A Utah family trapped in Gaza says they feel abandoned

Duaa Abufares, 24, a psychology student from Clifton, New Jersey, is eagerly awaiting word from her father, Fares, every day this week. He returned to Gaza at the beginning of September to visit relatives.

Now Fares Abufares, a U.S. citizen, is seeking shelter with relatives amid the noise of incessant bombing, calling his five children back to New Jersey when he has short-term access to electricity. During a video call with them on Thursday, Abufares, 50, described seeing the bodies of dozens of women and children killed in an airstrike a few blocks from his family’s home.

“One second it might be me and my family,” he said, his voice breaking.

Saturday’s sudden Hamas attack and subsequent counteroffensive left American citizens stranded in both Israel and the Gaza Strip. To help American citizens seeking to leave Israel amid the worsening security crisis, the Biden administration announced it would organize charter flights to carry Americans to destinations in Europe starting Friday.

(Bryan Anselm | The New York Times) Duaa Abufares (left) and Ahmed Abufares outside their home in Clifton, New Jersey, on October 12, 2023. The siblings’ father, Fares, is currently in Gaza.

However, no such arrangement exists for American citizens stuck in the Gaza Strip, at least not yet. Many said American officials asked them to fill out forms and wait. But without knowing when they will be able to return home, they said they were scared and wondering whether bombings or crossfire would hit them first.

On Friday, the Israel Defense Forces said civilians in the northern part of the Gaza Strip should be evacuated to the south “for their own safety and protection.”

“I feel like I’ve been let down by my country,” said Lena Beseiso, 57, a Salt Lake City resident trapped in Gaza with her husband, two of her daughters and a 10-year-old grandson. “We are American citizens and we will not be treated as American citizens.”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the Israeli blockade is preventing the US government from removing its citizens from Gaza for now. He said the White House was in talks with Israel and Egypt about the safe exit of civilians, including Americans, from Gaza, but no breakthrough had been achieved.

“Right now they can’t – they can’t leave. So we would have no physical ability to provide that transit,” Kirby said during a news conference Thursday. “And that’s why we’re so actively in discussions with the Israelis and the Egyptians about a safe transit corridor so that people who want to leave can leave.”

U.S. officials estimated that 500 to 600 American citizens were in Gaza.

Right now we have no choice but to wait, hope and pray. Beseiso and her family, visiting relatives in Gaza, tried to escape on Tuesday, she said, but the Israeli military bombed the Rafah border crossing into Egypt while they were there, closing it. The family was told to return to Gaza for safety reasons and Beseiso is now sheltering in a building with her 87-year-old mother-in-law. The family has no water or electricity, she said.

There were continuous airstrikes and bombings around the building on Tuesday and Wednesday, causing her apartment’s windows to shatter and her front door to break open from the pressure of the bombs, she said. She said she had contacted U.S. authorities and the U.S. Embassy in Israel several times but had not received a clear answer about what was being done to help them.

“Sometimes I have hope and faith that I will get out alive,” she said Thursday. “But as darkness falls and the airstrikes intensify,” she said, she begins to wonder: “Is it our turn tonight?”

On Friday, she said her family had moved to the south following instructions from the Israeli Defense Forces. “We found a family that let us in,” she wrote in a text message, adding, “This is so scary!”

More than 170,000 people in the United States identified Palestinian ancestry in the 2020 census, a number considered by many within the Palestinian community to be significantly undercounted due to long-standing difficulties in counting the number of Middle Eastern Americans and the Middle East to determine North African descent.

Palestinian Americans in the United States were already worried and frustrated by statements from government officials, universities and employers in recent days that expressed solidarity and compassion for the Israeli loss of life but made no mention of Palestinian civilian casualties.

Families desperate for their government to step in and help stranded loved ones say the lack of attention is devastating. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 1,500 people, including 500 children, have died in Gaza.

Iman Museitef, 31, said her parents – American citizens living in Newark, New Jersey – were trapped in Gaza City, where they went in late September to visit their 85-year-old grandmother.

“Every time I hear their voice they ask me, ‘Did you call the embassy?’ What did they say?’” she said. “It’s always a terrible thing to have to explain to them that the place they’ve lived in for half their lives isn’t really helping them.”

Her parents tried to get into Egypt on Tuesday, she said, but were unable to leave when the border crossing was closed. They are now moving from apartment to apartment as evacuation orders are issued.

“We’re trying our best to contact the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and Cairo and everyone just tells us we don’t have any information about when the border will open,” said Museitef, a registered nurse in Milwaukee. Maybe, she said of the State Department, “they don’t care right now.”

She said she and her siblings filled out forms and waited. “My parents are over 60 and are very scared. I just want their safety and I want them to come back to us,” she said.

Abdulla Okal and his wife Haneen Okal, Palestinian-Americans living in New Jersey, traveled to Gaza with their children over the summer because Haneen Okal wanted to be near her family during the birth of their third child, her husband said Thursday . Abdulla Okal flew back to New Jersey to expedite the baby’s U.S. passport application so he could travel home. But then war broke out.

Haneen Okal and her three children were at the border on Tuesday when it was bombed. The neighborhood where they lived was also bombed. Now they have moved into her sister’s apartment, said Abdulla Okal.

Okal said his wife and children are currently without power and she is trying to conserve her phone battery. “I just ask them to text me and tell me you’re still alive,” he said. He said his three-year-old daughter was very scared and had a fever. As his 8-week-old son sleeps during the bombings, the child trembles.

Okal said he heard from some U.S. authorities on Thursday that they were trying to come up with a plan to bring U.S. citizens home safely. His wife evacuated south on Israel’s instructions and reached a friend’s house near the Rafah border crossing.

“It’s right on the border. They just have to open the door so they can walk over,” he said. “What worries me is that my wife will die there before they are evacuated.”

He said he planned to fly to Egypt in the hope that he could pick up his family at the border if they were able to cross.

“Just treat us like we’re Americans,” he said. “We are American citizens. We pay taxes. We are good citizens. It is also our country,” he said. “I just want the government to treat us equally and care more, a little bit more.”

Duaa Abufares wanted to help her father leave the country, but even if there was a way, he has told his children that he does not want to abandon his mother and other relatives as the violence appears to be escalating.

Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, said she had been hectic all week, fielding inquiries from people with relatives in Gaza and staying in touch with her own contacts. The scariest moments came when people went dark and it was unclear whether they had no power or whether something terrible had happened.

She is worried about what Israel might do next.

“God only knows what will happen,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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