Israel-Hamas war: Kiwi woman forced to return home after 20 years in Gaza

Aml has been living in New Zealand since January - it's the longest her family has stayed in one place in six months after she became one of nearly 2 million people who have been displaced across the Gaza strip

Aml was born in Christchurch and moved to Gaza 20 years ago, while the rest of her family remained in Aotearoa.

But she was forced to make the long journey back to New Zealand to escape the dangers of the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

The journey begins

Aml ran an engineering firm in Gaza with her husband, and her family's ordeal to return home began on 7 October 2023.

"One morning we're getting my kids ready to go to school and all of a sudden at 6am, bombs are going off, missiles and everything is just chaotic.

"We knew it was bad."

Speaking to RNZ, she broke down as she explained how they had to leave.

The children, who had just started school, emptied their new backpacks and stuffed in two shirts each.

Aml would later learn her house was razed as a result of the bombing.

Her family and some of her in-laws who lived close by decided to take shelter at another relative's home.

But just a day later, she said Israeli forces started sending text messages asking all residents in the area to evacuate.

"We just headed for the hospital.

"We said we'll just wait in the hospital until the sun comes out so we can move in a safer way."

They were now a group of more than 30 people looking for a safe place.

After sunrise, they moved to a UN school in the adjacent city of Jabaliyah.

But it was was already hemmed in with hundreds of other displaced families and they could only manage to stay for a day.

Aml and her family went to take shelter at her sister-in-law's place in Central Gaza.

A decision is made

She thought they were finally safe, until one night when she was talking to her parents in New Zealand.

"I was telling them we're well, all good. Everything is well. Don't be scared."

Then bombing began around the house. The glass on the windows shattered.

Amid her screams, the metal door burst open and it suddenly got dark because the electricity was cut off.

Ten days into the war, Aml's family moved for the fourth time.

It is then that she realised she had to finally say goodbye to Gaza.

"I contacted the New Zealand Embassy in Cairo. I sent them a message telling them that 'I need to please be evacuated'."

The next morning Aml had to move again, this time to Khan Younis.

"You can't think, you just need to pack and leave."

She said it was moving constantly from place-to-place that saved their lives.

Good news and another obstacle

Then she had some good news - a reply from the New Zealand embassy.

They agreed to organise emergency passports for her children, a visa for her husband and to loan the family more than $20,000 for flights to New Zealand.

But there was one more challenge - travel requires approval from Israeli authorities.

"No one is allowed to go in or out of Gaza unless Israel is okay with it."

She said Gaza was "a big prison".

The approval finally came through two weeks later.

But they were told to move as close to the Rafah border near Egypt, and wait for the embassy to give them the okay to cross.

The school staircase

Aml and her family now moved to a school in Rafah with the rest of their relatives.

She said the classrooms and other parts of the building were completely packed and a narrow staircase was the only place available to them.

By now it was late November and it had been nearly six weeks since Aml left her home in North Gaza.

Finally, she received a message to be at the Egyptian border the next morning.

Aml's husband borrowed money for a 20-minute ride to the border.

She said there were hundreds of people already there, sitting on the ground, waiting for their name to be called.

There was just one toilet and that was out of service.

But after a day of waiting, they were told to go back without an explanation.

They eventually returned to the staircase and began waiting for another message.

At the border again

Two days later they were told to go to the border once more.

This time there were New Zealand embassy staff, who waited with them.

"They were so kind and so sweet when they got there, they they just gave us some food and gave us some water."

She said being treated with such kindness made her feel safe.

"We had to wait until our names were called so it was all day long, until I think it's 11pm that we were allowed to go into Egypt. We took the buses and we headed to Cairo."

The family were told they could stay in Cairo for a maximum of 45 days - so they stayed as long as they could, hoping to return to rebuild their lives in Gaza.

But the war was nowhere near coming to an end.

The homecoming

Finally, four months after they first left home, Aml and her family arrived in New Zealand.

Her mum and brother flew in from Christchurch to meet her at Auckland airport.

It was the first time her 10-year-old met his mum's whanau.

It was an emotional reunion. She had waited for more than a decade to meet them.

They took her from the airport to a hotel and the next day Aml and her family moved into Salvation Army accommodation.

What things are like now

Her husband - who had been a civil engineer for more than 20 years - was on a visitor's visa and was not allowed to work. He also needed his qualifications to be recognised in New Zealand

For now, they will stay in Auckland, because it might be easier to make a fresh start here.

The children have started school and she said they were happy and seemed like they had adjusted to their new country.

They still get scared of loud noises and the police helicopter, she said.

She had three years to pay the money loaned to her by the New Zealand government, but the escape from Gaza had cost a lot more than that.

"We actually took thousands of dollars in debt from people we knew in Gaza."

Without any source of income, she did not know how she will pay back the debt or meet daily expenses.

She was relying on the community's generosity for help. and had set up a give-a-little page for anyone who wanted to contribute.

They will continue to live in the house provided by the Salvation Army until housing becomes available.

A fresh start

"People in this community, they've come over, they've got us things. I'm just amazed by their kindness.

"Some got blankets, some got kitchenware, some got clothes, you know, like everyone was helping out. I'm really grateful."

She said she was lucky her kids were able to start over in a place like Aotearoa.

"At least here they're they can have their dreams, you know, they can have hope for the future."

Aml knows she's unlikely to return to Gaza, but a piece of it will live on with her in New Zealand

"I actually have my house key until today. I had to close the house. I can't throw it away."