Scarlett spent three weeks in Gaza. The babies she met looked 'vacant'.

In March, Sydney psychologist Scarlett Wong wrote three farewell letters and sent them to her husband for safekeeping. She wanted to explain, so that her six-year-old and 11-year-old twins wouldn't feel angry if she never made it home.

Then she hopped on a plane and headed to one of the most dangerous places on Earth right now — Gaza.

Scarlett considers her life to be very privileged. She lives on the north shore of Sydney, is well-educated and her family is in good health. But her father was a Vietnamese refugee, and social justice is a very strong value that was instilled in her growing up.

"The way I see it, especially coming from my background, if you have that fortune and that luck it's a responsibility to do something positive with it and not just improve your own life," she told Mamamia.

It's how she found herself in Rafah for three weeks, offering her psychology services via Doctors Without Borders to a desperate population.

Scarlett Wong spent three weeks in Gaza from mid-March. Image: Doctors Without Borders.


By the time she arrived, Gaza was five months into an attack by Israeli forces after Hamas launched a coordinated attack from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,200 people and taking 251 people hostage. The Palestinian death toll was sitting close to 31,000 according to OCHA, when she entered via the Rafah Border Crossing (which Israel closed just a few months later in May). Now, the fatalities sit at over 37,000.

It wasn't Scarlett's first time in Palestine. She went on a mission there in 2021 and has previously helped out in Uganda. But she describes what she witnessed in March, in an area less than half the size of Canberra, as "the worst humanitarian disaster I have ever seen."

"Normally in places where there might be starvation it's because of an environmental issue, but it's not like that here. If you click your fingers, Israel could open the border and there are hundreds of trucks waiting outside with food that's rotting away, and then you cross the border 20 metres away and there's everyone starving," she said. 


"I have seen starvation. I never seen people be starved."

What this can look like on a person is a vacant, frozen expression. It's a common response to trauma as well, which is inescapable in Gaza. Scarlett became used to meeting people with the numb expressions of apathy on their weary faces.

"Normally, babies coo and smile and they engage with their mums. But when they are malnourished, they just look like they're vacant," she said.

The most heartbreaking part for Scarlett was the children. When she was there, there were 17,000 orphaned children in Gaza and they were trying to track down child heads of households.

"So we're talking 12-year-olds who might have to look after their siblings and a bunch of other kids that they may have encountered."

A picture a child in Gaza drew for Scarlett. Image: Suppled.


Back in March, Gazans in Rafah were still trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy amongst the daily death and destruction raining down on them. It was still bustling, and they still tried to have a bit of a daily market. But her replacement reported back that in just a few short weeks everything had changed.

"By the time she left it was a ghost town, it was just Israeli tanks and flags. The only other thing she saw were orphaned children wandering around begging for food and water from anyone... obviously no one had evacuated them or told them where to go. They weren't attached to anything, so they were just wandering around amongst these Israeli tanks."

It's an image that has stayed with Scarlett, as she continues to watch the horrors unfolding in Gaza from the safety of her Sydney home.

"People think Palestine is this developing place where that's normal. It's not. It's like's got a 97 per cent literacy rate in terms of education, they have a very high level of skills. It's one of the contexts I've never had trouble recruiting staff," Scarlett told Mamamia.

"It's not normal to see children wandering around as orphans. They're normally clothed properly, they go to school, they're very well looked after. These children are literally with their families one day, and the next day on the street with nothing and no one."


Staying human in a war-zone.

When Scarlett is asked about what she did to help people in Gaza, the assumption is that as a psychologist she was doing complex trauma counselling. With the amount of death and injury these people are experiencing, it's not a surprising theory.

But it couldn't be further from what was needed.

Her job in the short time she was there, was to help Gazans re-establish what keeps them feeling human. With such a dense population, she was only seeing people for one session in which she tried to give them hope, or problem solve with them on how they were going to survive the week.

Stationed near the Emirati Maternity Hospital, Scarlett was helping a lot of new mothers who had just given birth an hour earlier. Some of them were recovering from c-sections performed without anaesthesia and were spending 24 hours in an overflow tent before being sent back into refugee camps with little to no baby supplies.

WATCH: The last hospitals in Gaza.

Video via A+ J

"We were doing problem solving, like where are you going to go? Is there anyone to help you? Normally in Palestinian society they have mums and sisters and a whole community around them, but obviously a lot of them had lost that," Scarlett explained. 


