In the wake of escalating tensions and deadly violence between Israel and Hamas, some of the first Canadian evacuees fleeing the conflict arrived in Toronto on Friday evening.
First-Hand Accounts of Horror
At Toronto Pearson International Airport, the emotional toll of the war was evident. “The horror of what occurred there is affecting everyone and the raining of rockets and the trauma that kids are experiencing… it’s just a really sad, difficult time,” shared Kinneret Butterfield-Morrison, one of the Canadian citizens who managed to evacuate.
Butterfield-Morrison described the alarming situation she experienced while staying with her aunt in Rehovot, close to Tel Aviv. “Despite being in Israel many times in my life, I’d actually never been there during something like that. So I was a bit confused. And then my aunt sort of came in to the room and said, ‘We gotta go right now.’”
She, along with her brothers and father, had traveled to Israel to commemorate the first anniversary of her mother’s passing. Now back in Toronto, Butterfield-Morrison expressed relief: “We’ve all had very little sleep, but we’re super happy to be home.”
The Overwhelming Sense of Reality
Yaron Butterfield, Kinneret’s brother, also vocalized his feelings upon arriving in Toronto, saying the whole experience felt “surreal.” Recalling the terrifying journey, he said, “A part of me feels like I’m just back in the car, rushing from the apartment to the airport, wondering if I’m going to get hit by a bomb.”
For Yaron, relief only set in when they arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and were greeted by the sight of Canadian flags. “It wasn’t until we got to Ben Gurion Airport and saw the Canadian flags that suddenly my stress went down,” he admitted.
Other Canadians Share Their Stories
Also among the evacuees was Khalid Karomi, a Syriac Catholic priest from Cambridge, Ontario. Karomi was leading a pilgrimage of 40 people to the Holy Land when the conflict erupted. Expressing his gratitude, he stated, “Thank God, we are saved because we arrived by the first airplane from Tel Aviv to Athens…we are very lucky.”
Ottawa’s Response to the Crisis
The federal government took swift action, announcing evacuation flights in response to a surge in commercial airline cancellations in the region. As many stranded Canadian citizens reached out to consular officials, Ottawa acted promptly. It was reported on Thursday that out of approximately 5,700 Canadians registered in Israel, about 1,600 had shown interest in seeking assistance to depart.
Tragically, at least three Canadians lost their lives since the violence flared up on October 7. Among the casualties were two Canadian men targeted by Hamas gunmen at a music festival and an Israeli-Canadian mother killed in her kibbutz. Commenting on the profound grief and devastation, Butterfield-Morrison lamented, “Jews haven’t experienced this since the Holocaust. And this is a major massacre and the stories every day, the stories of the people missing and the people who lost their lives is heart-wrenching. I just… I can’t even describe.”
Continued Efforts for Evacuation
While the war intensifies, with Israel continuing its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the risk for civilians remains paramount. Israel recently issued an evacuation order for nearly 1 million Gaza Strip residents, anticipating a ground offensive. The health ministry for Gaza reported that around 1,800 individuals have died due to the conflict so far.
Approximately 150 Canadians are currently in the Hamas-controlled region. However, given the current situation, humanitarian corridors aren’t available, making airlifts impossible.
In a show of unwavering support and commitment, Ya’ara Saks, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, announced at Pearson Airport that the evacuation flights from Tel Aviv would continue “as long as there is a demand to do so.”