She escaped from war-torn Gaza, but at what cost?
Ed Smith/The Pointer

She escaped from war-torn Gaza, but at what cost?

Some would consider Mervat Ghaboun one of the lucky ones. She doesn’t see it that way. 

After more than 60 days of struggling to survive in war ravaged Gaza, she got out. 

She arrived in St. Catharines on December 12th with no feelings of good fortune or luck. She is crippled with mourning.   

Two weeks ago she learned her younger brother Yaseen was killed by a sniper's bullet. She raised him since he was a boy.

She has folded unrelenting grief into a singular focus. 

In her short time since arriving in St. Catharines, Mervat has been relentless in her efforts to get the remainder of her family to safety in Canada. She has had permanent resident status here since 2019 and although it allowed her to come back to Canada, she was forced to leave the others behind. She didn’t want to do it, but the family felt if she got here she would be in a better position to help more of them join her… eventually. 

The decision to leave broke a part of her. She said goodbye to the family she loves, knowing they may never see each other again. 

Mervat and her five siblings were orphaned when she was 16-years-old. As the eldest sibling, she became the matriarch of the family raising her brothers and sisters. They are adults now, but the youngest was only six years old when Mervat became the primary caregiver and to this day she thinks of Mervat as her mother.  

She took jobs in a sewing factory making shirts to support her brothers and sisters. She continued with her studies, completed her education, became a social worker and  eventually a supervisor in a school for children with special needs, saving almost all her money. With it she built a house for the family, a large one, with four flats. 

She would live in one of the flats and her brothers and sisters and their families would live in the others. The family would always be close together. 

She recounts how every single day one of her brothers would slip his head into her flat and ask how she was doing and if there was anything she needed.

That is all gone now. 

Along with the loss of her brother she mourns the loss of the life she built from next to nothing. The feeling of powerlessness surrounds her. It pushes in on her. Constantly. Every roadblock and every setback and every piece of bad news from Gaza drains what strength remains. She doesn’t know how much she has left.

The sense of dread can make a person feel physically sick.

Her home has been pillaged and ruined, her brother is dead, her family is scattered and she feels like nobody cares, like nobody in St. Catharines will even listen.  

Her family thinks it was last Monday when a sniper’s bullet ended the life of her brother, but they can’t be certain. He was going to check on the family home and to gather some belongings, food, clothing, blankets, supplies they desperately needed as they were now living in shelters. He never came back. For days they wondered what had happened to him. Was he captured, injured, or worse? It was too dangerous to go out and find him. He was later identified at the morgue; she has a picture of him lying lifeless on the ground next to other bodies.

The scale of the human tragedy currently unfolding in Gaza is lost on almost everyone outside the devastated strip of Palestinian land rendered by bombs into piles of rubble and hollowed out buildings. 

Her brother is one of thousands cut down inside the war. 

To Mervat he is everything. She has another picture of Yaseen. In it, he is alive. He is smiling, ever so slightly, looking right into the camera. She smiles as she shows the picture, staring into the handsome young face of a brother who was more like a son. It’s the only time in two hours that she smiles. She will never see him smile again.  


 The only remaining photo Mervat Ghaboun has of her brother Yaseen, killed in Gaza approximately two weeks ago.



Yaseen was a janitor in the local school. He was not a combatant. He left behind a wife and two children. Within days of Yaseen’s death his wife was critically injured in a bombardment, and the fate of their children is unknown. The family is desperate. Communications are sporadic and unreliable, information is never verified. Nobody knows enough, everybody has different bits of news. It always adds to the uncertainty and fear. In Gaza the people are moving, relocating, displaced and then displaced again. No place is safe. It is a maze with no exit. 

Yaseen, his wife and his children were supposed to come to St. Catharines. Mervat would go first, followed by the others once she could help, with assistance from other family members in Canada.

Mervat’s cousin in St. Catharines is Palestinian-Canadian, Reham Ghaboun. Reham speaks of how her father brought the family to Canada when she was 9-years-old.  They stayed a long time, became citizens. She loved this country, but her father eventually moved them. They lived in Jordan then Saudi Arabia, but she knew Canada would be her forever home.  

She beams when she talks of the country she calls home. It is like the pride a parent feels when a child fulfils their potential. Canada is a place where “people are kind to animals, they are kind to people, they are even kind to trees, they are known all over the world as peacekeepers”.

She and her husband Ala Abdel Latif and their four children live in a quiet west end neighbourhood in St. Catharines and there was never any doubt they would make room for Mervat. Together they would help her navigate the endless paperwork and procedures to hopefully get the rest of the family to safety.  

It has not turned out that way. 


Mervat Ghaboun (left) alongside her cousin Reham Ghaboun.

(Ed Smith/The Pointer)


Reham has been disappointed, disheartened by the complexities and paperwork. She talks about being exhausted by what is required, having to describe each family member in overwhelming detail. Do they have birthmarks? Do they have scars? If so, how did they get the scars?  

