing of Gaza. Her husband, Ahmad, was in Canada, 9,000 kilometres away, with no way to reach her. Then she went into labour. A story about love and perseverance in a time of war

.لقراءة القصة بالعربية، انقر هنا

Yara Abualjedian and her husband, Ahmad, are from the Jabalia neighbourhood of Gaza. Shortly after they were married in early 2023, the couple found out they were going to have a baby. Ahmad, who is a permanent resident of Canada, had been living in Brantford for five years. He returned there in September, before the baby was born, to prepare for his family’s arrival. On October 7, Hamas attacked Israel and war erupted. Then Yara went into labour. Below, they explain what happened next.

Ahmad: I was born in 1998 in Jabalia, the youngest of five brothers and seven sisters. I have a visual impairment—I’m blind in my right eye, and I have limited vision in my left eye—so I’m reliant on a cane to get around. When I was four years old, the Red Cross arranged for me to attend a school for the blind in Bethlehem. I was sent alone, without my family.

Yara: Our extended families are very close, so Ahmad and I have known about each other all our lives. But I was born in 2002, after he left for school, so we didn’t spend any time together growing up.

Ahmad: I went to the West Bank for high school and university, where I studied psychology. I sold napkins on the street to pay for school. I’ve witnessed so much conflict and violence in my life, especially in 2014, when I was back home in Gaza and the neighbourhood where I was staying, Shuja’iyya, was bombed by the Israel Defense Forces. I saw dead bodies everywhere and was tripping over body parts—legs, heads—trying to escape the bombing. A few of my childhood friends died during that conflict.

Yara: You never feel safe in Gaza. Living with bombing and explosions is just a regular part of life there. You don’t even question it.

Ahmad: By 2017, when I was in the middle of university, I knew I had to get out of Gaza. I applied for student visas to study in Sweden, Turkey and Belgium, but they all rejected me. Finally, I was able to get a student visa to study in Canada. I arrived in January 2018. I only had enough money for two nights at a hotel, which an Arabic-speaking airport staff member helped me find. Then, the hotel staff directed me to a shelter in Etobicoke. There, a social worker helped me apply for refugee status in Canada since my life was at risk in Gaza. The social worker relocated me to Brantford to learn English at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind. The shelter set me up in a studio apartment in an old century home in Brantford.

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Yara: I grew up in Gaza and stayed there for high school and college, where I studied to be a secretary. My brother is blind, and I learned how to care for him and be his eyes. It was a rewarding experience. I think that’s what later drew me to Ahmad—I wanted to be with him and care for him. I feel a special connection with people who have a visual impairment. They understand me in a way that other people don’t, and I understand them too.

Ahmad: Gradually, I made some friends in Brantford. Baha and I met in the summer of 2018 at the Brantford Mosque during Eid celebrations.

Baha El-Hajar: I’m Palestinian as well—my dad is from Hebron—but I was born in Jordan and moved to Brantford when I was 10. Ahmad and I would go for coffee together and talk about current events, or we’d meet up at the YMCA to play goalball, which is a sport for the visually impaired. It’s like handball, but the ball has a bell inside.

Ahmad: By 2021, I became a permanent resident in Canada. Then, in 2022, my sister came up with the idea of Yara and I getting married. She knew I was feeling lonely in Canada and that I was eager to start a family. I had been married before, in 2020, to a woman from Morocco, but it didn’t work out because my wife found it difficult being with someone who had a visual impairment. I was still hurt over it, and I worried it would happen again. But Yara said she was excited to be with me, and I believed her.

Yara: I knew that being with Ahmad meant that I’d leave Gaza—the only home I’d ever known. I was sad about being separated from my family. But I felt like Ahmad and I could build a new, happy life together, regardless of where we were living. We both wanted to have kids soon too. I was also looking forward to living somewhere safe.

Ahmad: Yara and I started talking over the phone in 2022. We would talk every day, sometimes for a few minutes and sometimes for hours. We learned more about each other and what the other was looking for in a partner. I also learned that Yara loves accessories, like bags and jewellery, and watching movies.

Yara: I could tell that Ahmad was a good man. I felt like he understood me, and I liked that he was educated. In January of 2023, our families held an Islamic ceremony in Gaza for us to be married while Ahmad was still in Canada. It was just like a real wedding, with singing and dancing—only without the groom present.

