A Medway family was enjoying a few weeks with loved ones in the Palestinian territories when violence between Hamas and Israel broke out last month, turning their vacation into a desperate escape.
As Israeli airstrikes intensified, with more Palestinians killed than in any previous conflict in the region, Abood Okal and Wafaa Abuzayda, along with their 1-year-old son, Yousef, undertook a harrowing journey in an attempt to cross the Egyptian border and escape Gaza, finally making it into Egypt on Thursday. They shared the terrifying experience with the Globe through interviews, text messages, photos, and audio reports. Below is the story of one family’s fight to survive.
Okal, Abuzayda, and Yousef spent a few weeks traveling in the West Bank and Gaza to visit their families in the territories. They planned on returning home to the United States on Oct. 13, and were visiting Abuzayda’s family in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City.
The family was spending time with loved ones, including a visit to Okal’s brother’s home in Gaza City.
Abuzayda grew up in Gaza before moving to the United States eight years ago, and her husband, Okal, grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to Gaza with his parents when he was 10. Okal, a research director for a pharmaceutical company, has lived in the United States for 17 years. The couple had recently bought a home in Medway, where their dog Lily remained with friends.
As the family was enjoying their holiday, Israel faced the deadliest day of its history when Hamas militants invaded. Social media videos showed militants shooting Israeli civilians, and taking others captive, including those who were injured.
Israeli forces soon launched airstrikes into Gaza, while the military evacuated civilians from communities near the border with Gaza. Rockets from Gaza were fired into Israel.
Okal and Abuzayda immediately began trying to return home to Medway, but made no progress and remained with family in Jabaliya.
All the stores near Abuzayda and Okal were shuttered, people remained in shelters or inside their homes, and bombings lasted all day and night. A neighbor who still had electricity allowed them to charge their cell phones so they could stay in touch with friends and family in the United States.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said Egypt will not allow Gazans to flee to its territory, worried they would be stuck indefinitely. After fighting stopped in the 1948 war, Israel refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Since then, Israel has rejected Palestinian demands for a return of refugees as part of a peace deal, arguing that it would threaten the country’s Jewish majority.
In the meantime, Israeli airstrikes continued mere miles from where the Medway family was staying.
Increasingly desperate to escape, Okal began communicating over text messages with Sammy Nabulsi, a family friend and Boston lawyer. Nabulsi took up the cause to bring the Medway family and other Americans home from Gaza, making impassioned pleas in the media for a safe passage and working State Department contacts behind the scenes.
Nabulsi sent Okal screenshots of an email from Andrew P. Miller, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, regarding the family’s status.
Israel ordered more than 1 million people to leave the northern Gaza Strip, as it concentrated more attacks in that area.
Okal and Abuzayda, with Yousef, traveled south from Jabaliya to Rafah in Gaza, near the border with Egypt, a roughly 26-mile journey that took nearly three hours in a car that was running out of gas. Nabulsi lost all communication with the family as their Internet was cut off.
Gazan authorities said at least 70 people were killed when an airstrike hit a convoy of vehicles fleeing south. The Medway family, who made it safely to Rafah where they were sheltering with Okal’s sister and her three young children from New Jersey, heard for the first time from the US State Department. Officials indicated there might be a chance for US citizens to cross into Egypt.
But 43 minutes after the designated time for border crossings ended, Okal, able to text again, told Nabulsi that he was still in Gaza and there was no indication that Egypt was letting anyone into the country.
Oct. 14, 2023, 8:38 AM
I sent wafa and yousef back to where we are staying at (which is [a] few minutes ago), they gave up and being in the sun all day was draining and no sign of movement here
I am still here and nothing is happening and will stay for sometime just in case
Oct. 14, 2023, 10:43 AM
It’s 5:43 and no sign of anyone crossing. Sunset is approaching have to leave before it’s dark and bombing starts
You won’t believe the hold up. Egypt won’t open border unless they are permitted to bring in aid. And US and Israel won’t agree for aid to come in. This is horrific.
