An Oldham woman has described feeling ‘dead inside’ as her fiancé is stuck in Gaza in a tearful interview with The Oldham Times.

Glodwick resident Afshan Abubakar has described feeling helpless as she watches the news coming from Gaza, as Israel bombards the region with thousands of bombs, leaving thousands dead, in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack by Hamas.

Israel has been accused of collective punishment following the attack, with water and electricity cut off to people living in the Gaza Strip.

Afshan said she and other Muslims condemn Hamas’s attack, but she added that she does not think attacking Gaza in retaliation will get rid of Hamas.

The 42-year-old mum of three, who works for a charitable organisation, has been off sick from work due to the stress of the situation, and she now has just £16 in her bank account.

Describing herself as usually quite a private person, Afshan is not a member of her local mosque, but recently has been attending protests calling for a ceasefire.

The Oldham Times: Afshan at a protest in Oldham on Wednesday, October 18Afshan at a protest in Oldham on Wednesday, October 18 (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Afshan met her fiance, Hani Abualqaraya, through volunteer work. She helped to teach English to children at the Al Fakhoora school in Gaza City, over Telegram and Zoom.

While Afshan has not visited Gaza herself, she met Hani online through the volunteer work, before finally meeting him in person in Egypt last year, where they got engaged.

Having divorced her previous partner, Afshan said: “I never thought that I would find someone and marry after my divorce. It just happened through volunteering work, helping to teach the group of kids from Al Fakhoora.

“I met him through the teacher, and we got to know each other for a year. Then we met in Egypt and we decided to marry, we got engaged.”

While Afshan and Hani consider themselves Islamically married, their marriage is not recognised by the UK government, meaning they must apply for Hani’s visa as a fiance, rather than as a spouse.

The couple submitted the application on September 20 – more than two weeks before the terror attack which started the current outbreak of war.

Prior to the war, Hani even sent money he had earned to Afshan from Gaza, to help her with bills and food for her children amid the cost-of-living crisis.

Afshan says he has a good relationship with her daughter and that he hopes to teach her son how to ride a bike.

Afshan said: “I know it’s extreme, but I feel dead inside. I feel helpless. I’ve been watching the news like crazy.

“When Rishi Sunak was talking in Parliament, I was listening to him in the hope that he would say he would go to Israel, we need to de-escalate the war, and talk about peace and stability – a ceasefire.”

However, the Prime Minister did not call for a ceasefire, instead telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he was ‘proud’ to stand with Israel and that the UK Government ‘wants you to win’.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (October 25) the PM said there was a need for “specific pauses, as distinct from a ceasefire” to allow people to leave Gaza and for aid to be transported into the territory.

The Oldham Times: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held meetings with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv on Thursday, October 19, to discuss the Hamas conflict (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held meetings with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv on Thursday, October 19, to discuss the Hamas conflict (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP) (Image: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

A family separated by war

On October 12, the Israeli military warned that the entire population of north Gaza, around 1.1 million people, should move south within the 24 hours that followed.

However, at the time, a spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General said it considered it “impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences”.

Hani is stuck in north Gaza.

The 28-year-old is sheltering at a United Nations-run health centre near Jabalya, after his flat was bombed. He has been separated from his mother, and doesn’t know if she’s even still alive.

Afshan said moving from the north to the south is difficult, with conditions dangerous amongst a barrage of bombs.

She added: “The flat was bombed, everyone left. In the evening there was a complete blackout. He lost where his mum, his dad, and his brothers were. He had his 12-year-old sister with him.

“I said ‘Hold on to your sister,’ I was scared he would lose her overnight. With bombing, if you have to run, how can you see where you’re running?

“I told him to switch his phone off as it’s very important that he saves that battery life so he can contact someone for help in case he doesn’t know where he’s going – there’s complete destruction if you walk around.

“When I walk around here, I notice the buildings, so I know where I am, you know what I mean?”

‘When your mouth is really dry you can’t talk properly’

Some of the family is now reunited, but Hani’s mother is still missing.

Afshan added: “They can’t find water, it’s hard to even find bread. They have to go out and really look.

“When I call him, first I ask him ‘Are you OK?’, then I ask him ‘Did you find water yet?’ and ‘Did you have something to eat?’

“I remember a day or so ago he lied to me, I could tell he was lying because when your mouth is really dry you can’t talk properly. I could not understand what he was saying.

“I could tell he was lying when he said he had hummus. He said: ‘I had hummus and water’.

“Ya allah, he’s doing his best to survive, for the sake of me. I said to him 'Until your last breath, I will do my best to get you here, and until your last breath, do your best to survive'.

“They can’t sleep, they cannot sleep. If they sleep, a bomb falls, they’re dead.”

‘My husband is not a terrorist’

Ashan has called on the Government to act. She said: “I feel the UK Government is to blame, I feel Israel’s Government are to blame, I feel the USA’s Government is to blame.

“All the country’s governments failed to recognise a great humanitarian crisis.

“I feel let down, I feel like even the Muslim countries, the Christian countries, could have put their foot down a bit more and said: ‘How can you give collective punishment?’”