Ahmad: Because I had applied for refugee status in Canada, I couldn’t go back to Gaza even if I wanted to. It was never important for me to have a wedding, so I didn’t mind that I wasn’t there for the ceremony. Then, later that January, Yara and I met in Cairo.

Yara: No one is allowed to leave Gaza without special permission. You have to pay at least $400 to bribe the border guards in Egypt to get out—so that’s what I did. I was looking forward to meeting Ahmad in person, so I wasn’t too nervous. I cried hard when I saw him for the first time. I felt so happy being with him.

Ahmad: At first, I thought she was crying because she was upset, but she told me they were happy tears, and meeting her made me equally happy. Yara and I had a great time in Egypt getting to know each other. We rented an apartment in Cairo. We ate at restaurants, took walks by the Mediterranean Sea and went shopping. I’d been in a bit of a depression since my marriage fell apart, but being with Yara lifted me out of it. We planned to apply for Yara’s spousal sponsorship in Canada, but we had to wait for my divorce to be finalized.

Yara: The first month we were together, I got pregnant. I was so excited. I did four pregnancy tests before the fifth one came back positive. When I saw the positive test, I started dancing around the room.

Ahmad: I’d dreamed of being a father for a long time. We decided that I’d return to Canada by myself in September 2023 because I needed to be in the country to file Yara’s paperwork.

Yara: I was due at the end of October. Our plan was that I would give birth in Gaza and then stay with my family for the baby’s first year.

Ahmad: It would be hard to be away from Yara during the birth. But I knew it would be worth it once we set up our lives in Canada. In 2024, after the paperwork had gone through, they’d join me.

Yara: When we found out that we were going to have a girl, we chose the name Sila for her. It’s a Turkish name that symbolizes the gathering and togetherness of family. I watch a lot of Turkish movies, which is why I picked that name.

Ahmad: When I left Egypt in September, neither of us had any idea what was coming. On October 7, at 11:30 p.m., my brother, Bakr, called me and woke me up. Hamas had attacked Israel, and Israel was preparing for a counterattack. I was so scared for my family—my 11 siblings and many cousins, aunts and uncles are still in Gaza—but I was especially scared for Yara. We were just a few weeks away from her due date, and no one was permitted to leave the country.

Yara: I was terrified when the war broke out. I was in Jabalia, living in a building with approximately 40 of my relatives and some of Ahmad’s too—our parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. I called Ahmad, crying, pleading with him to get us out of Gaza. We couldn’t stay there. I was certain that we would die. I thought about the baby I was carrying and how I’d never get the chance to meet her or hold her if I died before I could give birth.

The neighbourhood of Jabalia, Palestine, before Israel bombed it to rubble
When the war broke out on October 7, Yara was living in Jabalia, in the same apartment building as 40 of her family members
The neighbourhood of Jabalia, Palestine, after Israel bombed it to rubble
After their neighbourhood was bombed on October 19, Yara’s family fled their home to live in a UN school with thousands of displaced people

Ahmad: The first thing I did when I found out about the war was to call Global Affairs Canada and put in a request to get Yara and Sila out of Gaza. I explained our situation—that Yara was pregnant with my daughter and her spousal application was underway.

Yara: After the war started, it was pure chaos in Gaza. The price of food increased dramatically. A bag of flour cost $135—and that’s if you could even find any to buy. Ahmad had to wire us money so we could survive.

Ahmad: I receive social assistance through the Ontario Disability Support Program. I also do Arabic translation, and I teach the Quran online. I don’t have much money to spare at the end of each month, but I was sending my family whatever I could. On October 15, a representative from Global Affairs Canada called me to say that they couldn’t help us because Yara wasn’t a permanent resident yet. I was shocked. I said, “So you’re just going to let her die?” The woman said she was sorry, but there was nothing she could do, and she hung up. I felt so defeated.

Baha: My wife, Sana, and I wanted to help Ahmad. We knew the power of social media, so we decided to film a video of him sharing his story.

Sana Qasem: We recorded it one afternoon when we were attending a protest in support of Palestine in front of city hall. Then we shared the video with everyone we knew—our friends and family plus local community groups in Brantford.

Yara: On October 19, our neighbourhood was bombed. The building next to us was destroyed.

