Home Posts Palestinians In The United States Are Concerned About Their Families In Gaza, Asking, "Are You Still Alive?"
Palestinians In The United States Are Concerned About Their Families In Gaza, Asking, "Are You Still Alive?"

Palestinians In The United States Are Concerned About Their Families In Gaza, Asking, "Are You Still Alive?"

Husam El-Qoulaq was about to board a plane back to Los Angeles last week when he received a text from a friend who had seen names with the surname El-Qoulaq on a Gaza casualty list and wondered if they were family.

El-Qoulaq began frantically searching the Arabic press for information on the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza, and then he discovered the names of 14 people, all members of his extended family, who died when airstrikes decimated their four-story apartment building.

Since then, the list of names has grown to 22, with the youngest being six months old and the oldest being ninety years old.

“When these buildings crumble, they bury entire families beneath them, and then the loved ones of that family arrive to dig through the rubble for hours and hours trying to find anybody that they can find,” El-Qoulaq told Stardia. “The number just kept climbing as people went from missing to dead.”

The death toll in Gaza has risen this week, with Israeli forces carrying out the deadliest single attack last Sunday, killing more than 200 people, including 61 children, according to Gaza's health ministry. Succumbing to international pressure, Israel finally agreed to a cease-fire in Gaza on Thursday, despite initial opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to prosecute anyone who violated the cease-fire.

For Palestinians in the United States, the violence has served as a reminder that the occupation affects them even if they are thousands of miles away. Several Palestinian Americans described the turmoil of the last week as mourning the deaths of loved ones, waiting for word on whether family members had survived, and reliving their own trauma as displaced refugees.

“As a Palestinian American, I feel like I failed my family,” El-Qoulaq said, lamenting the use of taxpayer funds to fund bombings like the ones that killed his family.

The Worst Is Yet to Come

During the holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week, Israeli security forces threw tear gas and fired rubber bullets inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque where Muslims were praying, sparking more violence in the region.

In retaliation, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched dozens of rockets into Israel for the second week in a row, raising the reported death toll in Israel to 12.

Alaa Hammouda, a 30-year-old Palestinian living in North Carolina, has been haunted by survivor's guilt.

Hammouda was in Gaza during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive that drew international condemnation. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, including nearly 500 children, during the 2014 war.

Hammouda was nine months pregnant when her house was bombed, and she told Stardia that she barely escaped while her two cousins, ages eight and ten, died.

“It was the most terrifying experience I’d ever had,” Hammouda said.

She now texts her family in Gaza on a regular basis, fearful that they will not respond.

“Every night, I wake up in the middle of the night to text them and ask, ‘Are you still alive?’ There isn't much conversation beyond whether they're still alive or not,” Hammouda said.

Her husband's cousin, a newlywed father of a 4-month-old, was killed Wednesday when airstrikes hit their house in northern Gaza, and her mother-in-law was also injured by the bombs. Her father, four brothers, three sisters, and dozens of nieces and nephews are all scattered, living with neighbors or other family members.

“There is no safe place to go,” Hammouda said, noting that schools, hospitals, and shelters are all vulnerable to strikes. “I wish no one was in my position because it’s the worst feeling ever when you’re watching your loved ones suffer and you can’t do anything about it. You’re just helpless.”

Children on the Front Lines of War

Children have borne the brunt of the violence in Gaza, with at least 63 killed since Wednesday, 11 of them participants in an international program that helps children deal with trauma. Two children were also killed in Israel.

Eman Mohammed, a 33-year-old Palestinian-American living in Washington, D.C., recalls the day she nearly lost her daughter.

She had been covering the Gaza war as a photojournalist when her neighborhood was bombed in 2014. Mohammed rushed back home to her children, where she discovered her 1-year-old daughter bleeding in her crib. Mohammed frantically tried to find help, but hospitals in Gaza were overcrowded. Mohammed and her daughter, who was suffering from internal bleeding, were only able to get help when Americans were evacuating.

She hasn't been back to Gaza since, and she is constantly worried about her mother, whom she was forced to leave behind; she can hear the bombs in the background during their phone calls.

“It’s one of the most inhumane mental tortures for anyone to have to watch and hear their loved ones calling for help and calling for rescue, and I know the planes that are bombing around her are American-made and tax-funded,” Mohammed said.

I don't want to fund the slaughter of my family, and I hope that other Americans don't either.”

American-Palestinian Husam El-Qoulaq

Mohammed, like many families and lawmakers, is critical of the United States' sale of weapons to Israel despite documented evidence of human rights violations. President Joe Biden faced backlash from activists and House Democrats earlier this week after approving the potential sale of a $735 million weapons deal to Israel.

“At a time when US-made bombs are destroying Gaza and killing women and children, we cannot simply approve another massive arms sale without even a congressional debate,” Sanders said.

As a U.S. citizen, this is also on El-Qouloq's mind.

“There is a sense of complicity,” he said, adding, “I don't want to fund the slaughter of my family, and I hope other Americans don't either.”

Struggle for Progress

Tariq Haddad, a 46-year-old cardiologist from Virginia, recalled many incidents from his childhood in Gaza, such as hiding in a chicken coop to avoid Israeli rubber bullets and being strip searched at a checkpoint.

During the 2014 war, he lost 11 cousins, including a four-year-old, all of whom died while fleeing their home after a warning shot was fired.

“They were just beautiful, beautiful little children, and they just obviously didn’t deserve to go through what they went through,” Haddad said, adding, “It honestly flavors everything that has happened since then, and it’s just been very, very difficult.”

Being a Palestinian in the United States is complicated for Haddad, who is dealing with their own trauma, constant worry for family members left behind, and an exhausting cycle of hoping that change will come with each presidential administration.

Nadia Hararah, a 34-year-old digital marketing manager, is skeptical that much will change under Biden's administration, but she credits the social justice movement with igniting a national conversation about the Israeli occupation. Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated cities, with high levels of poverty, a lack of access to clean water, and frequent power outages.

Israel restricts travel outside the Gaza Strip and maintains an air, land, and sea blockade, making it nearly impossible for Palestinians to access basic food supplies and medical equipment; the Israeli government justifies this as an attempt to weaken Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

“I think [the United States] has had an awakening, and we’ve gone through an education process understanding what oppression means and what it means to be an ally,” Hararah said, adding that “people are familiar with terms like ‘apartheid,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘occupation,’ and ‘discrimination.’”

Ahmed Mansour, a 29-year-old Gaza filmmaker who immigrated to the United States for college in 2015, said he has no choice but to be optimistic.

He lived through the Second Intifada, the 2008 Gaza war, and the 2014 war, and now resides in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., but for the past few weeks, he has been traveling nonstop to join the Palestinian solidarity protests that have erupted across the country.

“I am only 6 miles from [the White House], where they are sending weapons to drop on my family; I never expected this scenario in my life,” said Mansour, who once supported Biden for president.

His immediate family members are still in Gaza, and he listens quietly during group calls as they discuss whose house was recently destroyed and which neighbors were killed.

“Something Gaza teaches you is to cling to a thread of hope, even if it isn’t real,” he said.

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