Gaza crisis: Reuniting with my neighbour reminded me how much I miss my old life

Amid an unprecedented escalation, an Islamic Relief worker* in Gaza, recounts a happy and heartbreaking reunion.

It has been a couple of days now since a total blackout began. The Palestinian telecommunication company announced that their mobile and internet services will halt as Israel refuses to allow much needed fuel in to Gaza.

Our life continues to be controlled by an external force that appears indifferent to every international and humanitarian law. The ability to call an ambulance if you are injured or giving birth is something we no longer possess. We can’t even call our loved ones to check if they’re alive or not. We are being deprived of our most basic rights.

An unexpected call

I planned to send some photos from my son’s birthday party to my sisters abroad. We managed to have the party , but lost our connection to the outside world. My sisters are eager to hear anything about what is happening in Palestine. I think everyone living abroad with relatives in Gaza feels the same.

They all want to check on their families and friends, but they can’t. In our age of communication, which has made the world into one big village, there are people still deprived the right to access the internet and communication channels.

Just before the blackout, I received a call from Ahmed*, the building attendant at our home in Gaza City. I’d lost contact with him after the first few weeks of this escalation. He is someone who works all day long to provide for his family. He always helped me when I needed a second pair of hands for maintenance work in my flat. On the phone, he told me he’s now in the same city as I am, so I gave him directions to come and see me.

Days later, I overheard someone out in the street asking passersby about me. When I went outside, I met Ahmed with tears in my eyes. Seeing him reminded me that I still have a house, a job, friends, neighbours, and a whole life in Gaza City, which I may never make it back to. As we sat and talked, he told me about his terrifying and exhausting ordeal.

‘I was seeing death right in front of me’

“We did not want to leave the building. Some of our neighbours stayed there. We got water, and were able to run the backup generator, though only for under 1 hour each day. That was enough for us. We did not have internet in the building. We followed the news through the radio.

“It was a few days after the land operation started, when a bomb fell directly in front of our building’s door. There were bodies of dead and injured people lying in the street, and no one could help them. We ran from the building through the basement with rubble, dust, and a shocking smell filling the air. One of our neighbours got a head injury from some shrapnel as he was fleeing the building. Alhamdulillah, we helped him, and he is fine.

“I went to meet my father and we agreed that we had to move south. I took my wife and children, and we walked along the road they’re calling a humanitarian corridor. I was seeing death right in front of me. My kids saw bodies in the streets, burned cars with bodies inside, human skulls and bones. I don’t know how they’ll ever be able to forget such scenes. We walked for a long time to reach the south. There were no cars. My father and another older person had to walk for more than 7 kilometres before we finally found a cart to carry them.”

The search for shelter

“I was lost for about 3 days in the south. My phone battery had died and it was that long before I was able to charge it. I walked with my wife and children to our relative’s house, but when we arrived, there were already dozens of people in the house. It was very crowded with no place for myself and my family to stay. I told them that I would go to a school shelter in the area for the night.

“The school was packed when we arrived after a long walk. My wife and I had to sleep in the playground, without a roof over our heads and next to hundreds of others also sleeping on the ground. The kids had to wait for 2 hours to use the toilets or else just go in the sand nearby. The next morning, I heard there was another school with fewer people in it. I took my family and moved there.

“But when we arrived at the school, there were hundreds of people arriving from all over the place. I could not put my family in that situation. I managed to charge my phone to 10% thanks to someone charging phones near the school. I called my brother, who was in another city staying at his friend’s house. He told me that there was a place for us there. After walking for around 5 hours, finally we were able to rest there. The situation was not much better as we still had to spend all day refilling water and looking for food and an electricity supply, but at least we have a roof over our heads and we are able to stay together and have some privacy.

“Once I charged my phone, I called you and I came to see you. I kept asking people about you and they told me to walk a little further. My kids saw your car and told me we’d found you. And now here we are meeting. Many of our neighbours from the building are scattered in different places. I have been in touch with some of them, but others, I do not know about. It is like a new Nakba. It is like living 100 years in the past with no food, no transportation, no communication, nothing at all.”

I miss my old life

Meeting Ahmed* reminded me of our life before we had to leave our houses. I miss that life. Just the normal, stupid, simple life we used to live. I’d give everything I have to go back to that time.