Bakr Abualjedian (Ahmad’s brother): We knew that the only safe places were the UN schools, because the Israeli army wasn’t supposed to bomb them. Under international law, UN buildings are off-limits. So we went to the closest UN school to us in Jabalia. Normally, it has space for 3,000 people. But, when we arrived, it was totally packed. I’d guess that there were 20,000 people in the school, and there was no way we could stay there. We’d have to go to another UN school, 20 kilometres south, but by this point it was evening and we were tired, so we had to wait until the next day. We decided to go to my uncle’s place nearby, a five-minute walk from the school. He lives in a tiny 200-square-foot apartment. Forty of us squeezed into his place to stay overnight. The next morning, we drove to a UN school in Deir al Balah. That school was full of people too, but at least there was some space for the women to sleep inside. The men slept outside on mats in the sports yard.

Bakr Abualjedian, Ahmad's brother, did his best to protect Yara and Sila in Gaza.
Ahmad’s brother, Bakr Abualjedian, did his best to protect Yara and Sila in Gaza. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Abualjedian

Yara: The school had about 12 classrooms, and there were people everywhere, packed into the classrooms and the hallways. There must have been hundreds of people in each classroom. Seeing the situation at the UN school, I didn’t know how we could live there.

Bakr: The school didn’t have any sources of clean water. But we were desperate. We drank the water, and it made us all sick—we had stomach pains, diarrhea and fevers—Yara included. We were so worried about her and the health of her baby.

Yara: The morning after we arrived at the UN school in Deir al Balah, I started having contractions. We called an ambulance, but because there was bombing all around us, the ambulance wasn’t able to come for two hours. When it finally arrived, Bakr and my mother came with me. First, we went to the al-Aqsa hospital, but it was absolutely packed. There was no place to go. I saw so many other pregnant women waiting in the hospital to give birth. So the ambulance took us to a hospital in a nearby refugee camp, Nuseirat, which is roughly six kilometres from Deir al Balah. The doctors examined me for a few minutes and told me I wasn’t ready to give birth and that I should go back home until my contractions got stronger and more frequent.

Bakr: There was no ambulance available to take us back to the UN school in Deir al Balah, and evening had come again, so Yara, her mother and I slept outside the hospital doors. The next morning, we walked for two and a half hours until we found a donkey and cart to get us back to Deir al Balah.

Yara: The day after that, my contractions became stronger. The pain was unbearable. We called another ambulance to take me to the hospital. I can’t remember much about this time. I was so scared and in so much pain. I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die.

Bakr: It was a chaotic scene in the hospital again. We had to wait an hour for a doctor to see Yara. Finally, someone brought Yara into a nurse’s room, where she gave birth to Sila on a blanket on the ground. The doctor had to cut Yara to help get the baby out, and he had to do it without any anesthetic, electricity or sterilization. She had to get stitches, again without any anesthetic, which must have been a horrific experience. I can’t even imagine what she had to go through. But Sila arrived into the world, and she was healthy, and Yara survived.

Yara: I was happy that Sila was here, but at the same time I was scared because I didn’t know if I could protect her.

Ahmad: My brother called to tell me that Yara had given birth and Sila was born, but my joy was overshadowed by concern. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to meet Sila if we didn’t get her and Yara out of Gaza. I felt like they could die at any moment. My brother told me that the situation was really bad at the UN school. Everyone was worried about Sila getting sick because the conditions were so unsanitary. So we decided that Yara and Sila would go to my uncle’s house.

Ahmad was in Brantford when his daughter was born in Palestine
Ahmad was in Brantford, unable to reach his family, when his daughter was born
Yara gave birth in a crowded hospital without access to anesthetic, electricity or sterilization
Yara gave birth in a crowded hospital without access to anesthetic, electricity or sterilization

Yara: We knew that Ahmad’s uncle’s house wasn’t safe—it could be bombed at any time because it wasn’t in a protected zone. But, in that moment, because of Sila, being clean was more important to us. Ahmad’s uncle did so much to help us. He went out at 4 a.m. to line up at the bakery for eight hours to get us bread, then he lined up again for five hours to get us water.

Ahmad: Just after Yara reached my uncle’s house, on October 26, I lost touch with everyone in Gaza, including Yara. Because of the war, the phone lines were down much of the time. I wasn’t able to contact them for five days. It was a terrible time. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. All I could do was pray. I said to God, “Please protect Yara and Sila.”

