'10 hours a day on the phone': Hamilton-area residents say efforts to get aid to Gaza have been all consuming

About 40 per cent of the Muslim community in Hamilton is Arab, according to Javid Mirza, president of the Muslim Association of Hamilton. Of that group, about half are Palestinian, he said. That's why so many are rallying to help residents there as the humanitarian crisis continues.

Burlington resident Sabrina Elewa, who is from Gaza, is among many fundraising and advocating as a way to help

A collage showing three portraits of individuals.
From left: Javid Mirza, Sabrina Elewa and Rani Hemaid are three of many locals working to support people in Gaza. (Justin Chandler/CBC, Courtesy of Sabrina Elewa, Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Friday afternoon prayers at the Hamilton Mountain Masjid, or mosque, draws hundreds of community members. On a recent Friday in December, in the large room on the main floor, men stood in rows while an imam led the prayer.

Javid Mirza, president of the Muslim Association of Hamilton (MAH), went to the front to make announcements. One of them was about a fundraiser for water treatment equipment in Gaza he is helping to organize at the mosque on Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. 

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the United Nations said this week more than half a million people are starving, has been all consuming for many in the local Muslim community, Mirza told CBC Hamilton at the mosque. 

About 40 per cent of the Hamilton Muslim community is Arab, Mirza said, and of that group, about half are Palestinian and a quarter from the Gaza Strip. Mirza said many have lost people they love in the region and have been involved in letter writing to politicians in support of a ceasefire. Hundreds of deaths in Gaza have local connections, Mirza said. 

Around 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, according to Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry, since Oct. 7. That day Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly Israeli civilians, and taking around 240 people hostage. Since then, about 1.9 million Palestinians have been displaced as Israel continues its air and ground war on Gaza. 

Fundraisers for both Israelis and Palestinians have been held locally. The Hamilton Jewish Federation has an ongoing "Israel emergency" campaign to support victims of the Oct. 7 attack and to "help rebuild damaged infrastructure." 

With the demolition of Gaza by Israel continuing, local fundraising and advocacy efforts to support Gazans have ramped up in recent weeks, and the Muslim Association of Hamilton event is one example. 

A water treatment system for Gaza

After prayers that Friday, Mirza called people over one at a time. Smiling, he told one man, "We need a g note ($1,000) from you."

Mirza said he won't call out anyone who can't afford to give but isn't shy about asking others. Growing up, he said, his father taught him you have to help others.

A portrait of a man in a suit jacket in a mosque.
Javid Mirza is president of the Muslim Association of Hamilton, which is fundraising for water treatment equipment in Gaza. (Justin Chandler/CBC)

MAH is a charitable organization that provides religious and social services to Hamilton Muslims. Its website states the group was founded in the 1960s by a group of Muslim McMaster University students who settled in the area. In Mirza's lifetime, he says, the city's Muslim community has grown from about 100 people to over 50,000. 

This month, MAH is working with Human Concern International, a Canada-based relief organization. Human Concern's director of community relief, Alaa Elsayed, told CBC Hamilton the group is working with the MAH to raise $200,000 for a well and water treatment system they hope to build as soon as possible. A lack of clean water in Gaza has contributed to a "perfect storm for disease," doctors and aid workers told Reuters earlier this month.

Elsayed said it takes two to four weeks to build and the organization already has one in the West Bank. Once it's set up, "hopefully it will not be bombed," he said. 

Palestinians flee after strike in Rafah

5 months ago
Duration 0:49
People were rushed to overburdened health centres on Wednesday after a strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Elsayed, who's also an imam, lives in Hamilton's Stoney Creek area. He said the local community has been rallying, recognizing how "dire the need is." His wife is from Gaza and has lost family in the conflict, he said.

Days spent on the phone to arrange support 

Burlington, Ont., resident Sabrina Elewa was born and raised in Gaza. She left for Canada during the 2008 war. 

Elewa said other than her parents and siblings, the rest of her family lives in Gaza, many of them on one street.

