A Medway family stranded for weeks in Gaza is amplifying pleas for help amidst intensifying air strikes and the threat of a ground invasion by Israeli military forces.
Abood Okal, Wafaa Abuzayda and their 1-year-old son Yousef are among an estimated 600 Americans trapped in an enclave near the Egyptian border, facing constant Israeli bombardment and no clear escape. They have attempted to cross the border three times following instructions from the U.S. State Department, but were turned away each time.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to GBH News' request for comment, but in a media briefing earlier this week, department spokesman Matthew Miller blamed Hamas for blocking the border crossing to Egypt. The State Department said in an email to Okal on Thursday that they were “making every effort” to help the family escape.
Sammy Nabulsi, a family friend and Boston-based lawyer, has contacted the White House, State Department and congressional representatives on the family’s behalf.
In response to Nabulsi's outreach efforts, he said he's received boilerplate statements, as well as comments redirecting him to the State Department. But still, his friends remain in Gaza.
He told GBH News on Thursday that the family is feeling increasingly “abandoned by their government.”
“My ask has been very simple: until we get the Americans out, we have got to turn to our strategic partner in the Middle East, the benefactors of our weapons and money, and say 'No airstrikes in Rafah until our people are out,'” Nabulsi said.
He says he has not been able to rest “knowing that this whole country right now is watching this family and 600 other American citizens slowly go towards their own death. We’re just sitting here doing absolutely nothing about it.”
The Palestinian American family was visiting family in northern Gaza when Hamas infiltrated Israel and launched its Oct. 7 attack, killing more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials. The family fled south, heeding evacuation notices dropped from the sky by the Israeli military. Within days, strikes intensified in the southern part of the densely populated strip.
Okal sent GBH News a series of voice messages describing how airstrikes were becoming nearer and more frequent.
“We’re trying to stay strong … until we're able to get out, with help from the State Department,” he said in one of the voice memos. “We're hopeful that we'll live another day to see that happen.”
On Thursday, Okal said airstrikes landed roughly 900 feet from the small house where his family is staying with some 40 other foreign nationals.
“It was unannounced,” he said in a Thursday message. “Everyone was just in complete panic. Children were crying and screaming.”
Okal says Yousef has been unable to sleep, with airstrikes falling “all night and most of the day,” he said. “We've been trying to soothe him as much as we can."
Nearly three weeks into the conflict, Okal says his family is running out of food, water and other supplies, including medicine for his son, who developed an infection.
The number of Palestinians killed in Gaza has surpassed 7,000 people, according to the latest figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health. Okal and his wife fear the situation will only get worse.
In a speech Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was preparing a ground incursion, and continue to "rain hellfire" on Hamas.
"We cannot even think of the destruction that would bring upon us,” Okal said. "Time is of the essence right now."
Every day at dawn, Nabulsi says he sends a message to check in with Okal and Abuzayda, asking how they’re doing, if they have water, if the government has reached out.
“The question I’m really asking is, ‘Are you alive?’” Nabulsi said.
On Thursday, Okal shared a moment of comfort: A kitten showed up at the front door of the house. He said the lost cat took to Yousef, who loves animals and misses his dog, Lily, who’s still home in Medway.
“This kitten kept Yousef pretty happy for most of the day after the airstrikes,” he said. “That was helpful to shield him from all the trauma.”
Okal says Abuzayda keeps reminding him how fortunate they are to be alive.
“It’s almost like we have angels looking after us,” he said. “We hope they continue to do so.”