Disabled NZ resident battling to get out of Gaza

Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza. Israel and the Palestinian militant organisation Hamas...
Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza. Israel and the Palestinian militant organisation Hamas have been at war since early October. Photo: Reuters
A disabled Kiwi resident is battling to get out of the heavily bombarded Gaza Strip in a situation labelled “bureaucratic cruelty” by a New Zealand MP.

Despite Ghada Alree being unable to walk and reliant on family for mobility, New Zealand initially told her this week they would not allow her mother to be added to a list with her for evacuation from Gaza to Egypt.

After The New Zealand Herald sought comment, officials now appear to be offering a pathway out of Gaza for the pair.

“I’ve lost faith in humanity,” was what Ghada told her brother Said Alree when they spoke on Wednesday morning.

Ghada, 39, is a permanent resident of New Zealand and therefore eligible to exit Gaza through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, where she can leave to return to New Zealand.

However, her family say she cannot do this alone. She is disabled, unable to walk without assistance and relies on her mother Baheya as a caregiver and for mobility. Despite this, New Zealand diplomats initially told the family her mother would not be eligible to accompany her in communication reviewed by the Herald.

After the Herald contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) and Foreign Minister Winston Peters for comment, officials clarified their position.

“In very exceptional circumstances, the ministry will consider the consular support it can provide where a direct dependence relationship exists,” a spokesperson told the Herald on Friday afternoon.

“These … include situations where other family members act as primary carers for vulnerable family members, including children or disabled family. It is an extension of the support we are providing to the NZ citizen/permanent resident and not direct assistance to the assisting family member in their own right … we are working to extend this type of support to some families in Gaza.”

Said, in a phone call from Cairo where he has been trying to evacuate his family, told the Herald his sister was “fully dependent on [her] mother and cannot walk alone”.

Due to the communications blackouts in Gaza, the Herald was not able to communicate with Ghada directly, but verified her residency status and reviewed her brother’s email communications with the New Zealand embassy in Cairo.

Labour's Phil Twyford urged the Government to "do the right thing". Photo: NZ Herald
Labour's Phil Twyford urged the Government to "do the right thing". Photo: NZ Herald

Ghada is a Palestinian born in Gaza who undertook a PhD in media and communications at Canterbury University, before returning to Gaza in 2017, where she took up a position teaching at Gaza University. She told her family she wanted to use her New Zealand education to give back to her community.

She lived with her mother in Gaza peacefully until the massacre of more than 1200 Israelis by Hamas militants on October 7 threw the region into turmoil. 

The Israeli military response has killed more than 17,000 people, according to the Hamas-controlled government health ministry, whose figures are used by the United Nations. It has displaced about 1.8 million people inside the Gaza Strip, including Ghada and her mother.

“With the beginning of the war, my house was bombed, and my beloved sister and mother were forced to flee to the Al Nusairat area, as requested by the Israeli army,” Said told the Herald.

During the first weeks of the fighting, the Israelis concentrated their attacks on the north of Gaza, meaning the south and central areas of Gaza were relatively safer. However, after a week-long truce that brought a hostage-for-prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, the Israeli military refocused its assault to the south and central areas of the strip, including where Ghada and her mother are sheltering.

“They stayed there for three weeks, but unfortunately this place was bombed and they ran again seeking safety. Now they are in the streets and are severely traumatised without shelter. All schools are full … a family nearby offered them a place to sleep in the garage.”

They are now in the city of Deir al Balah, which has recently been bombed by the Israeli military. An airstrike several days ago killed at least 45 people, according to an Al Jazeera report.

In desperation, Said reached out to the New Zealand embassy in Cairo, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explaining Ghada’s disability, and adding that his sister had been further injured when they fled the bombing.

In an email seen by the Herald, the embassy in Cairo wrote “[MFAT] is currently providing assistance to New Zealand Citizens, including their spouse/partner and dependent children up to 24 to leave Gaza … this has been extended for the current crisis also to permanent residents.”

However, it added “the situation is significantly more complex for individuals who do not have citizenship or permanent residence … New Zealand is therefore at this time not able to extend support … at this time we are not able to submit a request for approval to leave on behalf of your mother”.

Said and Ghada were appalled.

Since the Herald’s inquiries, the embassy in Cairo has now asked Said for more information, but at the time of publication Ghada had yet to leave Gaza.

According to Phil Twyford, Labour associate foreign affairs spokesman, said the New Zealand approach is “bureaucratic cruelty” and the Government should “do the right thing”.

“The Government should ... tell our diplomats in the region to evacuate [Ghada’s] mother… the minister only needs to give his officials the word and this can happen.”

He contrasted it with previous humanitarian crises where New Zealand had been more generous, saying “in the evacuation of Kabul we showed we can act decisively to rescue people at risk. We have allowed hundreds of Ukrainians to shelter from the war with their families in New Zealand.

"Why don’t Gazans deserve the same consideration? Australia is doing this. We should too.”

For Said, time is of the absolute essence. “Maybe in a few hours I will not be needing … New Zealand Government’s help ... the bombing continues on Gaza like rain.”

“If we don’t act quickly, the intervention of New Zealand will be of no value.“

- By Tom Mutch,  a New Zealand journalist currently in Jerusalem.