Baha: That period was really tough for Ahmad. He wasn’t eating or sleeping. At one point, he was so desperate that he asked if I would print a big banner for him with his story on it so he could stage a hunger strike in front of city hall.

Ahmad: Before it came to that, my video must have caught the attention of a reporter from the CBC. Someone reached out to me, asking if they could interview me about my situation. If I shared my story, I thought, maybe someone would help us. I did a TV interview with the CBC on November 2. That same day, I finally got a hold of Yara and found out that everyone was still safe, which was a huge relief. The day after the story came out, Global Affairs Canada called me and said they would help get Yara and Sila to Canada. Finally, after weeks, I felt hope. But there were still challenges ahead. Yara and Sila needed to travel to the Gaza–Egypt border—the Rafah crossing, which is controlled by Egypt. There, Canadian consulate officials in Egypt would help them get to Canada. The Rafah crossing had been closed for weeks, and we didn’t know when it would reopen. All we could do until then was prepare for the journey.

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Baha: I helped Ahmad collect the paperwork that the Canadian consulate officials would need to get Yara into Egypt. Thankfully, we already had her passport and birth certificate from her spousal application through Ahmad. But we needed a document for the baby. I co­ordinated with one of Ahmad’s brothers, who was living in the West Bank at the time, to get proof of parenthood from a hospital in Ramallah. They must have called the hospital where Yara gave birth to verify it. Then they sent the document to the Canadian representative office in Ramallah, where it was translated and sent to the Canadian embassy in Egypt.

Bakr: Our cars were long out of gas by this point. So, while we were waiting for the border to reopen, I asked around among friends and family and finally managed to find five litres for $65. On Novem­ber 6, we got news that the crossing had reopened, so we decided to head there the following day. We left Deir al Balah at 9 a.m. It’s about 22 kilometres to the Rafah crossing, and it was extremely dangerous with bombs dropping all around us. I drove as fast as I could in order to get to the crossing quickly. There were tons of people there when we arrived—maybe hundreds.

Yara: It wasn’t until I made it to the border that I finally felt like I could breathe again. That was the first time I had hope that Sila and I would survive and could be reunited with Ahmad. The consulate officials put Sila and me on the list of approved people who could leave Gaza.

Bakr: I was overjoyed that Yara made it out of Gaza. It was an unbelievable accomplishment. I risked my life to get her to the border, and I risked my life again to drive back to Deir al Balah. But, finally, I knew she was safe. It was a moment of happiness during this terrible time of war. We’d love to get our entire family out of Gaza, but the best we could do was to get Yara and her daughter out. Our wives, sisters and children are still at risk. We may die anytime. But at least we know that these two people are safe.

Sana: When I found out that Yara and Sila were getting out of Gaza, Baha and I wanted to make sure Ahmad had everything the family needed for the new baby and for Yara to start a life here, since she was leaving with nothing. I posted in a neighbourhood Facebook group in Paris, Ontario, where Baha and I now live, asking if anyone had an extra car seat and crib. There was an outpouring of help. People were going out and buying clothes, diapers and formula for the baby. One woman who donated told me she was Jewish and wanted to do what she could to support people from Gaza. We also got Yara some winter clothing and undergarments. Donations were coming in from Milton, Brantford and Paris, and we had to start a spreadsheet to keep track of everything so we wouldn’t double up on items. After we had all the essentials, people started giving us grocery gift cards for the family. I went over to Ahmad’s place with some friends to clean his house and prepare it with all the items we’d gathered.

Ahmad’s friends Baha El-Hajar and Sana Qasem gathered donations to set up a nursery for Sila in Brantford
Ahmad’s friends Baha El-Hajar and Sana Qasem gathered donations to set up a nursery for Sila in Brantford

Yara: Once I made it into Egypt, the Canadian consulate officials brought me on a bus to Cairo. I arrived there early in the morning on November 8. There, a nurse did a check-up on me and Sila. Thankfully we were both fine and healthy. We stayed in a hotel for a day as we waited for our paperwork to go through. I was able to get a temporary resident visa for Canada, and even though Sila barely had any paperwork—not even a birth ­certificate—they created a special travel document for her to leave Egypt and enter Canada. Late on the evening of November 9, we caught a flight to Canada, and we arrived in Toronto on November 10.

