Salma Shurrab, journaling - left: redhead woman dressed in cream looking outside a car window. Right: a journal filled to the brim.
Salma and her journal. All photos courtesy of the interviewee.

I Made it Out of Gaza. Now I'm Fighting for a Second Chance at Life.

Salma Shurrab, 22, is one of the few Gaza citizens who managed to flee. All through the war, only one thing has kept her going: her treasured journal.

I first met Salma Shurrab, 22, the same way I met many young Palestinians who’ve been speaking up about the war in Gaza: on TikTok. Born and raised in the strip, Salma was a fifth-year dentistry student and an established social media marketer before the war. In early December, she managed to cross the Rafah border into Egypt with her youngest brother, leaving the rest of her family behind. Now, she is trying to rebuild her life.


“I had a good life in Gaza, full of opportunities, achievements, good times with friends and family,” says Shurrab, who’s currently in Cairo. “Living in Gaza comes with a lot of obstacles and restrictions. At the end of the day, we are an occupied country. But I have a strong personality, and was always able to resist and overcome.”

Salma Shurrab – left: redhead woman dressed in cream looking outside a car window. Right: Woman in a scarf doing a presentation in a large room.

Salma Shurrab, 22, is a former dentistry student from Gaza.

Shurrab was about to graduate from Gaza University before war broke out. Around the time she escaped, Shurrab’s university was bombed by Israel, leaving her without any records of her academic career. As of Wednesday, the 16th of January, all of Gaza’s seven universities – mainly used as shelters at the moment – have been attacked and (partly) destroyed by Israeli Defence Forces.

“Unfortunately, I never thought relying on the education system in Gaza would be so risky,” Shurrab tells VICE. “Now I'm in a position where I can't even complete my education.”

Shurrab was in Gaza for the first 60 days of the war. “I was hopeless, furious, terrified,” she recounts. “I didn’t know if I was going to survive.” As a resident of Gaza City, she and her family were notified to leave their home in October. They decided to go to a barren plot of land near the home of friends. There, they sheltered with 40 other people in makeshift tents, keeping most of their belongings in the car. “We had no materials, no food, no water, no electricity, no sleep, no energy, no medications,” Shurrab said. Her parents are still there.


While evacuating, one of the few belongings Shurrab made sure to pack was her diary. “Journaling was the only thing I could do to really zone out from this ugly world,” she says. “I’d sit there with my pen and write how I felt, what I went through. I documented everything: the suffering, the living in unsanitary conditions, the fighting, the bad, sleepless nights.”

“I managed to save some good memories for myself as well, even in that time,” she adds. “When we laughed, I documented that; when we had a sleepover together, I documented that; When we celebrated my brother's birthday – even though it wasn't like before – I documented that.”

Salma Shurrab, journal – left: open pages of a diary with sunflower decorations. Right: a journal filled to the brim with bookscraps.

Shurrab's diary.

Shurrab was introduced to journaling at a workshop she took years ago. During the war, her journal kept her connected to her past, and helped her process what was happening. Her diary is full of small objects she found along the way: supermarket receipts, fallen leaves, papers – everything is proof of what she’s had to endure and overcome.

“Experiencing so much trauma all at once can be very numbing,” Shurrab says. “When I was there, I wasn't feeling any kind of emotion, only fear. If you told me I had lost my home, I would tell you, ‘OK. just like everyone else.’ If you told me I had lost a friend, I would tell you, ‘Peace be upon her.’ No tears, no nothing.” It was only after some time in Egypt, where she could catch up on sleep and other needs, that the heft of what she’d been through really hit her.


“I feel that people in Gaza are not realising how much they're hurting because all they're trying to do is survive the day,” Shurrab says. “They're trying to evacuate every two hours, to feed themselves and drink water that isn't clean, to console their friends. In Gaza, there’s no time for healing.”

Salma Shurrab, journal – two pages of a diary filled with different scraps including papers, dried leaves and flowers, writings and a feather.