That is horrific indeed. What a nightmare
Oct. 14, 2023, 6:25 PM
Oct. 14, 2023
Since we moved to Rafah staying online and keeping phone charged is a struggle but we’re trying to be resourceful.
Thanks again brother- I need to get some sleep we barely slept in last 36 hours
Ok do that. We'll talk soon. Stay strong. We're gonna get this done.
Let's hope for a better day tomorrow and will be in touch
Okal and Abuzayda ran low on water and fuel, while throngs of refugees fleeing Israeli bombardment continued to arrive in southern Gaza. But even Rafah was not safe.
Oct. 15, 2023
I haven’t made it back to the crossing today as there were bombardments in the morning through afternoon in Rafaf, on and off. So we decided we will head there if we have confirmed news from state department or from local sources.
The US State Department posted an advisory on social media the night of Oct. 15, saying media reports indicate the Rafah crossing will open at 9 a.m. local time on Oct. 16.
Rafah border crossing: According to media reports, the Rafah crossing will open at 9am local time on October 16. We anticipate that the situation at the Rafah crossing will remain fluid and unpredictable and it is unclear whether, or for how long, travelers will be permitted to… pic.twitter.com/klWEmLt7Ji— Travel - State Dept (@TravelGov) October 16, 2023
Okal and his family got to the Egyptian border early Monday morning, ready to cross. They stayed there for hours without being able to cross the border and eventually turned around.
As the family continued running low on supplies and water, 1-year-old Yousef ran a fever that lasted more than 24 hours. There was still no word on when the family might be able to return home.
President Biden arrived in Israel, where he pledged $100 million to help civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and announced an agreement with Israel to allow food, water, and medicine into Gaza.
Senators from Massachusetts and New Hampshire urged the Biden administration to “immediately implement a plan” to help American citizens trapped in Gaza leave the area safely. The letter referenced the Medway family, who still weren’t able to get through the Rafah crossing after trying multiple times.
A state department spokesperson told the Globe that the war between Hamas and Israel has made identifying departure options for US citizens “complex.”
Oct. 18, 2023, 9:39 AM
It’s fairly calm today in Rafah, we did have to go for a supply run to Khan Younis main market and there were air strikes not too far from where I was... and we’re able to get some milk for yousef. We started him on antibiotics yesterday for the ear infection and his fever is controlled with Tylenol, and we’re able to secure drinking water yesterday for the next few days, although it’s becoming harder and harder to find water. Still no fuel and cooking gas is almost out so we may have to switch to actual wood fire soon. We’re focusing on taking care of yousef and staying in place to stay safe, pending updates on the crossing. Seems like Israel is refusing for the border to be open and aid let in and Egypt in return is refusing to open the crossing to let foreign nationals out and we’re somehow caught in the middle. No updates from state department and Biden’s visit is disappointing
I took this pic while looking for milk for yousef
President Biden, in an Oval Office speech, called on Americans to stand behind Israel and Ukraine, which was fighting an invasion by Russia. In Gaza, Okal, Abuzayda, and Yousef heard bombs falling right by where they were sheltering.
Oct. 19, 2023, 7:01 AM EST
There was literally a bombing next to the house were in few minutes ago since I’ve been talking to you
Omg. Are you all ok? How close?
I just took this picture, the entire house [shook] windows shattered and walls cracked my son was sleeping under a window wafa had to snatch him out in fear of glass falling on him
We’re ok, kids are crying so trying to calm them down. About 100 meters away. Close enough the walls of the house cracked
Twenty trucks carrying food, water, and medical supplies crossed into the Gaza Strip, but the aid was just a fraction of what was needed, and the Okal family still faced challenges finding food and water.
Okal, whose family has been sleeping on the floor in a house shared with 40 others, continued to receive US government alerts suggesting the Rafah crossing would open to Americans, only to be turned away when he arrived.
