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18 November 2023, 14:00

SPECIAL REPORT: How a family moves from the Gaza Strip to start a new life in Belarusian Novopolotsk

A Belavia aircraft brought Belarusians and members of their families, who had been evacuated from the Gaza Strip, to Minsk on 16 November. Locals described events in the Gaza Strip as hell. The tense Palestine-Israel relations went to hell in a handbasket due to the conflict that erupted in early October. Civilians continue falling victim to all kinds of possible attacks. The survivors in the Gaza Strip had to live on without water, electricity, and communication. Belarus did not turn a blind eye to their plight: Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko gave instructions to bring Belarusian citizens and their families to our country. A humanitarian flight evacuated 41 people. Half of them were children. Fariz Makhdi's family was one of them: his mother, father, and two younger brothers. They came to the Belarusian city of Novopolotsk in the morning on 17 November. In the afternoon representatives of the city administration and public organizations met with members of the family.

The Makhdi couple and two sons are staying in an apartment where their eldest son Fariz lives. He works as a dentist in a local polyclinic. He welcomed his family right at the Minsk airport the previous night. He hid a bouquet of flowers behind his back and presented it to his mother only after hugging her. The family arrived in Novopolotsk at about 5 in the morning on 17 November.

“I welcomed them by saying: ‘Oh, my dears, you are alive, come to me',” Fariz shared his impressions of the first few seconds of the meeting. “And right away I started hugging them, you must understand. Certainly, a person has one body but if you look with your soul and heart, then the body is divided between relatives and the people you love. And when you regain this bit, you feel so much warmer. You feel happiness inside you.”

In the afternoon on 16 November Fariz learned that his family had been saved and was on board an aircraft flying to Belarus. The Novopolotsk resident was contacted and explained what he should do. “I was in shock. I didn't expect and didn't believe that it had finally happened. I was so glad I couldn't stay in one place. I looked forward to the moment I could see them,” he recalled.

Fariz's parents are medics. They once graduated from the Vitebsk State Medical University. His father is an otolaryngologist. His mother is an obstetrician-gynaecologist. The family of the Belarusian woman and the Palestinian man lived in the Gaza Strip for 20 years. They came back to Belarus together with their middle son and the youngest son: Yusif is 21 and Amir is 19.

“The native city of Novopolotsk is clean and orderly just like the entire Belarus usually is. The city has grown larger. A lot of new apartment buildings have been built as well as supermarkets. Everything is tidy. One can feel that this country has a true father, who looks after his family,” Tallina Makhdi shared her first impressions of the native city of Novopolotsk. The key thing is that it is peaceful and calm, her husband Nidal added. “Whenever we come here, there is always order, tranquility, and security in Belarus,” the man noted.

The Makhdi family had to experience the entire range of emotions starting with irresistible fear and shock under bombardment and ending with complete tranquility when they saw peaceful skies. The hospital where Nidal had been working has been recently hit by an artillery strike.

“Wherever you were, you could have been killed: at home, in the street. Anywhere. The road was very dangerous from the place we evacuated from to the border crossing. We could have been hit at any time. Even if bombs were falling somewhere else. But everything is over now. We have arrived,” the head of the family noted.

In his words, the feeling of fear stayed with them in the native city for 40 days: “Bombings didn't stop for a second. And it was not distant bombing. When bombs fell, everything around us shook. All the buildings. It continued every second! Bombings were in progress above our heads. Drones were flying. And we couldn't understand where bombs will fall next. You could be killed at any second. We went from hell to heaven.”

All the Makhdi family members are battling with their emotions, Tallina noted. “Certainly, we feel joy and despair. And our hearts ache for the relatives, colleagues, and friends we left in Gaza,” she recalled. “The world has lost its human face. Instead of a face it has some boulder. Instead of a heart there is only darkness. What is happening in Gaza now is simply dreadful,” the woman said. “My colleagues – medics – are showing extreme patriotism and professionalism over there. The Israeli gave a warning that everyone must leave the hospital because it will be bombed. Our 29-year-old colleague didn't leave. He said he couldn't leave the sick. Everyone was killed by bombings.”

