SLU student texts with family in Gaza. Each message feels like the last.
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.’”