Oct. 21, 2023
It seems like the administration really doesn’t give a [expletive] about us. There is no other explanation
Do you have food you don't need to cook?
Did the shelling/airstrikes ease up last night?
Nope, if anything shelling intensified
We've shifted our food supply more to canned food and things that don't need cooking. We've also been stocking [up on] firewood
Due to dwindling water supplies, the Medway family was forced to cut back on showers, minimize toilet flushes, and limit water usage. They had access to some non-perishable canned foods, like tuna fish and fava beans. The circumstances were not improving.
US officials urged Israel to delay an anticipated ground invasion of Gaza to allow more time for aid to enter the territory, and to allow negotiations for more than 200 people taken hostage by Hamas and other armed groups.
In Rafah, Okal and Abuzayda struggled to find milk for Yousef. The little boy would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, and couldn’t be left alone during the day.
The family ran out of milk for Yousef, which he relied on to fall asleep as a 1-year-old. Okal worried that as the airstrikes continue, chances grew that his family could be injured or killed.
“All it takes is one missile, one airstrike to miss its target or be too close to where you are... and that would be it,” Okal said in a recording sent to the Globe.
A kitten showed up at the family’s temporary home. It had a collar, and obviously wasn’t a stray. The family took the cat in, since Yousef loves animals. Milka, named after Yousef’s favorite chocolate, kept him happy for most of the day even after Israeli airstrikes crashed around them, including one that they estimated landed about 800 to 900 feet away.
For the first time in his short life, Yousef went to bed without milk.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a televised address, told Israel that it had entered a “new phase” of the war by sending in ground troops and striking from the ground, air, and sea.
With the threat of more danger looming after nearly two weeks of waiting to cross the border, Okal and Abuzayda remained hopeful that they will return home any day.
“That’s what we tell ourselves,” Okal said. “That’s the only way for us to keep going because if we lose that hope, or if we believe otherwise, we could end up in a very dark space, psychologically, so we’re trying to stay strong and we’re trying to live another day.”
The family was “on a desperate hunt for food and water.” They had run out of clean drinking water, as well as their backup salt water, and stood in line for six hours to get some bread.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli airstrikes killed more than 8,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel launched wide-scale strikes and tanks pushed deeper into Gaza.
Meanwhile in Rafah, a water-filtration system the Medway family had been relying on ran out of fuel for its generator. They have had to roam the main roads looking for trucks or horse-drawn carts lugging large containers of drinking water.
The family had to stand in line for a few hours to fill a one-gallon jug, to be shared among 40 people they are staying with.
Hundreds of dual passport holders, including some Americans, and dozens of seriously injured Palestinians were able to leave Gaza for the first time, but Okal, Abuzayda, and Yousef were not among them.
The family was able to secure another gallon of water to share in their crowded home. They remained close to the border to be ready “on moment’s notice” to cross into Egypt.
“We finally see a glimpse of hope for leaving the war zone and saving our lives,” he said.
The family was finally able to escape through the border into Egypt at 5:20 a.m.
“The Okal Family is overwhelmed with the love and support they have received from home and abroad, but they are also exhausted, physically and emotionally drained, and have a long journey ahead of them back to the United States,” the family said in a statement via their lawyer.
It was unclear when they might be able to return home to Medway. They asked for privacy until they are able to reach home, and called for the immediate and safe departure of the remaining American citizens and their family in Gaza. They also asked for “compassion and prayers for the innocent civilians in Gaza, who gave them shelter, who helped them find food and water, but who continue to be without their own supply of food, water, fuel, or medicine to live.”
Okal, Abuzayda, and Yousef arrive home to Medford, grateful to all who helped them return. Still, as they settled back into the home they bought here nearly a year ago, they worried about loved ones left behind, and the trauma of their experiences.
“It was 27 days of the war. For some reason it feels a lot longer than that,” Okal, 36, said seated in their living room Tuesday. “There is some getting used to [the return] to normal life... but mentally, I don’t think we’ll be at a safe point until we know the war has stopped.”
Material from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.
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