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Americans in Gaza feel abandoned by their government

American mother and Massachusetts resident Wafaa Abuzayda, her husband and their baby have been stuck in Gaza since the siege began. They are among an estimated 1,700 people with European and U.S. citizenships who are trapped in the Gaza strip.
Wafaa Abuzayda
American mother and Massachusetts resident Wafaa Abuzayda, her husband and their baby have been stuck in Gaza since the siege began. They are among an estimated 1,700 people with European and U.S. citizenships who are trapped in the Gaza strip.

In the first few days of the war between Israel and Hamas, American mother and Massachusetts resident Wafaa Abuzayda spoke to Morning Edition from Gaza with a plea to the U.S. government. "Please, save us," she said.

More than two weeks into the war, she, her husband and their one-year-old baby are still trapped in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

They are among an estimated 600 U.S. citizens trapped in the Gaza Strip, along with more than a thousand others who hold European passports. They're trapped alongside more than 2.3 million Palestinians who don't hold foreign passports. All of them live under constant Israeli bombardment with no way to escape.

Abuzayda and her husband, Abood Okal, are running out of food and clean water. They just ran out of milk for the baby, Yousef. The other day, the family had no choice but to drink salt water from a well to stay hydrated.

Over the last two weeks, the family has updated Morning Edition on their struggle to get out. Four times, they've waited at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt under instruction from the State Department that this may be their chance to escape.

Each time, the gate into Egypt remained closed to them.

"The way that American citizens are being treated in Gaza is just a shame on this government and on the State Department, with all its mighty power and influence," Okal told Morning Edition in a voice message from the border crossing.

Okal, Abuzayda and their baby have been sleeping ten minutes away from the crossing so they can rush over. They're crowded in a single-family home with around 40 people – approximately 10 are U.S. citizens.

But even this far south, miles away from the northern border with Israel, it's not safe. Israeli airstrikes have hit the border crossing itself at least four times.

In a voice message last Thursday, Abuzayda told us that just two minutes earlier, the house next door had been bombed.

"Yousef was sleeping next to the window, literally next to the window, and the window broke," Abuzayda said. "We're not safe here because we heard the ground invasion is coming at any moment. I don't know what to say."

Israeli drones buzz in the background of almost all these voice memos. It is what they hear all day and night, along with the booms of the airstrikes.

Okal says he fears the day will come that they get hit.

"All it takes is one missile, one airstrike to miss its target or be too close to where you are," Okal said. "That has happened before."

Since the Hamas attack that killed at least 1,400 Israelis, the majority of them civilians, more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Upward of 2,700 of the dead are children.

"We're trying to stay strong, but we cannot help but feel hopeless and abandoned," Okal said. They've been begging for help from the State Department for more than two weeks.

Their Boston-based lawyer, Sammy Nabulsi, has also been in touch with the State Department since the war broke out.

He refuted Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent claim on CBS's Face the Nation that Hamas was blocking the exit for American citizens stuck in Gaza. When Okal has waited at the border, the only officials he's seen on the ground have been Egyptian officials on the other side saying they can't cross.

On Thursday, Abuzayda and Okal got another message from the State Department, telling them the department was continuing its work to get them out and get more humanitarian aid in. But they had no update on when the Rafah crossing might open for them.

To send Morning Edition his latest round of voice messages, Okal stood in an open field. It is the only place he can find cell reception, and even this act is a risk. His wife and other family members are afraid he will be targeted, misidentified as a militant.

"Even making a phone call is becoming extremely dangerous," Okal said.

Meanwhile, Abuzayda and Okal are looking for ways to distract Yousef from the wrath of war. Okal said a kitten showed up at their doorstep on Wednesday, just after a round of airstrikes hit 800 or 900 feet from their house, they estimate.

One-year-old Yousef Okal hugs the kitten that showed up on his family's doorstep in Rafah, where the family has been waiting to escape Israeli bombardment in Gaza.
/ Abood Okal
/
Abood Okal
One-year-old Yousef Okal hugs the kitten that showed up on his family's doorstep in Rafah, where the family has been waiting to escape Israeli bombardment in Gaza.

They took the kitten in and called it Milka, after Yousef's favorite chocolate. Yousef loves animals – the family has a dog back home in Medway, Massachusetts named Lily. Okal said the kitten calmed the baby after the panic of the nearby airstrike.

"It's almost like angels are looking after us," Okal said. "We hope they continue to do so."

The radio version of this story was produced by Nina Kravinsky. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.