Mass. family trapped in Gaza gets message out despite internet shutdown

Yousef Okal with a stray cat his family took in to help keep his calm during the explosions in the Gaza Strip, where the Massachusetts family is trapped. (Photo courtesy Abood Okal)
Yousef Okal with a stray cat his family took in to help keep his calm during the explosions in the Gaza Strip, where the Massachusetts family is trapped. (Photo courtesy Abood Okal)

The Medway family trapped in the Gaza Strip said the Israeli military action there Friday night was the worst they've experienced in the three weeks they've been trapped in the enclave.

"We basically went to sleep not knowing if we would wake up in the morning," Abood Okal said in an audio message Saturday. "It's been a mix of sounds all night between airstrikes, explosions, artillery shelling, fighter jets flying at low altitude and drones buzzing all night, and probably the most noticeable and scariest of all is the missile whistles that you could hear flying over the house."

Israel has cut off internet and cellular communication in and out of Gaza as it expanded ground operations in the strip, but Okal was able to use his U.S. cell phone to send the message. Okal said he and his wife Wafaa Abuzayda slept huddled with their year-old son Yousef and a stray cat they've taken in to try to comfort the boy.

"We all huddled together so close," Okal said. "So that in case something happens unpredicted, we would all at least face the same fate."

The Palestinian American family went to visit relatives in Gaza in September. They were scheduled to leave Oct. 13, but they've been unable to do so since the Hamas attack on Israel Oct. 7. The family fled south on Oct. 13 after Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza in preparation for the ground invasion, but they were unable to cross into Egypt. The family has been staying in a home near the Rafah border crossing with about 40 other people trying to cross the border.

The U.S. State Department has communicated with the family and said it's working on getting the estimated 400-600 Palestinian Americans out of Gaza. Okal said at least four times the U.S. State Department told them to go to the crossing and they would allowed through. But he said the family waited for hours at the Rafah border but was not able to cross.

Boston attorney Sammy Nabulsi, a friend of the family who has been working to bring them back to Massachusetts, said he's been in touch with U.S. officials and politicians to try to ensure the family's safety. He has been calling and emailing daily and trying to make sure the family's story is known.

"What is the most frustrating thing about this is despite all this work, despite all this attention, despite all this pressure on the White House and the State Department, They do not seem to be prioritizing bringing back these American citizens home safely and immediately," Nabulsi said.

Member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation say they are working to negotiate safe passage for the family.

"We have also been relaying in real time the best up-to-date information we’re receiving from State back to Americans in touch with our office, and continue to urge world leaders to press for a ceasefire to save civilian lives immediately," Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said in an emailed statement.

During last week's Medway Select Board meeting, Chairman Glenn Trindade asked people to acknowledge the family during a moment of silence. He said residents are hopeful that they'll return safely.

"Everybody is aware of what they're going through and everybody says the same thing: they can't imagine the struggles they must be having right now," Trindade said. "And the coolest thing would be to have a celebration to welcome them home."

Okal said he hasn't heard anything new from the U.S. government, but he is trying to be optimistic that they family will be able to get home.

"We remain hopeful that it will happen any day," Okal said " That's the only way for us to keep going because if we lose hope or if we believe otherwise, we could end up in a very dark place psychologically. So we're trying to stay strong and live another day."


Headshot of Deborah Becker

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



More from WBUR

Listen Live