We loved our streets, the trees that dropped leaves on my car, our trips to the sea with the kids, my wife getting angry because their clothes were full of sand afterwards, heated debates over what pizza we are going to have for dinner, our repeated requests for the kids to clear their plates, having to wake up early for work, field visits and paperwork at the office, parents meetings at the kids’ school, enjoying 8 hours’ worth of electricity, the humid weather all year long, weekend nights with the guys, Fridays lunches. I miss all of it.

Please help Islamic Relief support people in desperate need in Gaza: Donate to our Palestine Emergency Appeal now.

*This blog is anonymised to protect the safety and security of our colleague.

Editor’s note: This blog was submitted amid a fast-changing and deepening crisis on the ground. This information was correct as of the afternoon of Sunday 19 November.

new director

Director of Network and Resource Development

Adnan joined Islamic Relief in 2004 as a regional fundraiser in the UK. He worked in multiple roles over 10 years at Islamic Relief UK, including setting up the first digital team and leading the growth of digital fundraising and engagement. Adnan also led numerous fundraising and marketing campaigns, which played a significant part in the growth of Islamic Relief UK.

Having moved to Islamic Relief Worldwide in 2014, Adnan has held different roles that have helped grow Islamic Relief’s global digital footprint into new geographic territories, supporting Islamic Relief members with their digital and marketing growth as well as developing new products and initiatives for the Islamic Relief family.

Adnan graduated in Industrial Design and Technology from Loughborough University. He has since completed an Advanced Diploma in Business Administration from Durham University and a Diploma in Digital Marketing from the Institute of Data and Marketing.

Nadeem Azhar

General Counsel

Nadeem joined Islamic Relief Worldwide in September 2022. He has worked in the charitable sector for over a decade.

He studied Modern History and Politics at Manchester University, and at the University of Law in London before qualifying as a solicitor in 2011.

Nadeem is an experienced corporate, commercial and governance lawyer, having worked with various faith-based and grant making charities as well those in health and education settings. He was a partner at a law firm in London before moving in-house where he focused on setting up and restructuring charities and social enterprises.

Most recently, Nadeem was Lead Counsel at Mind, a leading mental health charity, where he co-authored a new federation agreement, revamped legal processes, and played a major role in developing its strategic and fundraising partnerships.

Nadeem has been a charity trustee for the Seafarers Charity, as well as many grant-making bodies and theatre companies.

Adnan Hafiz

Director of Network and Resource Development

Adnan joined Islamic Relief in 2004 as a regional fundraiser in the UK. He worked in multiple roles over 10 years at Islamic Relief UK, including setting up the first digital team and leading the growth of digital fundraising and engagement. Adnan also led numerous fundraising and marketing campaigns, which played a significant part in the growth of Islamic Relief UK.

Having moved to Islamic Relief Worldwide in 2014, Adnan has held different roles that have helped grow Islamic Relief’s global digital footprint into new geographic territories, supporting Islamic Relief members with their digital and marketing growth as well as developing new products and initiatives for the Islamic Relief family.

Adnan graduated in Industrial Design and Technology from Loughborough University. He has since completed an Advanced Diploma in Business Administration from Durham University and a Diploma in Digital Marketing from the Institute of Data and Marketing.

Board of Directors
Javed Akhtar

Director of Finance

Javed Akhtar has more than a decade of experience at Islamic Relief, having worked in a similar role between 2003-2014. In that role he strove to implement wide-ranging financial and accounting processes which aided in the transparent nature in which Islamic Relief now operates.

Javed also has diverse experience across the private sector, having worked at American chemicals and pharmaceutical giant DuPont, shipping firm FedEX and technology consultancy company Accenture. In all his roles, he prioritises using the latest technologies to improve monitoring and reporting at every level. Javed’s commitment to embracing digital end-to-end technology, enhancing accountability to our stakeholders and promoting financial transparency is ensuring that we remain at the forefront of financial developments in the sector.

By training, Javed is a chartered accountant with a Master’s degree in NGO Management with Charity Accounting and Financial Management from Cass Business School.
Board of Directors
Affan Cheema  

Director of International Programmes

Affan Cheema is an experienced leader who has spent 25 years working in the international aid sector on poverty eradication in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He has worked in fast onset emergencies, protracted crisis and development environments whilst working for Islamic Relief Worldwide and Care International. He is also a trustee of South West International Development Network (SWIDN).

Through his career Affan has held numerous roles including institutional fundraising, programme and grant management, and programme quality assurance.  Affan’s leadership has helped Islamic Relief Worldwide secure the highly coveted Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), seen as the sector’s premier benchmark for operational excellence.

