Paying tribute to fallen Palestinians, compatriots in Malaysia prefer home to safety?

23 Nov 2023 08:46am
FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSE - A Palestinian boy checks a damaged street in the aftermath of an Israeli raid at the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank on November 21, 2023, as violence has escalated in the occupied Palestinian territory amid Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza - AFP
FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSE - A Palestinian boy checks a damaged street in the aftermath of an Israeli raid at the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank on November 21, 2023, as violence has escalated in the occupied Palestinian territory amid Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza - AFP
KUALA LUMPUR - The toddler, cherubic with wide eyes, cooed unintelligibly at the camera during a video call from Gaza, Palestine, but to his 40-year-old father Waleed Almahallawi, it proved his son was a genius.

His brother Dr Wesam Almahallawi, 43, an assistant professor at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, was not as easily convinced. But Waleed’s insistence charmed him, bringing a smile to his sombre face as he spoke to Bernama about his last video call with his brother sometime last month.

”Every time he (Waleed) calls me and I open the video, he tells me, ‘My son wants to talk to you,’ (even though) he’s too young and can’t speak,” Wesam said with a small laugh.

But then the smile froze, his face falling. As he continued talking, his presence shrunk even further.

That video call was the last time Wesam saw his two-year-old nephew Muath and his brother. Waleed, his wife and their four children were killed when the building they were sheltering in was destroyed in an Israeli missile strike on Oct 25.

Fifteen other family members also died in the attack. Wesam’s parents and four other siblings survived as they were elsewhere when the tower collapsed.

Waleed was pursuing a Ph.D as an online student at USIM.

What will haunt Wesam to the end of his days is the fact that Waleed was supposed to come to Malaysia with his family to continue his studies but could not get the necessary approval to leave Gaza.

"I was waiting for him to come. He was supposed to come in 2024,” Wesam said.
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For the Malaysia-based friends and family members of the Palestinian students and graduates of Malaysian universities who died in the ongoing Gaza-Israel conflict.

It has been a special kind of agony trying to balance the need to return home to see their relatives for the last time and the desire to keep their spouses and children safe in Malaysia.

Waleed was one of at least eight Palestinian students and graduates of Malaysian universities who died, many with their families, in the conflict.

Others include USIM alumnae Dr Saeed Dahshan, International Islamic University Malaysia alumnae Dr Tayseer Ibrahim, and USIM Ph.D student Mohamed Jamil Alzaanin and his wife Kholoud Elzaneen, who was pursuing a master’s degree at USIM.

The latest victim was Universiti Malaya graduate Dr Raed Qaddoura, who died on Nov 20 with his family including his two-week-old twin daughters.

The Palestinian Embassy in Malaysia said the numbers are not conclusive as communications are spotty and many bodies are still buried under the rubble.

Since Oct 7, some 14,100 people in Gaza have died as Israel relentlessly bombed and mounted ground attacks in the Gaza Strip. More than 5,000 children have died, according to health authorities.

There are currently more than 800 Palestinian students in Malaysia, most of them from Gaza. First Counsellor at the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Malaysia Mohammed Abudagga told Bernama every Gazan in Malaysia has lost a family member in the conflict.


Wesam, who teaches communications at USIM, said he was not worried when the conflict first began. Neither he nor Waleed thought it would be different from the other times when hostilities would flare up for a bit before dying down.

But the scale of death and destruction soon disabused him of the notion.

"I started getting worried when (Israel) started attacking hospitals and invaded Gaza,” he said, adding this conflict was different and much worse than the previous ones.

Not surprisingly, some friends and family members told Bernama they could not help engaging in "What-If” scenarios after learning of the deaths of the Palestinian students and others who graduated from Malaysian universities, wishing some twist of fate could have kept them safe in this country.

USIM Associate Prof Dr Ibrahim Fahad Sulaiman, who was Mohamed Jamil’s Ph.D supervisor and friend, said the last meeting he had with Mohamed Jamil was over his thesis and corrections that needed to be made.

"He came to see me 10 days before he left for Gaza (on Sept 10). Just a month and three days later, I never expected someone I know to die in a war and with the whole family too. It was so shocking.

"I wish I could have delayed him (in retrospect), but (he really) wanted to leave for home,” he said, adding Mohamed Jamil worked for the Ministry of Interior and National Security with the Palestinian Authority.

Ibrahim, who hails from Nigeria, described Mohamed Jamil as a dedicated student and said 20 of his family members died in the bombing.

Mohamed Jamil was killed along with his wife, four of his five children and his parents on Oct 10. Prior to returning to Gaza, he had been in Malaysia for over three years. His wife, who was also a USIM student, and children were with him in Malaysia from May till September this year.


For Palestinian student 22-year-old Basma Almaza, it was a quirk of fate that had her friend Sulaiman Abu Anza, 23, succeed in getting home to Gaza to see his mother. Given that traveling to Gaza was very difficult even before the conflict, it was almost amazing that anybody could make it home.

Both Basma and Sulaiman went to Albukhary International University in Alor Setar, Kedah.

She told Bernama the travel process - involving securing a passport, visa and permission to enter Gaza from the Egyptian Army and Israeli authorities - was extremely difficult and took months, saying she herself had tried to go home but failed.

But somehow, Sulaiman managed to do it. In October, Basma received notification that Sulaiman had died in a bombing.

"When I received the news on Oct 7, I was asking around, ‘Is he in Gaza?’ That’s why I said maybe this is a lie. It's so hard (to go to Gaza). I don’t know how he got back there,” she said.

Pretty much stuck in Malaysia, she said she has since lost touch with her family, adding that she hoped they were still alive.

Basma, who is studying business administration, described Sulaiman as akin to a big brother who took her under his wing and helped her to acclimate to college life and Malaysia, and someone who was curious and intelligent. She added he was always willing to try something new and did not give up easily.

"(Like) football. Even though I could see he wasn’t good at it, he was still trying,” she said.

Regardless of their desire to leave or stay, Palestinian students in Malaysia do not have a choice but to remain and risk breaking immigration laws. One, who asked to remain anonymous, told Bernama he decided to stay with his wife and children, which brings another set of complications.

"I registered (at the university) for a second degree (so he can get a student visa) because I cannot live here illegally,” he said, adding it was not easy to live in Malaysia as he could not work. International students and asylum-seekers are not able to work legally in Malaysia.

There are efforts to provide for graduating Palestinian students who may run afoul of Malaysian immigration laws. The Palestine Embassy’s Abudagga said the embassy was in discussion with the Malaysian government to allow the students and graduates to stay in Malaysia.

But for Wesam, the choice of staying or leaving was moot. While he wants his children and wife to stay safe in Malaysia, he has made his choice.

Describing his brother as someone younger but who "took care of everything”, he said going to Gaza would be a fitting tribute.

"I prefer to die with my brother than ...,” Wesam paused, fighting back tears, before continuing, "... rather than to live safe far from him.”- BERNAMA