Families fleeing Ashkelon rocket, Hamas ‘hell’ live in Jerusalem hotel

Several Ashkelon families are currently residing at the Eyal Hotel in the city center, evacuated with the help of Shalva (Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities). 

Among them is Aviva, 36, the mother of four children, ranging in age from one to seven, among them a child on the autistic spectrum. She talks to In Jerusalem about the hell she experienced in the first week of the war and about her current situation in Jerusalem.

“The beginning of our journey was evacuation through fundraising from Shalva, an association that helps families with children with special needs,” Aviva recalls.  

“We arrived at the end of the first week of the war, and since then they extended our stay thanks to more donations. Until November 25, we are covered by the Tourism Ministry allowance that was transferred to cover our stay here. I am an educator, and my husband is a bus driver in the center of the country. 

“During the first week, the rockets were fired non-stop, all day all the time. And on Saturday, when at the end of that first week there was a fear of terrorists infiltrating Ashkelon, our house became literally a war zone. All the time we were running to the mamad [safe room], and in the end we just slept there because it was impossible to get up on time and run there with four small children. 

DIRECT ROCKET hit in Ashkelon, Oct. 9. (credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)

“We live in a private house, we have a yard, and we booby-trapped the yard so that if a terrorist tried to enter, he would run into something, fall, maybe get cut, and there would be time until he reached us. That’s what we dealt with most of the time, how to protect ourselves.”

“They saw our house becoming ‘not a home,’ as every utensil and every piece of furniture inside the house became a defense tool. We are talking about the year 2023, in the State of Israel, in the city of Ashkelon. And I was there, with four small children, including one with special needs. There were screams, there was crying, my husband was released from conscription because of our situation – we saw the boy screaming and crying and suddenly defecating on himself, and now try to explain to him that there is a shelter for his protection – but he is unable to understand what a shelter is, he cannot. 

“And we, too, tried to calm down, hug, help – but we both felt like we were next to a ticking bomb, and that’s how it was, really hell,” she says.

Already before the war, she says, the Ashkelon Municipality had been unable to meet the educational and therapeutic requirements of special needs children.

And then she turned to The Shalva National Crisis Response Center, which helps families with children with special needs, and requested evacuation to Jerusalem.

How did it feel after you evacuated your family to Jerusalem? 

At first, we were afraid to go out. This is Jerusalem, there are Arab residents here; my children hear Arabic and feel threatened. I also felt fear – so how could I reassure my children? The first nights I didn’t sleep at all. I was sure that it could happen here too; that someone would enter the room. I didn’t know anyone here, of course, but we, the evacuees here, have created a community; and there is help. And then professionals from the Jerusalem Municipality started arriving, to provide solutions. 

The first two weeks we didn’t go out, we were afraid. We started a little bit this week, they took us to the Western Wall, on an organized tour, but we were still very scared. Our confidence had started to return, but there was a terror attack this week, and everything has come back – all the fears, all the anxieties.

How did it feel to get so many responses and offers of help such as Airbnb and private people offering hospitality?

It was heartwarming, but I became a suspicious person who doesn’t trust anyone anymore, who fears that behind a kind offer is someone who wants to take my life, to take advantage of the situation, so I decided: ‘Only a hotel.’

At that point, I didn’t care anymore if there were authorities to evacuate us or if I was doing it on my own. I had to get my children out of this hell and fast. The first Saturday after October 7, I swore to myself that I would not stay in this city anymore, I didn’t care at all how or where. It was just hell.

What sort of municipal assistance are you receiving?

With the exception of the organization that helps families with children with special needs, no one was interested in us, no one visited, no one asked. We have been here for three weeks, not a single representative of the Ashkelon Municipality has come here. Ashkelon surprised us badly. Nobody! I did the work myself – talking to the parents here at the hotel, who needs what, how many children with special needs, and then the staff of the Jerusalem Municipality came. At first, we couldn’t believe it when representatives of several Jerusalem Municipality departments turned up. They listened, they cared; they came to work with us, to help us. I mean, the Jerusalem Municipality? There are no words. 

The special education… and also Shalva, my child receives therapy at Shalva. He gets a communication therapist, an occupational therapist, and the equipment we need here at the hotel. We opened a nursery. Who brought the equipment? The Ashkelon Municipality? No, the Jerusalem Municipality! We get everything down to the smallest detail from the Jerusalem Municipality. We feel they care about us.

Your seven-year-old currently learns at a specially established educational institution opened in Beit Agron. Why don’t you exercise the evacuee option of integrating your children into local schools?

Because it is not clear to me how long our stay in Jerusalem will last.

There is a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know what is planned for us, what is expected, and this uncertainty makes it very difficult for us. Our children get an educational package and good therapeutic support here. Today, they are in a normal routine; they are more relaxed; their needs are being met; they are getting the best therapeutic, educational, and emotional response. 

If the children had not been evacuated to Jerusalem and remained in the inferno we experienced in Ashkelon – of sirens, the constant sound of bombs, stress, and lack of educational frameworks – they would have regressed and could even have become irreversibly damaged. It would have taken us many months to repair the damage, and it is not at all certain that we would have succeeded. And here in Jerusalem, they receive all this support, they give with all their heart, not out of politics but out of a clear statement that they care… My daughter started kindergarten here. When I see that there is a siren sounding in Ashkelon, I cannot imagine my children still being there. 

How do you see your future? What will you do when the war ends?

It is true that someday it will end, but as long as the children get the right support and treatment here and reduce the gaps, it is the best gift they will receive. They will have something to take with them when we get home. From the hell they came out of, if we hadn’t found the solutions that are provided for us here in Jerusalem, the damage would surely have been irreversible. It’s not just fears and post-trauma, it’s their special needs. Only a professional response makes it possible to overcome the gaps.

What would you like to say to the Jerusalem Municipality? 

I have no way to express my gratitude to the amazing team of the Jerusalem Municipality for all its offices and all the departments that came here. The schools have opened their doors, the community centers, it’s not to be taken for granted, Shalva – it’s a wonderful place. Never in my dreams did I imagine that my children would end up in such a place.

How do you see things?

Life has changed, nothing will ever be the same. 

We, the people of the South, have always been through times similar to these, and there was never a question of what to do but get up and carry on. But this time it’s different. 

It’s different because this time something so terrible happened. And I realized that if something happens again, it’s better to evacuate immediately; something we had never done until now. We knew about rockets and missiles, but I was never afraid of the infiltration of terrorists who come to kill.

Has it crossed your mind that Israel is not the safest place for Jews?

No. I still think it’s the safest place for Jews, and you also see what’s happening outside. The only reason people were murdered here is because they’re Jewish, so it doesn’t matter if you’re in Israel, or America, or Ethiopia – you’re Jewish and that’s it. ❖

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