Affan completed his BA in Economics and Geography from University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies) and his MSc in Development Administration and Planning from the University of Bristol. He is PRINCE2 qualified, is a keen sportsman and recently co-edited a book entitled -Islam and International Development: Insights for working with Muslim Communities-.
Board of Directors
Dr Hossam Said

Managing Director, Humanitarian Academy for Development (HAD)

For nearly three decades Dr Hossam has provided the strategic vision to manage, lead and develop a range of international humanitarian interventions around the world.

At the start of his career, Dr Hossam served on the Board of Directors of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, before moving to Islamic Relief Worldwide to manage the core global business activities as International Programmes Director.

During this time the organisation increased its global reach, gaining both domestic and international repute and credibility. Dr Hossam has also served on the Islamic Relief Worldwide Board of Management and Executive Committee for the past 15 years; sharing responsibility for strategic organisational development and the change management process, whilst forging strong relationships with many other charities.

Dr Hossam gained an MBA from Aston Business School in 2004 and graduated as a Medical Doctor from Cairo University in 1981.
Board of Directors
Martin Cottingham  

Director of External Relations and Advocacy

Martin Cottingham joined Islamic Relief in 2012 as IRUK Media Relations Manager, and was appointed Head of Communications in 2015 before taking up his current position as Director of External Relations and Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide.

Martin has helped Islamic Relief to increase its mainstream media profile and expand its campaigning work, producing hard-hitting advocacy reports on floods in Pakistan (2011) famine in Somalia (2012) disaster risk reduction (2013) and aid to Afghanistan (2014). He has over 20 years’ experience working in media, communications and marketing roles for international development and environmental charities.

Martin graduated from the University of London with a degree in English and Drama (1982-85) then trained as a journalist with a postgraduate diploma at City University (1986-87). He has previously worked for Christian Aid as Editor of Christian Aid News and Media Relations Manager (1988-97) for Oxfam as Regional Campaigns Manager (1997-2000) and at the Soil Association as Marketing Director (2001-2006), as well as working for a wide range of organisations as a freelance writer, researcher and communications consultant.

Tufail Hussain

Director of Islamic Relief UK

Tufail Hussain has 17 years’ experience in the humanitarian and development sector, leading on marketing and fundraising campaigns for several organisations before joining Islamic Relief UK in 2016 as Deputy Director. Tufail was appointed Director of Islamic Relief UK in 2019 and in 2021 provided valuable leadership as interim CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide.

Tufail is driven by a passion for empowering disadvantaged youth and mentors a number of young people. He also works to strengthen engagement between British Muslims and wider society. Under his leadership, Islamic Relief UK has significantly increased its income and developed successful partnerships with communities across the country. He has travelled around the world to raise awareness of major emergencies such as the Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan crises and the floods in Pakistan and Sudan.

A father to 5 daughters and a son, Tufail is also a sports enthusiast and passionate Liverpool FC supporter. Tufail has run the London Marathon twice, raising over £35,000 for humanitarian causes.

Before joining Islamic Relief he was CEO of Orphans in Need, where he oversaw a new strategy that increased income from £2 million to £9 million in 3 years and opened up new UK and international offices. Tufail is also a trustee of the Muslim Charities Forum and a Director of TIC International (Islamic Relief Worldwide’s clothes recycling and trading arm).
Waseem Ahmad

Chief Executive Officer

Waseem Ahmad joined the Islamic Relief family over 24 years ago, serving as Programme Officer in the Balochistan province of south-western Pakistan before becoming Head of Programmes in Pakistan. Waseem then moved to Oxfam and Tearfund before returning to Islamic Relief to establish our mission in Malawi. Later serving as Head of Programme Funding and Partnerships, Waseem led the response to major crises across the globe, including the East Africa drought, Pakistan earthquake and the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Waseem then served for nearly 6 years as our Director of International Programmes, during which time the charity secured and retained the coveted Core Humanitarian Standard certification in recognition of the quality of our programming. He was appointed CEO of Islamic Relief in May 2021.

With a special interest in community mobilisation and infrastructure, Waseem received an MSc in Project Planning and Management from the University of Bradford, as well as an MSc in Economics from Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Waseem has also worked for Lepra Health in Action and is a member of the International Civil Society Centre’s Board of Trustees. The father-of-3 enjoys walking and playing football, and is a keen birdwatcher.