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Montreal woman desperately trying to get family out of Gaza

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Israa Hilles wakes up every morning with a lump in her throat.

She checks her phone daily for morsels of news from her family, trapped in Gaza as the war rages on around them.

"It's not easy for me to see my family members, my friends and my country destroyed," she tells CTV News. "All my mind and heart are with them all the time."

She says 37 members of her family have died since the war started last year.

Now, she's trying desperately to find a way to get everyone still alive to Canada as quickly as possible.

"My three brothers, two sisters, and their children in Gaza have endured an unimaginable plight," she tells CTV News. "The recent events have left them homeless and deprived of basic necessities such as water, food and crucial medical aid."

Last October, Hilles says she flew from Canada to the Middle East in a frantic attempt to reach her loved ones.

"[I] tried everything I could to enter Gaza, including speaking with the embassy, but I was unable to reach them," she said. "I waited for seven months in Turkey waiting for a ceasefire."

Over the course of the last few months, she says she has paid tens of thousands of dollars to help her mother and four siblings, some with spouses and small children, out of Gaza and into Egypt.

Two of them have made their way to Canada, while the rest are stuck in Egypt awaiting visas.

One of Hilles' sisters and a child remain in Gaza, as well as a brother, Ismail, who has been missing since Dec. 16.

Members of the Hilles family. (Israa Hilles)

Hilles says she has reached out to 49 members of Parliament across all provinces of Canada, as well as federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller, for help.

"No one seemed to care about my family or all the Gaza families," she said. "I have reached out to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt and the Egypt Embassy in Ramallah...Unfortunately, these efforts have yielded no tangible results."

In a letter to Miller, Hilles wrote: "Despite our desperate pleas for assistance, the Canadian government's response has been disappointingly slow, leaving our family members stranded in Gaza without a clear path to safety. The lack of support in facilitating their evacuation from the conflict zone has only intensified our worries and sense of helplessness."

Defeated, Hilles returned to Canada on April 20.

For its part, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says it has introduced special measures for Canadians whose families are in Gaza, including increasing the number of temporary resident visas (TRV).

"While movement out of Gaza may not currently be possible, the ability to exit Gaza may change at any time," the department notes. "At present, the Rafah border crossing is closed. Canada continues to put forward names of people who passed preliminary eligibility and admissibility reviews to local authorities for approval but does not ultimately decide who can exit Gaza."

IRCC points out that as of June 8, 2024, 287 people who exited Gaza on their own were approved to come to Canada.

Of that number, 74 people have arrived in Canada under the temporary public policy.

The Hilles children. (Israa Hilles)

Despite the horrific conditions surrounding them, Hilles says she commends her young nieces and nephews for their ongoing resilience.

"It was incredibly difficult to explain the situation to them. They witnessed things no child should ever have to see or hear," she said. "We did our best to protect them, offering as much comfort and reassurance as we could, but it was heartbreaking to see their confusion and fear."

Every second feels like a lifetime, Hilles sighs.

"We are desperate and running out of options but we remain hopeful and continue to fight for their safety," she said. "We hope and pray for their safety and for the chance to reunite our family soon."

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