After the war broke out on 7 October between Israel and Hamas, Ibrahim tried to contact his family. For a couple of days, he could not reach them.
Desperate to know what was happening in Gaza, his homeland, he turned to social media. "I saw a Facebook story, and the place looked familiar to me. I asked the owner about it, and he said it was the 'Kishko massacre.'
My heart sank. We are Kishkos, you know," said Ibrahim S Kishko, an MBBS student at Dhaka Medical College who came to Dhaka from Gaza in 2021.
Far from their homeland, in some dormitories in Bangladesh, Palestinian students like Ibrahim live with heavy hearts. They spend their days and nights under the constant weight of anguish.
Textbooks, exams and classroom lectures are the least of the things they can think of now. Thoughts of their beloved ones – fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and the faces that once brought them joy but have now probably been erased, or continue to live under grave risk of death – dominate their minds.
They miss the trees that shade their homes, the houses where their laughter once resonated through the walls and the playgrounds where their innocent joy knew no bounds. And they don't know if they will ever see them again.
When their homes are destroyed, to the world at a distance, they look safer in a foreign land. However, deep within, their hearts is Palestine – standing amidst the olive groves of their neighbourhood
In flesh and blood, they go about their daily lives, preparing for academic challenges. Yet, an unrelenting question hovers akin to a storm cloud on the horizon: "What will become of our cherished homes and our beloved people?"
The Business Standard sought to connect with two Palestinian students – one from the besieged Gaza Strip and the other from the West Bank – currently in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Life under Israeli siege and bombs
On 29 October, according to Ibrahim, a series of Israeli bombings destroyed houses and killed 75 lives of Ibrahim's Kishko clan. "The bombardment happened two days ago. Due to the lack of connection, I found out about it just last night [31 October]. I could not even reach out to my family. I talked to someone at the hospital, and he told me what happened there."
"Luckily, my father, mother and brother [managed to] evacuate but my uncles, their families, grandparents – a total 75 people of our extended family tree – were brutally killed," said a grieved Ibrahim sitting on his bed looking at the floor of Fazle Rabbi Hall, DMC.
The Gaza Strip consists of Northern Gaza, Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafah City among other cities. Ibrahim's family lives in Gaza City. But as a result of Israeli bombings, they tried to find shelter in Khan Yunis.
While his father and mother escaped to Khan Yunis City, their home which was in Gaza City, turned to rubble. The quarter where his entire family stayed is now in ruins. It was bombed thrice. "This death toll was [going] up until the morning, but the number might be increasing because many bodies might be under rubble as it was a crowded neighbourhood," said Ibrahim.
Finally, today [1 November] Ibrahim talked to his family. But it's tough because the connection is unstable, and sometimes Israel completely cuts off the connection. "Before today, I talked to them four days ago," he added.
They get each other's messages late because of the shoddy network. And from time to time, his family shares updates about how they're doing in terms of restricted access to water, food, electricity and the internet.
Ibrahim paints a grim picture of life in Gaza. Necessities like bread often require hours of waiting, and drinking water is a constant concern due to contamination.
"The last time I talked with my family, they mentioned that my brother had headed out in the morning to grab some bread. It's kind of like the naan you find in Dhaka. He leaves in the morning and doesn't return until the evening, so it takes him more than six hours just to get some basic needs, like pieces of bread."
Ibrahim's brother is 27 years old Muhammad S Kishko. He is a civil engineer and out of work.
In Gaza, a lot of the water is contaminated. Occasionally, the people receive help from others in the community, and if they're fortunate, they might have access to tap water. In emergencies, they have to drink straight from the tap to stay alive.
The family members now inhabit a crowded living space – akin to a shelter house where more than 50 people stay in some rooms. However, these rooms are not spacious enough for even six persons to comfortably sleep. The crowded living space is essentially a single, large room where they all coexist. This alternative is preferable to residing in the overpopulated schools, as space is scarce and the bathroom conditions are far from adequate.
"What's happening there is literally genocide against Palestinians, and encouraged by the silence of the entire world. They [Israelis] are intentionally killing civilians. It's the darkness of life. There is no electricity. The hospitals are suffering from a lack of fuel, and many of the hospitals are just out of order. The situation is really tough there," said Ibrahim.