When the family was staying in the conflict zone, Fariz kept an eye on events via social networks and mass media. He said it was easier to contact the family initially but communication became disrupted once powerful bombings started. “About a week [after the situation deteriorated] communication was practically non-existent. It was possible to contact them only once per day and only via international SMS. Calls gave me happiness but the signal could be interrupted,” he said.

Now all the Makhdis will have to address many problems. They have housing but when the aircraft landed, it was obvious they didn't have much luggage and their clothes didn't fit the weather, representatives of the Novopolotsk city administration noted. Representatives of public organizations found out sizes of their clothes and footwear right away in order to offer appropriate ones. After a meeting, during which all the current problems were discussed, including housing, education, and employment, the family went to a local branch of the Belarusian Society of the Red Cross where they could select the warm clothing they could wear for a while.

Chairwoman of the Novopolotsk city organization of the Belarusian Society of the Red Cross Olga Rogovskaya explained: “For starters they have to go to the migration service office in Vitebsk. As far as I understand, the people, who arrived, have Belarusian citizenship but we are ready to help them. Our parent organization can give them food, hygiene products. Our branch in Novopolotsk can give them outwear, bed linen, and whatever clothes and footwear they like.”

If the family of medics decides to seek employment in the local hospital or other healthcare institutions, they will be happy to hire such highly qualified personnel, Head Physician of the Novopolotsk City Central Hospital Irina Shemenkova assured. The first and most important thing is that the couple has diplomas of the Vitebsk medical university. Since the Makhdis' employment history in Belarus was interrupted, they will have to confirm their diplomas.

“Indeed, it is a family of the dentist that has been working for us for years and has earned a good reputation. All of us were worried sick about him and his family. When all these events began, we were ready to provide any support we could. As for his parents, we have job openings for them in our healthcare institution and other ones,” Irina Shemenkova said. “The team will not show indifference either. And I think we will help donate some necessities and possibly provide financial aid.”

Upon arrival the Makhdi family said they don't understand really well what kind of aid they may need. They were happy they had returned from the Gaza Strip alive. Each of them keeps thanking the Belarus president, on whose orders the evacuation flight had been organized, as well as everyone, who had contributed to it.

“A remarkable head of state and person. He did everything possible to make [the evacuation flight] happen at the professional level. I am deeply grateful to Aleksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenko for taking serious care of this matter. I thank him a lot and bow low to everyone, who participated in it: personnel of the Emergencies Ministry, government agencies, and organizations, which are trying to help us. Honestly, we didn't expect such a reception. I am now one of the happiest people on Earth because a meeting with the people you love is a very important event. Particularly when you know that their lives are threatened. I hope that our life in Belarus will be settled and everything will be fine. The most important thing is that it is safe and calm here and I will no longer be afraid that I may lose some of my family members.”

The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously reported that Belarus in contact with colleagues from Israel and Egypt and with assistance of Russia and Qatar organized the evacuation of Belarusian citizens and members of their families from the Gaza Strip. They crossed the border via the border crossing Rafah into Egypt. The Belarusian flag carrier Belavia dispatched a humanitarian flight to pick them up. It had medics and psychologists from the Emergencies Ministry's special operations unit Zubr on board. The aircraft landed in Minsk late in the evening on 16 November.

“We are grateful to all the personnel and diplomats for assistance during the evacuation procedure. They travelled with us and took care of every detail to make it convenient for us,” Nidal stressed.

The family does not dare make plans for the future for now. They need a bit of time to regain their senses. Then they will decide on jobs for the father and the mother and on education for the middle son and the youngest one. Yusif studied programming in a higher education institution. Amir was also captivated by information technologies. Belarus will help with these and other matters. “We need at least a month in order to sort out things a bit,” Tallina Makhdi said.

Nidal added right away: “Our lives have been turned upside down. We lost a lot: our home, jobs, the previous life.”

Nidal left his mother, brothers, and sisters with kids in the Gaza Strip. “Unfortunately, I cannot help them,” the man was in tears. “I can save only this small part of the family. The rest live under bombardment. We will try to contact them somehow and make sure they are safe. We know they don't have food, water, and electricity. We would like to at least make sure they are alive.”

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