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Americans home from Gaza can't stop thinking about who — and what — they left behind

Palestinians families fleeing Gaza City and other parts of northern Gaza walk along a highway towards southern areas on Thursday.
Mahmud Hams
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians families fleeing Gaza City and other parts of northern Gaza walk along a highway towards southern areas on Thursday.

Updated November 10, 2023 at 8:50 AM ET

It took 27 days — of constant bombardment, dwindling food and water, sleepless nights and pleas for help — before Wafaa Abuzayda, her husband Abood Okal and their 1-year-old son Yousef could escape from Gaza.

The three had been visiting relatives for the first time in upwards of six years when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. They were among the roughly 600 Americans who found themselves trapped in Gaza as Israel retaliated with air strikes and, later, a ground invasion.

They evacuated to the south, where they sheltered in a house with some 40 other people near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, ready to rush over at a moment's notice if they got word the gate would open.

Abuzayda and Okal slept on the floor, careful to keep Yousef sandwiched between them so that if a bomb did hit, they would all die together.

"I used to ask God: 'If you want to take us, take three of us,' " Abuzayda told Morning Edition. "Not one of us, not two of us: three of us. Every day I used to pray for that."

They called the U.S. embassies in Jerusalem and Cairo for weeks asking for help. With each passing day they felt increasingly abandoned by their own government as they ran low on necessities and grew more cut off from the outside world. They went to the Rafah crossing multiple times at the direction of the State Department, only to be turned away.

Wafaa Abuzayda (left), Abood Okal and their 1-year-old son, Yousef — pictured before their ordeal — are back home in Massachusetts after being stuck in Gaza for 27 days while visiting family.
/ Wafaa Abuzayda
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Wafaa Abuzayda
Wafaa Abuzayda (left), Abood Okal and their 1-year-old son, Yousef — pictured before their ordeal — are back home in Massachusetts after being stuck in Gaza for 27 days while visiting family.

The three were finally able to cross into Egypt and travel back to Massachusetts earlier this week. Abuzayda and Okal say they are grateful to the State Department employees who helped them and relieved to be home.

But their families — and minds — are still in Gaza.

Okal's parents are torn about whether to leave, knowing his three siblings — and their spouses and children — cannot. Abuzayda's parents were expecting to leave with them, but found out at the border that their names weren't on the list of those allowed to cross.

The couple say they're even more worried about their relatives now, since it's harder to communicate with them from overseas. That's on top of the survivors' guilt they feel for leaving the enclave of 2.3 million people, where nearly 11,000 lives have been lost in just over a month and many others have been irrevocably changed.

"I had ... mixed feelings about if I'm happy or not, because we left a lot of people behind," Abuzayda said. "I wish we could take the 2 million with us."

They know how their families feel, but not how they are

Saying goodbye to their families was the hardest moment of the past month, Abuzayda said, because they didn't know if they would see each other again. Her dad even called her afterward to give instructions in case that happened, in what was essentially a living will.

Okal said they were so focused on getting to safety, primarily for their son's sake, that they "didn't realize what actually departing meant until we did it." They established unimaginably close bonds with the family members and strangers they were sheltering with, and leaving them behind in such uncertainty "is not to be underestimated."

He said he and Abuzayda both cried while taking their first showers after getting to Cairo, because they hadn't had one for weeks — and knew that their parents still could not.

Abuzayda has been texting her family constantly and will start to panic if she doesn't hear from them within an hour — which can happen often, since the internet connection can go out for days at a time in Gaza. The updates they do get are particularly visceral for them.

"We know ... how is the feeling when they hear the bombing and everything, the sounds, how we freak out, how we jump," Abuzayda said. "Every time we hear there is a loud sound just next to them, I cry because I know how does it look like."

There's often a considerable delay between hearing about an air strike on the news and confirming that their relatives are OK, Okal added. Just hours before speaking to NPR, he learned that one of his cousins had lost three of her children in a bombing several days earlier.

He said there's no way to confirm how many people they have lost, both because the connectivity is bad and because so many people are still missing or trapped in the rubble.

"As soon as, hopefully, this comes to a stop, I think that's really when the magnitude of personal loss will unfold," he said.

If they ever return, it will be to a different Gaza

The families of Abuzayda and Okal — who are both U.S. citizens — have told them this war is worse than anything they've experienced there before. And the two say their homeland is no longer the Gaza they used to know.

This picture taken last week from the Israeli side of the border shows the Gaza skyline destroyed by Israeli bombardment.
Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
This picture taken last week from the Israeli side of the border shows the Gaza skyline destroyed by Israeli bombardment.

Abuzayda vividly remembers the day they drove from the north to the south, after the Israel Defense Forces told people to evacuate. She and Okal, in separate cars, lost service for several hours and ultimately ended up coordinating by calling her brother, who lives in the West Bank.

She saw many others making the journey on foot, carrying their clothes and belongings. She said it reminded her of the 1948 mass displacement of Palestinians that Palestinians call the Nakba, meaning catastrophe.

As they drove, they passed the remnants of many of the places they used to love — restaurants and beach areas, now gone.

"I can't forget what I saw that day," she added.

Abuzayda and Okal hope the remaining Americans in Gaza can get the same help leaving. But that doesn't stop the fear, the misery, the danger for the rest of the Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip.

"Every minute that passes by, another child is killed, another innocent life is lost," Okal said. "And I think that needs to stop."

Okal hopes the war will end "before it's too late," though believes "in many aspects" it is already is. He points to the civilian death toll, especially among children, as well as the scarcity of food and water and the destruction of infrastructure.

"Hopefully new construction and rebuilding of Gaza happens, but it would be a different Gaza," he said. "And I think the scars that are left with people — not just the physical ones, but the the mental ones and the emotional ones — are going to be hard to heal."

The two are saddened that this was their young son's first experience in Gaza. It's hard for them to envision a world in which they don't return, but at this point they aren't sure they ever will.

In fact, Abuzayda said, she doesn't want to leave the U.S. at all, out of concern she wouldn't be able to get back if something bad happened.

"My answer is I don't want to fly again," she said. "That's it. It doesn't matter where, but I don't want to fly again."

The broadcast interview was produced by Taylor Haney and edited by Arezou Rezvani.

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

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.