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How one displaced Gazan is surviving the war by baking

Nisreen Shehade has been baking bread for her family and other displaced Gazans in a tent. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)
Nisreen Shehade has been baking bread for her family and other displaced Gazans in a tent. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

Before the war broke out in Gaza, 26-year-old Nisreen Shehadewas working in a dental office and ran a decently successful baking business on the side. She sold her signature chocolate brownies and cookies to local customers in aesthetically-pleasing cardboard treat boxes labeled with her small-business sticker, “Nisreen’s Diary,” and tied with a simple piece of twine.

Born and raised in Gaza, Shehade says baking was her passion. Now, it brings the self-taught chef no joy.

“I know that we have to bake in order to survive, not I have to bake because this is fun and that I’m enjoying it,” Shehade says.

Prior to the outbreak of violence in October, Shehade’s Instagram feed was full of artfully taken photos of the wide variety of food she’s made, ranging from Indian butter chicken to homemade biscotti to seafood pasta. But ever since war between Israel and Hamas began in her homeland of Gaza, a lot has changed for Shehade.

“My life has shifted from a very busy life consisting of going to the gym, doing my business and everything in between to a meaningless life where we wait everyday for something good to happen,” Shehade says. “Before all of this, I was full of dreams. But now, life somehow feels empty.”

‘There is no place left for us to go to’

Nisreen Shehade lost her cat Mesho to the war. (Courtesy of Nisreen Shehade)

Before the most recent bout of violence, Shehade lived with her husband in an apartment with their cat, Mesho. She took pride in curating items and aesthetic dishes for her kitchen, which was often featured in the background of her social media posts marketing her business and her love for cooking. She lost both her kitchen and her cat to the war.

Shehade’s family’s home in Gaza City, which her grandfather built 60 years ago, had a courtyard with a pomegranate tree. That, too, has been reduced to rubble. Now, she, her husband, and her family of seven are displaced and are living with 25 of her and her husband’s relatives in a cramped apartment in Rafah, where she sleeps on the floor.

Shehade and her family are among the 1.4 million displaced Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah, a city in the southernmost region of the Gaza Strip where Palestinians have been urged by Israeli forces to evacuate to since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. But the area is far from safe, with recent Israeli airstrikes and a potential military operation threatening the dense population there.

“After Rafah, we have no place else to go,” Shehade says. “We’ve evacuated our house from the north, and now we are in the south, and there’s no place left for us to go to.”

Learning to survive through hardship and displacement

With bakeries closed for the past few months in Gaza due to the scarcity of electricity and flour, Shehade has been baking bread for her family and other displaced Gazans in a tent. The freshly baked bread, once an ordinary thing that graced most every Palestinian’s table at mealtimes, is now a luxury. However, the process is tougher than it used to be, with essential ingredients in limited supply and marked up in markets, and no electricity or gas to fuel ovens.

“We have to be careful of what we are using because we know that there isn’t enough supply of it and it’s very limited,” Shehade says. “We’ve been struggling through the whole process.”

Shehade manages to get by, by adjusting her recipes and using as little of the ingredients that are in limited supply as she can. The end results aren’t the same as what she’s used to dishing out, she says, but people are satisfied with getting fed a warm meal at all.

Another way Shehade has been making it through this war has been by documenting life among displaced Gazans for her tens of thousands of followers across Instagram and TikTok. Creating content has made her feel connected to the world and also helped her disconnect from her circumstances, she says, while giving her a sense of purpose. The support she’s felt from her followers online has encouraged her to continue telling her story and showing the world more of what she and others in Gaza have been living through.

“I’m trying to show them the life that we are living right now, the struggles that we’ve been enduring and how we can manage to – despite all these struggles – live and to somehow dream and to continue our lives,” Shehade says.

But the trauma of what Shehade has been through, and continues to go through, looms large. She struggles with depression and the loss of much of her previous life.

“I just can’t process the fact that my house is gone,” Shehade says. “For me, it’s just like a nightmare.”

Looking toward an uncertain future

As violence rages on around her, Shehade grapples with the uncertain future lying ahead of her. Before fighting between Israel and Hamas began, she had a dream of expanding her small side-hustle into her own real bakery. But now, she says she can’t even think about baking and cooking.

Instead, she wants to focus her efforts on pursuing a masters degree in public health. It was an interest she had before the war, and she even applied and was accepted to programs in the United Kingdom. She deferred those programs at the time, not prepared to take that step. But, with everything that has happened since, it’s something she’s set on pursuing if she gets the opportunity again.

“There is a public health crisis that is increasing massively, especially after the destruction of hospitals and our healthcare systems,” Shehahde says. “If I am sure of one thing, it is that I want to help rebuild Gaza again, I want to help rebuild our healthcare system. I want to make a change in my country.”

Shehade doesn’t think life in Gaza can be restored immediately or will be like how it was before. But she’s hopeful the war will end and that things will get better.

“If there is one message I want to say, it is that people of Gaza deserve to live and deserve to dream,” she says. “We had lives before and our lives simply got stolen from us and we deserve to have that life back. It’s as simple as this.”


After months of not being able to find any of the ingredients needed to make one of her favorite recipes, Nisreen was recently able to find the fresh vegetables to whip up a vegetarian take on the traditional Palestinian dish of Maqluba. She shared the recipe – and her iconic dish-flipping-moment – on her social media and is inviting others to join her in order to spread awareness about Palestinian culture and shed light on what’s happening in Gaza. Here’s her recipe:

Vegetarian Maqluba

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

  • 2 medium-sized potatoes
  • 2 medium-sized eggplants
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 5 cups rice, washed
  • 1.5 liters of vegetable broth or water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon seven spices mix
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves


Instructions

  1. Begin by cutting your veggies and then half-fry them (I skipped this step, but frying adds so much flavor).
  2. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and then layer the veggies in the cooking pot and add 5 cups of rice on top.
  3. Pour in 1.5 liters of hot broth or water, then sprinkle with 1 tsp of each of these spices: salt, black pepper, seven spices, cinnamon, turmeric, and ground cloves.
  4. Put on heat and let it simmer, then cover and cook on low heat for about half an hour or until the rice is fully cooked.
  5. Cover and let sit for at least 10 minutes before flipping it! Then, enjoy your delicious meal!

Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Quraishi also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.