Scarlett found herself setting up mother's groups (a foreign concept for Palestinian women, because they don't ordinarily need them), to try and connect women in similar areas.

One of her other projects was establishing breastfeeding friendly zones. New mothers were coming to her colleagues and begging for formula. The stress of their situation and their starving bodies was preventing them from lactating. They were watching their babies wither away before their eyes.

Scarlett noticed a midwife having firm discussions, telling the mums they shouldn't be relying on formula because it was going to run out. To keep trying to use their breasts.

"There's not heaps of mums that do these missions for obvious reasons," she told Mamamia.

But as a mum herself, Scarlett understood the mental state these mothers were in, in a way her colleagues couldn't. Talking to the mums, she realised that even trying to do a successful breastfeed while living in makeshift shelters with very little privacy — and in a conservative society — was only exacerbating their problems.

She set up breastfeeding rooms for women to take their hijab off in, and breastfeed in as calm and quiet an environment as possible in a war zone.

New mums in Gaza are returning to makeshift tents surrounded by bombing. In her short time there, Scarlett tried to create some normalcy for them. Image: AAP.


On one particular day, Scarlett was asked to help with a 17-year-old girl. She'd lost her entire family.

"I was saying, 'I know you're going to get through this'. I don't know if she's going to get through it... but in that moment, all you can do is try to put as much hope into that session as you can," she said.

On another day she helped a woman who had just lost her baby in an airstrike. She'd lost another child the same way in 2021.


The trauma, devastation and loss in every person she met, was palpable.

"I thought they'd be angry."

Scarlett holds onto a lot of anger for what she witnessed on the ground, and continues to witness from afar, in Gaza. But she's never seen that anger reflected back at her.

"This is what always surprises me," she said. "I thought they'd be angry. [But] even in 2021, and now, I've never seen the level of anger that I thought would be appropriate for what's happening to Palestinians."

"They don't take sides, they just want it to end," she explained. 

"I used to be like, 'I'm so angry, This is so unfair.' And they would say to me, 'don't waste your energy on something you can't control, we just have to put our energy into helping everyone who's still alive'. They're very philosophical about it."

There's sadness everywhere — and fear.

"Everyone's saying my aunt, my father, my family is dead," she said.

Palestinian children looking at the damage done to a school sheltering displaced people in June, 2024. Image: AAP/Jehad Alshrafi.


Scarlett felt the terror herself. Every night she would return to the house she was staying in with other colleagues and listen to the bombs whistling towards them only to explode some 200 metres away and shake the windows and doors.

"It felt like we were in a cage. In the morning, I'd talk about it with the kids, and they'd go, 'did you hear the quadcopters?' They knew all the different names and all the newest technology they [Israeli defence forces] had to kill people," she remembered.

Scarlett thinks about her last day in Gaza in early April a lot.

"There was a little girl who I used to see at the clinic all the time. She just hung around and would smile and laugh and play. She knew that day was different, because she saw that I had my bag with me, and she held on to my arm and wouldn't let go."

"Don't let her fly away. Don't let her fly away," she told Scarlett's driver through tears, chasing the bus as it left for the outside world.


"She was probably about eight years old in between my kid's ages," said Scarlett. "And I remember thinking, why? What makes me different from her? What makes her different from my kids? .....absolutely nothing except for a passport, some pieces of paper. But her life is somehow so much less than mine just because of birth?"

It's one of the reasons Scarlett wants to go back. She'd return in a heartbeat, even now the situation is so much more dire. The day before she left last time, fellow Australian Zomi Frankom was killed while working in Gaza for World Central Kitchen.

She was 42 — a year younger than Scarlett. She thinks about her all the time, but it doesn't deter her desire to go return.

"It's hard to explain. But they're such beautiful people and for me it's so painful watching from afar," she told Mamamia. 

"If you see the kind of difference you can make by being there versus what I'm doing here, it's impossible to describe the difference."

As the offensive in Gaza drags into its ninth month, Doctors Without Borders is among those calling for an immediate and enduring humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and Israel to prevent further civilian deaths and allow aid workers unrestricted access to provide lifesaving medical care.

You can find out more about their work in Gaza, here.

Feature image: Scarlett Wong/Doctors Without Borders/Abdel Kareem/AAP.