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A family fled Rafah as the war closed in. Now, they're living in a bombed out school

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israel has expanded its military operation in Rafah in the south of Gaza, and people are now fleeing the city en masse trying to find shelter wherever they can. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv reports with NPR's Anas Baba in Gaza on one family who fled Rafah and are now living in a bombed-out school in the city of Khan Younis.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Twenty-seven-year-old Mona Abu Issa is cooking onion in a big cast iron skillet balanced atop a grate. A wood fire burns underneath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING)

LONSDORF: She stirs in some canned corned beef.

MONA ABU ISSA: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: "There's no gas," she explains, "so we have to build a fire." This makeshift kitchen is outside, and wood smoke blackens the concrete brick wall nearby. It's one of the only walls around that's still standing.

Khan Younis was the epicenter of heavy fighting, Israeli airstrikes and shelling a few months ago. The city is in ruins. Piles of rubble lay as far as the eye can see. Skeletons of former buildings jut out dramatically, including this multistory school that Mona and her extended family - 20 people total - now call home. It's mostly crumpled, but four classrooms are partially standing. Four different families live in each.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Inside the family's classroom, children run around the open space. Sheets are draped from the ceiling in an effort to create privacy. A blackboard still hangs in front, and someone has beautifully scrawled the Muslim prayer in chalk. Laundry is drying on string woven across like a giant web.

ABU ISSA: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Mona explains that earlier in the war, her family housed eight other families in their home in Rafah all fleeing from the north. They never thought that they, too, would be displaced. Rafah had been declared safe by the Israeli military, but then a few weeks ago, the military dropped evacuation leaflets from the skies.

ABU ISSA: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: "I felt panic," she says. The displaced families they were sheltering had told them, when the leaflets come, you must go. Her 24-year-old brother Ibrahim, nearby, chimes in.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: He says the leaflets dropped in the morning, and by lunch the Israeli military had started bombing. They ran.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: They really only brought clothes, he says, and some canned food. They fled to Khan Younis, an area they knew was destroyed, but it was the only place they could think to go. It was a family that they had sheltered who had returned to Khan Younis who gave them the tip about this classroom. They feel lucky they found it.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Ibrahim says when they first got to the classroom, it was a mess. So they swept. They mopped. They sorted through the destroyed furniture and supplies, organized it all to reuse it.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Ibrahim shows off a small bathroom stall they made in the corner. One wall is a tall metal cabinet. The door is a chalkboard attached by its side.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Inside is a toilet. The family used the little savings they had and bought it for around $30. There isn't running water in Khan Younis anymore - there's barely water - but they chipped a hole in the wall behind the toilet so the waste falls down below. This toilet was important, Ibrahim says, because his 80-something-year-old grandmother is with them. She's disabled. Her name is Maryam. She's at the other end of the classroom holding a young baby.

MARYAM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Maryam was a little girl back in 1948, when Israel was created and Palestinians were forced in the war to move from their land to places like Gaza. Her family walked on foot from Jaffa, outside of Tel Aviv, and they made a new home in Rafah. She's lived there ever since.

MARYAM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: "They told us Gaza was safe," she remembers, "so we settled here." And now she's been displaced again.

MARYAM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: "Where can people go now?" she asks. "Nowhere is safe. There's nowhere to go," she says.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Anas Baba reported that story in Khan Younis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.