On Nov. 7, she said, an Israeli airstrike on that street destroyed 50 homes, including five of her family's. Many died and since then, "our entire neighbourhood has nowhere to go."

In response, Elewa is working with family and friends in Canada and abroad to fundraise for her family in Gaza.

To date, she said, they've sent about US$2,000 back home so people can buy food and pay for shelter. She said some people are starving as even if people have money, in some areas there's nothing to buy. 

Portrait of a person in a black turtleneck and headscarf.
Sabrina Elewa is fundraising to support members of her family in Gaza who lost their homes in an attack. (Courtesy Sabrina Elewa)

To help, she said she and others are sending money to trusted friends and family who can buy supplies and share them.

"We spend about 10 hours a day on the phone trying to catch a signal with someone in Gaza, and then as soon as we do, [we ask] who do we need to contact? What numbers do you have? And then after that, we start to play a game of telephone."

She said it's "very difficult" to get through and they're trying to get electronic SIM cards to family members to make communications easier. While she'd also like to see the federal government and other political leaders take a stronger humanitarian stance, she'll keep going with her efforts. 

"Really it's just a game of just going back and forth until we succeed in whatever it is we're trying to do."

Canada voted earlier this month in favour of a non-binding motion before the United Nations General Assembly calling for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire." But in a year-end interview with CBC News chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada's support for Israel has not changed, despite the UN vote.

"We've always said that Israel has a right to defend itself in accordance with international law. We have always called for the protection of civilians," he said. 

Working to reunite families

Hamiltonian Rani Hemaid has also been calling on the government to do more as a way to help.

Like Elewa, he was born and raised in Gaza, leaving during the 2014 war. "I still live the nightmares," he said, of the impact of violence he experienced there.

Hemaid's mother, father, brother, sister and 10 nieces and nephews all still live in Gaza. 

On Oct. 10, his family survived an attack that destroyed their family home, so Hemaid started working to bring them to Canada.

But he ran up against the limit of Canada's immigration measures, which until this week, was limited to bringing in Canadians, permanent residents, their spouses and children. 

A portrait of two older people, an adult and a child posing in the atrium of a tall building.
Rani Hemaid (right) with his daughter Alma (second from right), mother, (second from the left) and father in Cairo early this year. Hemaid is working to bring his parents and other family to Canada from Gaza. (Courtesy Rani Hemaid)

On Thursday, Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the government will start granting temporary residency to extended family members including spouses, common law partners, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents or grandparents, who want to leave Gaza. However, movement out of Gaza remains extremely challenging, said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a media release. It may also not be possible as countries set their own entry and exit requirements, it added.

Working alongside other community members with family in Gaza, and some elected officials, such as New Democratic Party members of parliament Matthew Green and Jenny Kwan, Hemaid has been lobbying the government to adopt such changes by going to Ottawa, taking part in a press conference and letter writing.

After news of the change broke on Thursday, he told CBC Hamilton via text that he was "thrilled to hear" it.

Hemaid said the change still excludes people in Canada who are not permanent residents or citizens from bringing in family, and does not permit people to bring their aunts or uncles to Canada, which he would have liked. 

"The most important [thing] is to see how the government will reflect these on the ground in terms of how fast applications can be approved and people can be evaluated," he wrote.

Hemaid told CBC Hamilton earlier in the week being unable to bring his family to Canada has made him feel guilty and has prevented him from sleeping and eating. 

He was dreading Christmas, he said, because government officials generally become harder to reach — yet his advocacy work will continue.

"We know once Christmas hits, there is no one to pick up your call. All the constituency offices are closed, everyone is celebrating their holiday, and we are mourning our families," he said. 


Justin Chandler is a CBC News reporter in Hamilton. He covers all sorts of stories but has a special interest in how public policy affects people. Justin covered current affairs in Hamilton and Niagara for TVO, and has worked on a variety of CBC teams and programs, including As It Happens, Day 6 and CBC Music. He co-hosted Radio Free Krypton on Met Radio. You can email story ideas to justin.chandler(at)cbc(dot)ca.

With files from Thomson Reuters, CBC News, The Associated Press