Canadian man in Gaza says Ottawa has asked him to be prepared to leave with family

A Canadian man trying to get out of Gaza with his family says Global Affairs Canada asked him Thursday to gather his documents and be prepared to leave at any moment through the enclave's border crossing with Egypt.

Mahmoud Nasser said his wife, who has a Brazilian passport, answered the call from the federal agency in the morning and an official confirmed that the couple, Nasser's Canadian father and brother, as well as his Palestinian sister-in-law were all registered with Ottawa to evacuate.

Nasser, who is sheltering at a refugee camp that's a 20-minute drive away from the Rafah border crossing, said the official told them to be prepared and that a bus would be waiting for Canadians and their families on the Egyptian side once they were allowed to cross.

"They were inquiring about our documentation and ensuring everyone is ready," Nasser, 30, said in a WhatsApp call from southern Gaza.

"We each have a bag … with just two changes of clothes, I have my laptop, documents, but everything else, all my belongings, I'm leaving behind."

Nasser said the call from Global Affairs came a day after an apparent agreement allowed hundreds of foreign passport holders and dozens of wounded Palestinians to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing for the first time since the war between Israel and Hamas militants began on Oct. 7.

Lists of those allowed out that were published Wednesday and Thursday did not include Canada among several other countries.

Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday night that it was aware of reports that one Canadian citizen was able to leave the Palestinian territory at the Rafah border crossing with the help of a third party, but offered no further information.

Nasser was born in Gaza, immigrated to Canada in 2008 and returned to Gaza City from Mississauga, Ont., with his younger brother and wife in 2021 to be closer to his aging father.

He said Global Affairs did not provide a date or time for a potential evacuation, but told his family to watch for updated versions of the list posted online by the General Authority for Border Crossings in Gaza.

While the possibility of an evacuation is positive news, Nasser said he's worried about being able to get his wife, who is pregnant, and sister-in law across once Canadians are allowed to leave Gaza.

"It's kind of a dilemma for all of us," he said. "We're not sure what to do with this situation."

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not say Thursday why Canadians remain off the border crossing lists, calling it an "extremely complicated" situation.

"We're pushing on our friends in Israel, our friends in Egypt, working with the Americans and others to make sure that Canadian families get on the list. We're not going to stop until we get them out," Trudeau said.

"We are engaged in every way we possibly can be."

The Palestinian delegation in Ottawa said it couldn’t share any information about how the lists are assembled, and referred queries to Global Affairs Canada.

"Israel has been working since (Wednesday) to facilitate the departure of the thousands of foreign nationals from the Gaza Strip, and in this context has been also working closely with Canadian authorities," Israel's embassy in Ottawa said in a written statement.

The Egyptian and Qatari embassies did not have an immediate response to questions about the lists.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, the Canadian embassy in Egypt said Thursday that a team of consular officials was ready to help Canadians, permanent residents and their family members "as soon as they cross" at Rafah.

"We are in direct contact with the government of #Egypt to help Canadians leave," it said.

Those officials "are ready to move to the border as quickly as possible, once we receive the final approval from the local authorities to do so," Global Affairs Canada said in a Thursday afternoon media statement.

"As of now, the government of Egypt is only allowing foreign embassies to be on site at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing once their residents are confirmed to be evacuated from the Gaza Strip," the department said.

Global Affairs added it is telling Canadians "to be ready to depart once we are informed that they can cross the border."

Dalia Salim, a resident of London, Ont., who is trying to get her 66-year-old Canadian father out of Gaza, said she was trying to reach her father to tell him to head toward the Rafah crossing ahead of a possible evacuation.

"I'm very worried he'll miss that border opening," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "Some of them are using radios (to get news) so might hear this on the radio there. I don't know. I'm just so overwhelmed and so tired right now."

Salim, who has been communicating with the government on her father's behalf, said she got an email from Global Affairs late Wednesday night saying Canadians "will be assigned specific departure dates," that have not yet been set, to be allowed to cross at Rafah.

The email told Canadians and their eligible family members to have their travel documents prepared and to be "ready to travel at short notice" when contacted, she said.

Salim said her father retired last year and was spending time in Gaza with his aging mother. Her family was hoping her father would be able to evacuate with his mother but was worried she could be barred from leaving because she is Palestinian, Salim said.

"And if he comes back here, he won't be in a good state of mind just thinking about the rest of his family, everyone he left behind," she said. "He just wanted to go back to his land and back to his roots and just enjoy his retirement."

Global Affairs Canada said it's working around the clock to evacuate Canadians. "Canada has one of the largest contingents of nationals in Gaza," the department wrote.

"We have provided to regional partners a list of close to 450 eligible Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their family members who want to leave Gaza."

Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, is in the grip of a severe humanitarian crisis amid the siege imposed since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. Since 2007, Gaza has been controlled by Hamas, which Canada considers a terrorist organization. Over half the territory's population has fled their homes, and supplies of food, medicine, water and fuel are running low.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said Thursday that the Palestinian death toll in the Israel-Hamas conflict has reached more than 9,000.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, most of them civilians slain in the initial Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. In addition, around 240 hostages were taken from Israel into Gaza by the militant group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.

Fakiha Baig and Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press