The two first pages Shurrab wrote about the war. Left: a supermarket receipt with all the groceries Shurrab's family purchased as the war was looming. They thought the provisions would have lasted them a while, but they finished quicker than expected. By then, the supermarkets were empty. Right: Page reading: evacuation day 1.

So far, the international community has been focusing on the urgent physical needs of the population of Gaza – and with good reason. Israeli bombardment has left over 25,000 civilians dead, tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands internally displaced, creating a humanitarian crisis of alarming proportions. Cramped in unsanitary conditions and without access to healthcare, over half of the population is starving, and infectious diseases are on the rise.

But as dire as the medical situation might be, civilians are also experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. Even before the war, studies suggested that up to 70 percent of Gaza citizens could be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. A 2022 report by Save the Children found that minors were particularly affected, having faced up to six life-threatening events – including five wars and a pandemic – in the first years of their lives.

Today, “ongoing exposure to the horrors of war has exacerbated mental health needs for everyone, and children are navigating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and severe depression,” wrote a representative from Project HOPE, a mental health charity collaborating with local partners to provide support to Gaza citizens.

Salma Shurrab, journal – Pages covered in handwriting and scraps, including "smoking kills" from a pack of cigarettes, dried plants, a picture and a drawing

After a few days in tents, Shurrab's family decided to go back and find shelter back home, but had to evacuate again shortly thereafter. They repeated this process several times, just like many others in Gaza struggling to determine where they can be safe.

Shurrab believes her journal is the only reason she didn’t lose all hope. “In Gaza, people need something to connect them to who they were before the war, to what they had,” Shurrab says. “My journal did that for me.” One day, Shurrab hopes to be able to go back to Gaza and help people process their trauma through journaling. That’s why she is now looking for opportunities to resume her education in a mental health-related field, either in Egypt or in a country accepting Palestinian refugees.

“God gave me a chance to get back to life. So I can't just live normally,” Shurrab says. “Now, I’ve reached a point where I’ve asked myself, ‘What else can I do?’ I can be more helpful by getting an education and helping people. At the end of the day, parts of me are still there.”

Shurrab and her brother are desperately trying to get their parents out of Gaza, but the border between Gaza and Egypt is basically shut. People can only leave if their name is published on a “coordination list”, a registry of the people who got special laissez-passer permits to cross the border, which are nearly impossible to obtain. 

In November, about 600 people with dual passports were allowed to leave, plus a few more injured and in critical condition. Figures have not been updated since then. According to The Guardian, some Gaza residents are now paying bribes to be put on the list. Shurrab made it clear that this was not her case: She did not pay anyone to get out. “All I can say, it was just luck,” she added.

Salma Shurrab, journal – Pages from a journal full of scraps, drawings and decorations.

Left: Shurrab collected the signatures of the 40 people sheltering with her family whom she grew really closed to and didn't want to forget. Right: A piece of the last pack of chips she could find. "My brother surprised me with the last pack of chips," she said. "I was so happy and I ate one chip every day so it could last as long as possible."

Even though she feels enormous privileged for having a second chance at life, Shurrab has been struggling to get by in Egypt, a country offering no support to Palestinian refugees. With little cash and job opportunities, making rent has been a challenge.

And yet, Shurrab is powered by unwavering optimism. “What my parents told me when I had to leave them – which was the hardest moment of my life– is, ‘Don't worry about us, just figure out how to get your life together,’” she says. “They were never worried about me because they knew my potential. I know can provide more from my family, myself and others too.”

Scroll down to see more pictures:

Salma Shurrab, journal – Pages covered in flowers and drawings

As she was sheltering with her family, Jenna met a little girl named Jenna and the two began journaling together.

Salma Shurrab, journal – Pages covered in writings, pictues, a tea bag and dried flowers.

In the pages on the right, Shurrab documents finding out that her and her brother's name were on the coordination list. "It was the end of the war for me and the beginning of a new chapter," she said.

Salma Shurrab, journal – left: woman bent over a worktop, explaining how to scrapbook to a

In Egypt, Salma organised a workshop to teach other people how to process their feelings through journaling. One day, she hopes to hold similar sessions for young people in Gaza.