He added, "Once this war started, the Palestinian embassy called us. They offered us some money as initial help."
'To us, Gaza is the sea of love'
"We have more than 70 students from the Gaza Strip alone here in Bangladesh and some more from the West Bank. We are trying our best to support them. Our embassy, like any other embassy, fulfils its role, now more than ever. Considering this critical time and difficult circumstances," Ziad Hamad, First Secretary of the Palestine Embassy in Bangladesh told The Business Standard.
In Bangladesh, there are around 100 Palestinian students. The majority of the students are in MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) and BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery). Some of them come to other universities like IUBAT and IUT. They stay connected and help each other if needed.
Despite the turmoil, the student emphasises the solidarity among Palestinian students in Bangladesh and the support they receive from their Bangladeshi friends, doctors, teachers and fellow students.
"Once I posted my story on Facebook that many of my family members were killed. Many [Palestinian students here] came to me and showed moral support," shared Ibrahim.
"We also have support from our Bangladeshi friends." He continued, "Many doctors, teachers and fellow mates called me immediately when they heard about the incident. They offered any help I needed."
So far, Ibrahim said, money has not been an issue. Under normal circumstances, Ibrahim's family sends him money from Gaza for his living expenses and fees. The family cannot now. "Money is not an issue [so far]. But in case we need help or money, they [embassy] will help, they will not leave us in the lurch," he said.
"To us, Gaza is the sea of love. So we don't want to cave to the Israelis. Everyone in Gaza likes to live, but the situation there doesn't allow us to live fully and peacefully. During my lifetime, I saw four wars just within these two decades," said 20-year-old Ibrahim.
Palestinians cannot move, cannot do anything without the nod of Israel. Palestinians want the Israeli occupation to end and gain freedom. "All we want is basic human rights," added Ibrahim.
"My worst fear now is losing my family [parents and brother] like my home — which is now only a memory and destroyed within seconds."
In less than 10 days from now, Ibrahim has to appear for a professional exam – the yearly exam for medical students. "But my mental condition is not stable. I'm trying to study, trying to concentrate, but to no avail. In the last two weeks, I could not study," lamented Ibrahim.
'How can I concentrate on my studies when my people are suffering?'
Like Ibrahim, Isaaq N Namoura is also going to sit for the second MBBS professional exam from Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College. Isaaq is from the West Bank. Although Gaza is mainly under attack now, the West Bank of Palestine is not safe. Also, Isaaq has friends in Gaza.
At a café in the capital's Gulshan, Isaaq was in a group study session with his friend, who was constantly helping Isaaq with his studies during these difficult times. Isaaq looked distressed and said, "I am trying to catch up for my exam. How can I concentrate on my studies when my people are suffering?"
After 7 October, Isaaq started losing contact with his friends in Gaza because their phones started to run out of battery and their power banks started to run out. The last time he contacted one of his friends in Gaza was a week ago.
"I heard that they charge their phones through some plugs and hospitals, the ones that had fueled reserves. Now there's no functional hospital in Gaza for a week and some charge their phones from car batteries."
Earlier in October, Israel's evacuation order asked 1.2 million Palestinians to move south from North Gaza. This order was met with backlash in the international community with the UN calling the order "impossible."
Many evacuees were killed or injured by Israeli bombings along the way while some made it to refugee camps in the south. But many had no alternative and chose to stay and die in their homes.
People in Gaza are waiting in long lines just to get bread, and sadly, some go home empty-handed. They're also queuing up for washroom access and to recharge their phones with car batteries. "Some of them haven't been to the washroom for days. Some of them haven't had a proper meal for a week now, living on bread. Honestly, only god knows how they're holding up," said Issaq.
Issaq acts as a representative of the Palestinian student body in Bangladesh — meaning, although there is no formal student union here, he remains in direct contact with the embassy here and shares information with fellow students from the embassy. "If they have any information about our families, which is highly unlikely, they will obviously tell us," he said, noting that the embassy cannot respond to all their queries about their families because they do not have the information.
To Issaq, the difference between life in Dhaka and Palestine is massive.
"In Dhaka, I can travel more than 10 kilometres without being blocked. So that's a grace." He continued, "I have access to constant safety. I can hold some water — safe to drink, to shower and to do daily activities. My electricity supply is uninterrupted, barely facing any power outages. I can rely on continuous access to gas, water and electricity. Additionally, the peace of mind I enjoy while travelling adds to the fact my life is significantly better compared to that in Palestine," he added.
