After a perilous journey from northern Gaza to Egypt, which included a five-kilometre walk on foot with his hands up as missiles exploded around him, Akram Al-Sabbagh was welcomed by his relieved family at Toronto Pearson International Airport Tuesday morning.
Tears flowed from Al-Sabbagh’s son, Mohammed, his daughter, Samah, and her four children as they rushed to embrace the weary 73-year-old after he arrived from Cairo.
“I’m so happy to see my … [family]. I’m back to my country and back again for good,” Akram told reporters.
‘Huge, huge relief’
Samah said they had been waiting so long for this day.
“It’s a huge, huge relief,” she said.
Akram, a London, Ont., resident and Canadian citizen for over 30 years, was visiting family in Gaza when Hamas militants stormed into Israel on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking roughly 240 others back into Gaza as hostages.
The massacre prompted Israel to declare war on Hamas, and it has responded with repeated air and land strikes on Gaza. Gaza’s Hamas-run government said at least 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, including at least 5,600 children and 3,550 women.
No Canadians were added Tuesday to a list of foreign nationals approved to cross into Egypt from the territory, where Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says about 200 people with ties to Canada are still waiting for a chance to get out, The Canadian Press reported.
Ottawa says more than 450 Canadians, permanent residents and their relatives have made the trip out of the Palestinian territory since the conflict began.
“No area [is] safe over there, anywhere in Gaza,” Akram said.
He expressed some surprise that he was experiencing a reunion with his family, as he was unsure about whether he was going to make it out of the region.
“I don’t believe that I’m alive right now,” he said.
“I told my wife on the phone, ‘OK, I want to tell you what to do after I’ve died.’ I didn’t believe I’d come back.”
Akram reached the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Friday night after a harrowing trip out of northern Gaza and south to the border.
Akram said he was rejected five times at the border, until he was finally allowed through on Sunday after waiting two nights for the border to reopen to Canadians who had been approved to enter Egypt.
He said part of his journey to the border included a five-kilometre trek by foot while carrying his luggage and passport, which he held over his head as he walked.
He said that two missiles exploded just behind him, but that he had to keep walking, not stop, even if he dropped something.
“Can’t turn right, I cant turn left, if you do, [they] shoot you right away,” he said.
“It’s too hard to find food, too hard to find water, too hard to find bread, too hard to find anything to eat. Nothing,” he said.
He said the border area itself was not safe, bombed twice while he was there.
Samah said while she’s relieved that her father is back, it’s a bittersweet moment.
“It’s happiness, but filled with sorrow, because as we speak, there are still so many people getting killed,” she said.
“We still have family there,” she said. “We don’t even know anything about them. We haven’t been able to contact them at all.”