Canadians whose families are still captive in Gaza watch with hope as the first group of hostages is released

T-shirts with the names of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas on display in Toronto, November, 2023. (Credit: Barb Simkova)

Canadians whose loved ones are still being held captive by Hamas in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack watched the release of the first group of hostages on Nov. 24 with hope, even though their own family members weren’t among the initial group.

The first group of hostages included 13 Israeli women and children, along with 12 Thai foreign nationals.

Hamas has held more than 200 hostages since an attack on southern Israel October 7, including not only Israelis captured in the attacks in southern Israel, but also citizens of Thailand, Tanzania, the Philippines, and more than 20 other countries.

The initial round of hostage release and temporary ceasefire for four days includes an agreement to return 50 hostages, expected to be released in smaller groups during that period. 

For some Canadian Jewish families, the initial release remains cause for celebration. Maayan Shavit, a Toronto resident who lost her aunt in the Hamas attack on October 7, has two cousins, Carmel and Yarden Gat, who are still hostages.

“I am ecstatic that the 13 women and one boy and two little girls are home finally home in Israel, not in the hands of evil,” she told The CJN.

“It’s giving me hope that my cousins will be home soon.”

“It’s a joyful day, and a very sad day, it’s hard to explain the feeling.”

Shavit says she has not been contacted by the Israeli or the Canadian government about her cousins’ abduction and does not have updates on whether they will be in the coming rounds of hostages released.

“It’s a lot of sleepless nights. I’m always saying that the unknown is what kills.”

She says the mixed emotions are a big part of life right now.

“At least those 13 people are back home now. They’re OK, not physically harmed… it’s [the] emotional [and] mental we need to heal now.

Yet she got a positive boost from watching the hostages’ return Friday on Israeli TV.

“The moment we knew they were in Israeli territory, everyone was cheering … it gives us hope, to all of us. It’s a joyful moment, and I am going to hold onto the joyful part of it, because we need the hope.”

“The Israeli people are celebrating even for a moment … even [with] how sad and hard… it’s a success,” she says.

“Sixty days is a long time, especially for a child. It’s happening now and we want to keep the train moving.

“We will give the ceasefire as long as it takes to get our families home.”

Maureen Leshem’s cousin Romi Gonen was shot and wounded before being abducted on Oct. 7, which was the last time the family heard from her. Leshem, who lives in Toronto, says it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for her family in Israel.

“They are genuinely happy for those families that have their loved ones released. And at the same time, they are torn and heartbroken, and scared for their loved ones, including my cousin Romi,” says Leshem.

“My aunt, Romi’s mother Meirav, is laser focused [on the return of all of the hostages], she is determined… They’re trying to be cautiously optimistic, at the end of the day, these are terrorists that we’re negotiating with.”

Leshem says she feels a strong sense of unity, particularly among the families of hostages over the past six-plus weeks.

“The families of the hostages [have] literally all become one family advocating for each other,” says Leshem. “The reality is, they just they don’t have a choice, they just have to keep moving forward.”

The families have as their goal the return of all of the hostages, she says, not only their own family members.

“There’s a million of emotions going on, but what I get after speaking to [family in Israel] is that they are remaining laser focused on the end goal, not only to get Romi out, but to get all hostages out.”

“I know that they are praying and hoping that the transition of all the hostages is as fluid and as seamless as possible, considering the trauma that they’ve endured for the last six and a half weeks. Everyone’s still in action mode right now.”

As part of Leshem’s efforts to speak up from Canada about the hostages and their stories, she participated in a downtown Toronto installation, Threads of Hope, on Nov. 22, which featured 240 white shirts on a line, representing the hostages. Leshem says the event at David Pecaut Square provided an opportunity to open a conversation with passers-by.

“We [who have family members who are hostages] feel that every single hostage is a part of our family, but I think sometimes for people to see an actual person – ‘here is someone who has a cousin’ – can be eye-opening for some Canadians,” says Leshem.

A co-founder of a charity that helps women and children of all backgrounds who have fled gender-based violence, Leshem is also concerned about the lack of support for Israeli women who have reported being victims of rape and sexual violence by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“I think having people around the world telling Israeli women who have been raped, not supporting women, asking them to prove it. I think that it actually is extremely dangerous for all women worldwide.”

In her charity work, she says, those questions aren’t and shouldn’t be asked.

“We have never once asked a woman to first of all, prove herself to prove whether she was sexually assaulted or raped or physically assaulted,” says Leshem.

“And we’ve also never asked what background women come from, and it should be no different for Jewish women worldwide, Israeli women worldwide. It should be no different.”