Life under Israeli apartheid regime
Isaaq fears that Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed from Gaza now – the people who are native to the occupied Palestinian territories and wish to remain on their land.
The long history of Palestine and Israel dating back to 1948 and earlier is one marred with violence, war crimes and a brutal apartheid regime against the Palestinians. So Isaaq fears ethnic cleansing, more so now, "because what remains after Gaza is the West Bank. Now, in the West Bank, it's not a safe place. It has never been safe," he said.
21-year-old Issaq suffers from trauma caused by the attack on his family at the hands of the Israeli government. His brother-in-law has been imprisoned in Israeli prisons and tortured for 14 years. "He's been seven years on a false charge and another six or seven years under administrative detention – which basically means you are in their prisons, but no one knows why."
Issaq also recounted a specific traumatic incident when his father was forcibly taken from their home by the Israeli forces at 3 am during a winter. Stripped of his clothing on the suspicion of concealing a weapon, this degrading experience unfolded in front of Isaqq's family.
"In front of my very own eyes," said Issaq. The psychological toll is monumental, "If this happened to me in front of my children, honestly, killing me is better than doing this to me," he said.
In the West Bank, Palestinians cannot travel to nearby villages without passing through Israeli checkpoints, facing Israeli blockades, encountering military personnel or dealing with settler threats, which include settlers pointing guns at the Palestinians.
There is also the daily loss of land — taken by Israeli settlers and Palestinian houses in Jerusalem are also confiscated.
When asked how they take land, Issaq explained in detail. "The Israelis established a systematic approach that has spanned over 75 years, involving the gradual reduction of Palestinian lands. The West Bank is currently divided into three distinct areas: A, B and C.
Area C comprises regions with direct proximity to Israeli borders or illegal settlements, often within a range of 100 to 150 metres."
Isaaq continued, "It's worth noting that the actual distances may exceed the official figures, as I can attest personally since I reside near a settlement."
In areas designated as B, which includes Isaaq's residence, a constant sense of threat exists. There, construction and farming activities are heavily restricted in these areas, and any structures built must adhere to specific regulations. For instance, buildings in these regions often have open roofs or lack cement or concrete roofing, according to Isaaq.
"In my village, my uncle faced a distressing experience when he decided to build his dream home in area B. He dedicated his entire life savings and years of hard work to complete this house.
Tragically, the day after he moved in, without even waiting a week, Israeli authorities arrived at his home around 2pm. They forcibly evicted him, along with his wife and 15-year-old child, from their newly built house," recounted Isaaq.
That's not all. Isaaq shared how the authorities proceeded to break into his uncle's house, causing extensive damage to the property. After exiting the house, they issued his uncle a written notice, stating that he must demolish his home at his own expense. Otherwise, they would return to demolish it themselves, charging him for the cost of their bulldozers and operations.
Currently, Issaq's uncle has been forcibly evacuated from his new house, and he now resides in his old residence – which consists of only two rooms, one for him and his wife, and the other for their seven children. The living conditions are quite basic, with a small washroom located outside and a minimal kitchen
Tragically, Isaaq's uncle's new house is slated for demolition, and the financial burden of the destruction falls on him. "I mean honestly, at this stage, killing people is better than oppressing them to this stage," said Isaaq.
This systematic process unfolds as the B areas see the gradual construction of new settlements, houses, and projects, which restrict Palestinian access to these territories. Whenever a portion of Area B is taken over, it is reclassified as Area C, effectively cutting off Palestinian access. This shift results in Palestinians being barred from these areas solely due to their Palestinian identity.
The grim reality is that, although Issaq's current house is in Area A, it is only a matter of time before its status changes. Meanwhile, some Palestinian villages in Area A that are legally under the Palestinian authority experience raids closer to Area B.
Israeli military forces protect groups of armed settlers who intimidate the local population, demanding they display Israeli flags on their homes within 24 hours or face brutal consequences, including the destruction of their village and the construction of a new settlement.
This ongoing system perpetuates the daily loss of land, homes and lives – all under the Israeli apartheid regime, occupation and oppression.