Palestinian Woman Finds a Friend in Austin and a Plan to Escape From Gaza

How a Snapchat message turned into an evacuation campaign

Shihab, Yarin, and their two babies Elan and Abdullah outside their temporary home in Khan Yunis (courtesy of Yarin’s Family)

At 3am in Gaza, in an apartment with a massive hole blown through one exterior wall, Yarin wakes up to feed baby Abdullah.

This is the loneliest time. It’s when she used to text Kelsie. In a tent in Rafah a few weeks ago, Yarin could connect to Wi-Fi from a humanitarian group. Night after night with Abdullah at her breast, to a soundtrack of rumbling planes and successive explosions, an unlikely friendship formed – they are Yarin, a 25-year-old nurse in Gaza, and Kelsie Fitzhenry, a 25-year-old digital marketer in Austin.

“Just mentioning Kelsie’s name makes me emotional,” Yarin told the Chronicle in an interview conducted through videos, voice messages, and texts. “Every time she spoke to me, she filled me with hope. ... She is salve for a wound, as they say. She really is.”

They talk about Yarin’s fears, of course, but also funny things: cleaning hacks, iced coffee orders, Yarin’s time at college. After Yarin cut her hair to feel better, Kelsie filled her in on 20 years of Britney Spears drama. Yarin weighed in on which top Kelsie should wear with which skirt. Yarin sent pictures and videos, too – of herself and her 24-year-old sister Nada with their morning coffee, of baby Abdullah and his 2-year-old sister Elan in matching purple pajamas in their tent in Rafah, and of the babies sitting on rubble.

In April, Yarin’s family fled from the designated safe zone in Rafah after Israeli forces bombed in the area. Yarin said their home was flattened by bombing four days after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. So now, they’re back in their hometown of Khan Yunis living in a cousin’s apartment where she said only one wall is blasted out.

Because they can’t get Wi-Fi inside the apartment, Yarin can’t reach Kelsie during her late-night breastfeeding anymore. Everything is harder. With aid routes blocked, Yarin said the cost of food has ballooned and they have had to walk about a half-mile to get water. Communication is restricted and expensive, and explosions are frequent.

“Every second I feel that the ceiling will fall down on us,” Yarin said.

Elan, 2, and Abdullah, 6 months, at the camp in Rafah (courtesy of Yarin’s Family)

Escape to Egypt

Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began attacks in Rafah, Yarin and other Palestinians say nowhere is safe in Gaza. Kelsie and Yarin agree: Her family needs to get out immediately. So Kelsie decided to put her marketing skills to use.

“Why would my life be worth more than hers?” Kelsie told the Chronicle. “You know, what am I doing here? Like, just checking my email every day? I’m not doing anything that’s benefiting anyone. And people listen to me. I know successful people. I know how to market. So I was just like, you know what? Let’s save your life.”

Their goal: to raise enough money to get Yarin’s family to safety in Egypt. As NPR has reported, escaping from Gaza today costs roughly $5,000 per adult and $2,500 per child, paid to an Egyptian company that facilitates the evacuation.

Along with the GoFundMe Kelsie created to raise money for their escape, she also created a slide show to tell Yarin’s story. After months of daily communication, Kelsie had plenty of information and photos to work with. Under the campaign title #MissionHabibti (an Arabic term of endearment that means “my love”), the slide show includes Yarin’s family tree and a couple dozen photos of Yarin’s family and living conditions.

Kelsie’s campaign launched at the same time as pro-Palestinian protests swept American colleges, and that timing gives Yarin hope. “These protests always make me cry,” Yarin said. “I feel like someone is with us for the first time. I’m certain that the whole world sees what is happening to us. I’m optimistic. Maybe that will end the war.”

Austinite Kelsie Fitzhenry (courtesy of Kelsie Fitzhenry)

Quiet Like This

Kelsie and Yarin’s communication started on Snapchat in February. The app’s Snap Map allows anyone to look at the world map, select an area, and view public posts from users currently in that location. When Kelsie saw a video Yarin posted, she responded.

At that time, Abdullah was only three months old. He hasn’t been an easy baby like his older sister Elan, who is now 2. He’s colicky and restless. The bombs set him off. Even though it’s all he’s ever known, he hasn’t gotten used to the sound of them. “Maybe that’s why he’s like this,” Yarin said.

She said he was born in one of the many hospitals in Gaza that are now nonfunctional. Three months after Abdullah’s birth at the Nasser Medical Complex, Israeli forces shelled it, as Doctors Without Borders has documented. The siege lasted weeks. An Al Jazeera correspondent described “horror, mass killings and arrests.” In April, when Israeli forces withdrew, Al Jazeera reported the discovery of a mass grave inside the hospital – more than 300 bodies. They included women, children, patients, and medical staff.

It’s not just the hospital. Khan Yunis is largely rubble. Before the war, Yarin’s favorite places to walk around were the Khan Yunis Port and the shopping center at Al-Rimal Capital Mall, both beautiful and full of people. “These places lost their features and never returned,” Yarin said. “It’s like a ghost town.”

In the unrecognizable debris of her hometown, her husband’s corner store – and their sole source of income – is destroyed. They’ve also lost family members. “Life has become hell,” Yarin said.

She became a nurse in 2020 after graduating from the Islamic University of Gaza, but she can’t bring herself to sort through the dead. Early in the war, when her cousin’s home was bombed, she saw people run to help the dying children, but Yarin couldn’t move. “I’m a nurse, but I’m not strong enough to do that,” Yarin said. “Those situations that happened before our eyes were something that I could not bear to witness.”

In Yarin’s wildest dreams, her family lives in a house after the war. “But when I really think about it, I see that’s impossible because we don’t have any money.” For now, she just wants silence. “Whenever the flying stops, I just hope that every night will be quiet like this.”

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