Afshan added: “They’re getting leaflets thrown from the air to say you need to move to south Gaza, but it’s still not safe to travel, because you’re still getting shot at, you’re still getting bombed.

“He saw the leaflets fall and he was crying. He said: ‘They’re telling us to go, where do we go? I don’t know where to go.’

“How disgusting is that? Imagine being in a warzone and getting a leaflet from the air telling you you’ve got to go.

“Your home is your safe place, isn’t it? Many people are not leaving their homes from Gaza because they’d rather die in their home than outside in an open place.

“They’re going to die there anyway. If they move to the south of Gaza, what’s there? What facilities do they have?”

The Oldham Times: Afshan Abubakar with her fiancé HaniAfshan Abubakar with her fiancé Hani (Image: Afshan Abubakar)

‘I cried like a baby last night’

Throughout the war, Afshan has kept in contact with the children she was helping to teach English over Telegram and Zoom.

One of those children was Mohammad El Ramlawy.

Afshan says the 13-year-old, who used to call her ‘mum’, was a fan of K-pop bands including Blackpink and BTS, and he hoped to visit Korea one day.

Now, Afshan has been told he is dead, killed in an air strike alongside his brother and father.

She said: “I was crying all night. I’ve got bad news that one of the children who was closest to me, I’ve known for three years, was killed in a strike.

“I swear to God, I cried like a baby last night.”

Afshan said she used to enjoy connecting with the children through teaching.

Speaking through tears, she said: “I used to do fun topics with them, make them laugh. It was not just about teaching English, it was, for me, about connecting with them, and supporting them mentally.

“When there was war last time, I remember him screaming with his little brother, and I started talking to them about what they like, distracting their minds, to help them.

“This time, I wasn’t able to reach him. I feel like I let him down.

“I feel I didn’t reach him on time, maybe he was scared, he needed comfort. I wasn’t there for him.”

The Oldham Times: Afshan says she found out her former pupil, 13-year-old Mohammad El Ramlawy was killed Afshan says she found out her former pupil, 13-year-old Mohammad El Ramlawy was killed (Image: Submitted by Afshan Abubakar)

She added: “All of Gaza City is gone. People have lost hope, they’re scared. They’re waiting to die; they’re waiting for their turn. These people are petrified, there’s no humanity.

“I’m disheartened by Rishi Sunak. I thought ‘He’s an Asian Prime Minister’, I was happy at first thinking he’d have a better understanding of discrimination and prejudice.

“I died inside the moment I heard the words from his mouth: ‘We want you to win’. What do you want to win? The death toll of the babies, the children, like Mohammad El Ramlawy?”

Trouble getting a visa

Afshan has been trying to get her husband out of Gaza and into the UK on a family visa since late September.

However, she has been finding the process difficult. Afshan says she is required to provide debit card details to use the visa helpline as she desperately tries to get an update on the situation, and she has already spent £60 on phone calls, despite having her own money troubles.

As we speak, Afshan tries to call a helpline set up in response to the crisis in Gaza. The first two times she calls, technical problems on the other end mean the call disconnects. The third time, she is able to get through – but is told by a member of staff that the helpline cannot look at the details of a visa application.

Afshan added: “I’m struggling because I’ve got no one to help me submit Hani’s application. This war took me by surprise.”

The Oldham Times: Afshan's window has posters supporting Palestine and encouraging a boycott against certain companiesAfshan's window has posters supporting Palestine and encouraging a boycott against certain companies (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Despite having just £16 in her bank account, Afshan said she cannot apply for any benefits as then Hani would not be eligible to come over.

She said: “I don’t meet the criteria to bring him here then, you can’t be in receipt of government funds. No child benefit, no Universal Credit, no nothing.

“Just the money I earn from my job, and now I’ve had to take time off work because my focus is not there. I’m so distressed, I’m always crying, I can’t sleep at night, I’ve got three kids to look after. It’s hard, it’s so hard, and I’m on my own, no moral support.

“I’m dying inside. Every second’s vital, is my husband alive? Is he OK? What sort of life is this?

"How is it fair to me? What have I done to be punished? What have I done wrong to be punished?

“Collective punishment includes me, I’m being punished. They’re talking about hostages, the whole of Gaza are hostages, if you want to look at it like that. They’ve got nowhere to go, they did nothing wrong.

“How do two wrongs make a right?”

Call for ceasefire

Afshan also called on Oldham’s local councillors to do more to show support. She said: “Even the Asian councillors, where are they? They weren’t at the protest. They weren’t anywhere.

“What are they standing for? What are they getting paid for? Why are they not helping?”

Afshan wants to see a ceasefire in Gaza to save lives.

She added: “The ceasefire needs to be immediate. There’s only going to be more loss of life. There’s no guarantee that Hamas will be killed and found.

“What if they kill all of the Palestinians? Will that still guarantee Hamas will be killed?”

Oldham Council declined to comment on this story. The Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office were contacted for comment.

Local MP Debbie Abrahams was contacted for comment.