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Gaza Diaries

Messages of Concern: An Introduction

When Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began on October 7, I sent messages of concern via WhatsApp to the writers I had mentored over the past three years. Our connections had been forged through We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a Gaza-based project that seeks to amplify the voices of young Palestinian writers. Israel had not cut internet access yet; we could share messages with relative ease.

Nour was first to text back. “It’s like an end of the world film,” she wrote. She lived in Gaza’s north, the first area to be bombed. I’d worked with her on an essay about the stresses of making the transition from university to the work world after graduation. “Was it too much for me to be ambitious in Gaza? Too much to have a dream?” she’d asked there. She’d gotten a job as a translator for an international agency and contacted me from time to time for consultation on some nuance or another of English vocabulary.


A recent WANN cohort.

A few days after our first exchange in October, Nour texted that one of her sisters and her nephews had been recovered alive from the rubble of their house when an adjacent building was bombed. Her other sister’s building was under an evacuation order. Within a week, single check marks on WhatsApp alerted me that my messages were no longer reaching her. I’ve poured texts into that silence ever since, trying to sustain a sense of connection.

WANN’s writers, mostly in their early twenties, have lived through at least five Israeli aggressions, which had never stopped them from writing. One detailed a conversation in which her mother shared memories of visiting her father in an Israeli prison, while another drew parallels between Shakespeare’s Othello and the Israeli occupation. Infusing all the work was an engaged curiosity, a fierce love for Palestine, and a hunger—for greater educational opportunities, for travel, and above all, for freedom. But Israel’s current war on Gaza has devastated their lives unlike any that came before, transforming the way I work as a mentor with my writers, and deepening my relationships with them in ways I could not have anticipated.

When the bombardment began, I’d been mentoring Roaa, a college student from Khan Yunis with a passion for physics. She had just submitted her story, “Entanglement, but it had not yet been published. We texted almost daily through December, interrupted by periodic internet blackouts, during which I worried and hovered over WhatsApp.

Roaa described sleepless nights, the constant whine of drones overhead, scant electricity, a dwindling food supply. With her university closed and public life too risky, Roaa was confined to the apartment where she spent her days reading, which she said offered temporary escape. She re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and Little Women. She read 100 Years of Solitude aloud to calm a younger sister during long nights of bombardment. When their block was targeted and their family evacuated, Roaa stuffed seven books, her most valued possessions, into her emergency bag before they fled.

After a month’s agonizing silence, she resurfaced on WhatsApp. Her family, still together, was huddled in Rafah, bracing for an Israeli ground invasion. Roaa had learned their home in Khan Younis had been bombed. “I can’t stop thinking about my bookshelf,” she said in a voice message, “because I wasn’t able to bring all the books I had. But it’s not all about the books, it’s about the memories.”

I’ve been learning to navigate the delicate balance between encouraging these young people to continue writing and simply bearing witness to their struggle to survive, offering a lifeline of concern and solidarity. Their lives have become a tally of losses—of their homes, family members and friends, as well as any semblance of what life was like prior to October 7. In every message I now receive, the first thing a writer is likely to say—and possibly the only thing before the fickle internet blinks out—is: “I’m still alive.” Even so, my belief in the power of their stories and the importance of their voices makes it difficult to resist the temptation to propose they channel their experiences into words. Recently, WANN received funding that allows us to pay a stipend to writers for their stories. This is an added benefit, as income is so desperately needed in Gaza.

When Mustafa, one of the first writers I mentored over two years ago, told me in early December that he was coordinating a neighborhood food distribution project in Khan Younis for displaced people, I suggested he write about it. It was almost a week before he could get online to respond. In the interim, he and his wife Reham, who was nearing term in her pregnancy and not well, had shuttled from Khan Younis to Rafah and back again, juggling the need for greater safety with the hope of locating a still-functioning hospital for the birth. “There are many stories I would like to share,” he wrote, “but now I have no time except to provide my wife’s basic needs.”

I could hardly argue.

On the last day of the year, Mustafa and I were able to communicate in real time on WhatsApp for a luxurious two hours. He mentioned he had been working that day at the food distribution site. “I’d love to know more,” I texted, hoping the hint landed gently. “You can ask me questions,” he said, “and I will answer.” So I did, and he responded in a series of messages. We parsed details over the next few days. Meanwhile, the flat where Mustafa and Reham were staying was issued an evacuation order, and she had begun to experience labor pains.

I wove Mustafa’s responses into a unified narrative and sent it back to him in the only way he could download it, paragraph by paragraph. “Amazing,” he replied. On January 8, two days after “Provisions, pots, and firewood: Feeding our neighbors in Gaza” was published on the WANN website, Mustafa and Reham braved tanks and drone fire to make their way at daybreak to the hospital. The next message featured a photo of a cherubic baby, her eyes closed, enveloped in folds of pink fleece.

In January, I learned from a WANN staff member that Aseel, a former mentee, was back online after a long silence. She had remained in the north of Gaza when the population was ordered to move south. Aseel had been a law student at Al Azhar University and a representative to the Youth Advisory Panel-Palestine (YAP), a UN-sponsored body addressing issues facing Palestinian youth and advocating for social change. Once reconnected, I asked if she were interested in creating another story for WANN. “This war makes me feel that I am an ‘out of service person,’” she wrote back. “I feel that I don’t have the ability to commit to do anything, even my favorite things, like writing.” She preferred to write for WANN again, she went on, “when this war comes to an end … if I survive!”

I was reluctant to push. But then, she shared a letter she’d written to friends and YAP colleagues in appreciation of the urgent appeal for information they’d posted on social media during the long weeks she’d gone silent in the fall. The letter details multiple desperate flights from her home during the early air and ground assault on the north of Gaza, the shower of broken glass and choking dust from the bombing of a neighbor’s house, days of clearing rubble and hauling water through ravaged streets. “I’ve become completely certain,” Aseel writes, “that my unforgivable sin was studying law and having faith in human rights. How could a Gazan believe in the system of international law anymore? It has failed us.” Yet every note of hopelessness is balanced with wry humor. “I’m treating some of these written lines from this tragedy as a great legacy! Oh, who knows?! Maybe you’ll use some of them in my eulogy.”

The letter, and our work to prepare it for publication, helped Aseel find her way back to writing and, as she acknowledged, renewed her will to survive. The electronic SIM card a friend had donated enabled her to access the internet, but the signal was weak; the only place she could connect was outdoors in the open, a highly vulnerable spot. Mostly, she went online at night. I was uneasy picturing her in the dark under a sky studded with Israeli drones and warplanes, phone in hand, responding to my notes and edits. But I understood she was making a stand against fear and despair, not only reclaiming her identity as a writer but also affirming the act of writing as one of resistance.

In my fantasy, I welcome these writers and their families into my home in Los Angeles. We sit down to a meal together, enjoying the warmth of each other’s company in safety. As the level of desperation and starvation has intensified, more WANN writers are exploring ways to leave Gaza, an expensive and uncertain proposition at best. It’s still unlikely that I will ever meet any of them in person, though the months since October 7 have forged bonds that transcend the mentor and mentee relationship. I want these WANN writers never to give up writing, but above all, I want them to live.

Sarah Jacobus is a Los Angeles writer and teaching artist in improvisational storytelling and literary arts for older adults. She is a licensed clinical social worker and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Her essays have appeared in the "Los Angeles Times," "Zócalo Public Square," and other journals and anthologies. She has been active in Jewish organizations advocating for Palestinian human rights for over thirty years and has mentored We Are Not Numbers writers since 2021.

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