MANILA – The first batch of 34 Filipinos evacuated from Gaza arrived in the Philippines on Friday evening, relieved but also heartbroken at having to leave their Palestinian kin behind.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said there were 137 Filipinos in the Gaza Strip before Oct 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its attack on Israel.
By Saturday, at least 78 Filipino nationals in Gaza had crossed the Rafah border into Egypt, where the Philippine government has been working to secure their flights back to Manila from Cairo.
The remainder, 59 of them, have decided to stay in Gaza as their Palestinian relatives have not been allowed to leave.
One Palestinian spouse of a Filipino evacuee, however, was able to obtain clearance to join those repatriated to Manila. It is unclear what criteria have to be met for both the Israeli and Egyptian governments to allow the Filipinos’ Palestinian relatives to travel with them out of Gaza.
Most of the Filipino nationals in Gaza first worked in different parts of the Middle East before meeting their Palestinian spouses and eventually settling in the coastal strip.
Since 2012, Filipino nurse Lucina Al-Qadiri, 57, has been living in Gaza, where her five adult children have completed their studies. Her Palestinian husband is also a nurse, but is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Mrs Al-Qadiri and all her children except her eldest son were evacuated from Gaza. She could not fight back tears as she told reporters how he had decided to stay behind for now as his Palestinian wife, who had given birth just a day before Oct 7, was not given the green light to travel to Manila.
Mrs Al-Qadiri’s eldest son and grandchild would otherwise have been among the first batch of repatriates. “It’s very unfair because she’s a breastfeeding mother. She’s depressed. Can you really leave her alone there? It was so inhumane that she couldn’t go with us”.
Mrs Al-Qadiri said she and her daughter-in-law could not bear the thought of their loved ones being killed by an Israeli missile strike. So Mrs Al-Qadiri reached out to Philippine embassy officials in Jordan for help.
“I told them to take us out of Gaza. I would have been okay, but I was worried about my children. If I see their dead bodies, I wouldn’t be able to take it,” she said.
Mrs Minerva Sabah, 58, also cried when she told reporters that her Palestinian husband, an assistant professor in Gaza, could not flee with her and their two adult children to the Philippines. Mrs Sabah, who did not give her occupation, said she was not sure when they would see him again.
“I have been through six wars. I was repatriated in 2008, again in 2014, but this is the worst one yet. Right now, our house in Gaza is still standing, but I don’t know if it will still be there when we return,” she said as tears streamed down her face.
The Philippine government has given each repatriated family from Gaza about 76,000 pesos (S$1,800) in cash as well as transport and accommodation assistance.
A second batch of 42 repatriated Filipinos from Gaza was still in Cairo and expected to travel to Manila soon. Two Filipino members of Doctors Without Borders were among the first foreigners to leave Gaza on Nov 2. The Philippines has also been repatriating Filipino migrant workers stuck in Israel.
By Tuesday, Manila had evacuated 184 Filipino migrant workers who mostly worked as caregivers, along with seven infants. There are still about 30,000 Filipinos in Israel, according to the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs.
The future remains uncertain for the Filipinos repatriated from Gaza, who have seen how Israeli air and artillery strikes have flattened large swathes of the place they used to call home.
“Whenever Israel started bombing, it was really intense. Gaza is gone. They pulverised it,” said Mrs Isabelita Balala, a 62-year-old caregiver who has worked in Gaza for the past two decades. “Whenever the bombing got closer to us, we didn’t know if we would survive.”
Palestinian officials said on Friday that more than 11,000 Gaza residents have been killed since Israel began its daily bombardment of the area after Oct 7. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on the same day that the Israeli death toll is 1,200, revised down from the previous estimate of 1,400.
Referring to the Israeli Defence Forces, Mrs Al-Qadiri said: “They are turning the city and its people to ashes. Everything you’ve seen on TV is true.”
She added: “I’ll stay in the Philippines for now to give a chance for myself to heal.”