She has friends who helped when Ukrainian refugees were welcomed and says they had nothing like this to go through. The door was wide open for them, but not for her family.  

She speaks of the demand from Canada for identification and other types of personal documentation. How do they make the government understand, “Where do we get this paperwork? Everything was destroyed in airstrikes, people fled with nothing, from where do you want us to get this paperwork? Under the rubble?...These people lost everything, you did not ask the same for the Ukrainians.  When the Ukrainians came you said ‘welcome to Canada’.

Reham takes great pains to stress that she strongly supported what Canada did to open its arms to Ukrainians who fled after Russia’s invasion in 2022. She and her husband offered jobs to them and thought nothing of it.  “This is what you do for people,” she said, “we are all human”. Now she wonders where are those who will help them in their hour of need. She confesses that her views of Canada have diminished. She is not as proud to be Canadian as she once was.

Together the Ghaboun cousins have united with the four or five other Palestinian families in St. Catharines who are struggling with similar circumstances. The hope is for strength in numbers, that together they can amplify their voice and create a sense of urgency for action.  

They tried to meet with their local Member of Parliament, Chris Bittle. But they only got his staff as the MP has not been personally available. They say the staff have tried to be helpful, but offered nothing they didn’t already know about the immigration process. 

They have not yet heard from Bittle directly. Reham says that while she originally had hope and faith in his office, that is gone now.

“It is pure and direct discrimination.”

She says given the opportunity, she would ask Bittle, “Is your conscience at peace for what you did for your Palestinian-Canadian people? Are you satisfied that you supported and treated us equally in your community, just the same as you did for Ukraine and Israel?”  

She would ask how he can make statements like “Our community always stands up to assist when it matters”, when Ukraine is the issue, but then have almost nothing to say or do for Palestinians. She shows videos stored on her phone of the MP making proud proclamations of support in the Canadian Parliament for Ukraine and Ukrainians.

“Where is his support for us?” 

In response to questions from the Pointer, Bittle’s staff said he has met with many constituents and leaders about the conflict, is supportive of a ceasefire in Gaza and shares the community’s immense frustration.

Feeling neglected by her federal government, Reham and the family looked closer to home, turning to their municipal representatives for help. 

She says they had no illusions, they understood that local politicians have a limited ability to influence federal actions, but “they are not powerless, they can have some influence,” she said. “Imagine if 100 cities did the same thing, do you think the federal government would listen then?”

They were met with further disappointment. 

Mervat and Reham were in attendance two weeks ago when Niagara’s Regional council removed an item from the agenda that would have discussed support for all the victims of the war in Gaza. Political manoeuvring by St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, Councillor Laura Ip and Chair of the Region Jim Bradley resulted in the issue of support of Gaza and “all associated items”, being struck from the agenda ensuring no discussion would be held. At the time, officials claimed international affairs have no business in local council meetings and this issue can only cause division in the community.

A hundred citizens had packed the viewing gallery that night and 18 had registered to speak, but council wanted none of it.  

The decision immediately sparked accusations of  hypocrisy and racism. Bradley, Siscoe, Ip and many of the others on council had participated in very public discussion and shows of support on other international affairs including support for Ukraine and Israel. Siscoe and Bradley had chaired council meetings to discuss a multitude of ways to support Ukraine and all three had signed a letter sent to the Russian Ambassador in Ottawa in which they denounced Russia. Only two months ago, Bradley personally “ordered” the Council building be lit in the colours of the Israeli flag, but now he was saying local council is not a place for international issues.

Mervat and Reham wanted councillors to know of Mervat’s brothers and sisters. They wanted council to offer whatever support they could. These were not distant politicians in a far off place where legislation is created, these are “my neighbours, they live in my neighbourhood, and they were not interested to know anything from us,” Reham said. “We are not controversial, we are not divisions in your community, we live here, we are your community. How can you refuse to hear us?”

Reham recounts a time in 2019 when the International Development Minister was visiting St. Catharines. The ministry contacted her family to ask if they could visit her husband's barbershop as a backdrop for his appearance. Local politicians were there that day too as everybody wanted to be seen supporting a successful family business started by immigrant Canadians who were paying it forward by employing newcomers in their shop.

“When they needed us for their political interests they did not hesitate to ask,” she says. “In our hour of need, we feel ignored.”

The future is hard for Mervat to contemplate right now. She is still reeling from the loss of her brother and trying to remain strong for her other siblings who are counting on her.  

She got out of Gaza and they need her, just like they needed her when they were orphaned all those years ago. She has to find a job, she must make money and send it to them. She has qualifications as a teacher and social worker, but they are not recognized here. Only the community can help her. 

The local politicians who represent the very community Mervat needs, have put up another roadblock.

The feeling of powerlessness pushes even deeper into her soul.



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