Ahmad: Yara and Sila had permission to stay in Egypt for only 72 hours, so it was stressful waiting on the paperwork. I also had to come up with the funds to pay for Yara and Sila’s flight, which would cost $1,800. Thankfully, an anonymous donor who heard my story offered to pay for their flight. I didn’t feel alone anymore—there were so many good people helping us.

Baha: Yara and Sila’s flight was due to land in Toronto at 7 a.m. Sana and I planned to drive Ahmad to the airport an hour before her arrival. Ahmad called me at 4 a.m. to make sure I was awake. He told me he hadn’t been able to sleep at all. When we got to the airport, Yara was held up at customs. Eventually, at 8:30 a.m., she walked out. Ahmad ran over to her. He was so excited; he kept running until he bumped into her, and she held him in her arms. Ahmad was smelling the baby, kissing and touching her. It was a very emotional time for all of us. I caught two reporters crying. It was the first time in a month that we’d had any good news coming out of Gaza.

Ahmad: I was so happy and relieved to finally reunite with Yara. It was like a dream to meet Sila and to smell her. My heart felt so full. It was unbelievable to hold her for the first time. It felt like an out-of-body experience. In both languages I know, English and Arabic, I couldn’t find the words to describe how happy I felt in that moment.

Yara: I was shocked to see that there were two TV stations at the airport to greet me as well as Ahmad’s member of Parliament. I asked Ahmad, “Is Canada doing this for everyone who arrives?” He said no, it was just for me because I was a very special humanitarian case.

Sana: You could see the relief on Yara’s face when she was finally reunited with Ahmad. She was exhausted but happy and smiling from ear to ear. We drove Ahmad, Yara and Sila back to Ahmad’s apartment. In the days afterward, I arranged for some mothers, who are also Palestinian, to go over and teach Yara and Ahmad all the things they’d need to know about caring for the baby, like feeding and burping. A midwife also visited them to do a medical check on Yara and Sila.

Ahmad: Life has been busy since Yara and Sila arrived. The first thing I do when I wake up every morning is kiss my daughter, smell her and hear her voice. It’s like a dream come true. It’s been fun to introduce Yara to life in Canada. We went to Walmart and the shopping mall in Brantford, which was a big deal for her since we don’t have shops like that in Gaza. I also took them to the CN Tower and the aquarium. We got a TV so Yara can watch her favourite Turkish movies. We’re taking things slowly because she needs time to heal from the pain of living through war.

Baha: One day, when we were over at their house, Yara was telling me about how the bass from the music that their neighbours play reminded her of the air strikes. She says she keeps feeling the house shake and hearing bombs in her head. But she says it so matter-of-factly, like it’s nothing at all. She’s lived through so much.

Yara: Life in Canada has been beautiful. The cold weather is definitely something to get used to, but I love the trees here.

Ahmad: In the future, Yara and I are thinking of starting a business. Maybe we’ll open an accessories store where Yara can sell bags and rings. For now, I’m still working as a tutor. But I need more assistive devices—like a text-to-voice screen reader, a computer with an accessible keyboard that would allow me to type and browse the internet, and a smart cane that could electronically detect any obstacles in my path—to help me secure steady employment to support my family. Sana and Baha started an online fundraiser to help me buy the assistive devices I need.

Sana: We launched the fundraiser on November 15, and within the first few days, we reached 70 per cent of our $15,000 goal. We’re also raising funds for other families that have escaped Gaza. On the plane from Egypt to Toronto, Yara met another family—a father with two daughters and a son—that left with nothing. So we’ve been working to set them up with subsidized housing, clothes and essentials. They’re living in Waterloo at the moment.

Yara: I’m so relieved to be with Ahmad, but I won’t be truly happy until my family is safe and out of Gaza.

Bakr: We’re still living in the UN school in Deir al Balah. We never know if we’re going to be alive the next day or not. On November 18, Israel bombed another UN school in Gaza, so we don’t feel safe here anymore. All we want is to be safe.

Ahmad: Canada recently announced that it will offer temporary resident permits to family members in Gaza. We’ll try to bring our families over, but it’s more than 40 people. We don’t know how we’ll afford their plane tickets or if they’ll make it to the Rafah crossing alive. I’ve already lost several cousins since October. I don’t want to see any more members of my family die. But I feel hopeful that we can get them here somehow.

This story appears in the February 2024 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.