On October 6, 2023, Palestinian karate champion Mais Elbostami went to bed excited after winning a competition in the Gaza Strip. She woke up the next day to a changed world.

"I won first place," the modest 18-year-old told AFP from a Cairo suburb, where her family now resides after fleeing the war and where she is training with the aim of one day representing her country internationally. She mentioned that she hadn't even put up the medals she won on October 6 before Israel initiated a relentless military campaign in retaliation, which has, according to Gaza's health ministry, killed over 38,000 Palestinians in the past nine months.

Immediately, she and her family fled south from their home in the northern Gaza Strip as Israel launched a relentless retaliatory military campaign. Over the past nine months, the war has devastated much of the besieged Palestinian territory.

In the midst of the bombing and displacement, "every hour that passed felt like it aged you by a year," said Elbostami. Death surrounded her. "In the first 10 days alone, I lost my coach Jamal al-Khairy, and his granddaughter who used to train with me," she recounted.

When the family reached the Egyptian capital in April, Elbostami's main concerns were ensuring the safety of relatives back home and resuming her karate training. Despite being trapped in Gaza, Palestinian national team coach Hassan al-Raiy connected her with the Egyptian team, and within two weeks she was back on the mat.

"My coaches here in Egypt have practically adopted me, and they're working with me so I can get good enough to compete in the next championships," she said. Whenever possible, she spars on the mat. However, with limited resources and gym time, Elbostami has also had to train in the streets and gardens around her house.

She often finds her mind drifting to Gaza's Mediterranean shore. "Training back home was different. Every Friday my teammates and I would go and train by the sea," she reminisced.

Karate, known for its strong emphasis on discipline and self-control, has helped the young karateka to "detach from reality" – living as a refugee from a brutal war – even for a little while. "My emotions sometimes get the best of me. There are times I can't get through a full session" without recalling "fleeing on foot as air strikes fell all around us," she admitted.

Elbostami focuses on her goal – "to represent my country and raise its flag in international competitions". She has a long journey ahead, with her first stop being Egypt's own national championships in August.

"It's a tough challenge," she said, because Egyptian karate athletes have "historically outperformed their Palestinian counterparts." "But it will bring my level up, too." Elbostami's Egyptian coach, Mamdouh Salem, told AFP that the teenager was an "athlete with a lot of potential, dedication and persistence".

"We're working on her technique, but ultimately karate is more a game of skill than talent – I expect Mais will excel." He said he wants to help her raise the Palestinian flag around the world. "If we can't fight with them" in Gaza, "we can at least help them represent their country abroad", he said, reflecting widespread Egyptian solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Her Gazan teammates, coaches, and most of her relatives may still be trapped in Gaza – and she said dozens of them have been killed – but against all odds, Elbostami has survived. "So I don't have any excuse to keep me from achieving my goal," she declared.

"I'll do everything I can to highlight the Palestinian cause. Every championship and every time I represent Palestine, it's for my country, for the martyrs and for the wounded."