An American family stuck in Gaza for months due to Covid restrictions finally leaves: 'It was hell'

An American family visiting Gaza say they were leftstranded in a hellish situationfor months due to the coronavirus pandemic and a blockade surrounding the Palestinian territory.

Hani Almadhoun and his wife, Roa Alhelou, traveled in November with their two daughters, siglos 6 y 4, to say goodbye to Almadhoun’s dying grandfather. They had planned to stay in Gaza for four weeks, but it took them nearly three months to leave.
Almadhoun said thenightmarebegan on November 3, when the family, who are Palestinian-Americans, left their home in Alexandria, Virginia, and embarked on the trip.
We voted in the US election and took the plane a few hours later, straight to Cairo, where we got into Gaza through the Rafah Border Crossing,” Almadhoun told CNN. “We wanted to make sure we saw my grandfather before he died. He was filled with stories and history, and our goal was spending as much time with him as we could.
    Almadhoun and his family during their trip to Gaza.

    The Rafah Border Crossing, a point between Gaza and Egypt, is run by Egyptian and Palestinian authorities and is the only border crossing accessible to most Palestinians who live in Gaza. About a week after Almadhoun’s grandfather died on November 19, la crossing was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.
    With the Erez Crossing, an entry point into Israel, also closed, the family was stuck.
    We realized we were stuck around December 25 … that’s when we started worrying,” Almadhoun said.

    ‘Not the place you want to get the coronavirus

    Almadhoun and Alhelou were familiar with the dire situation in Gaza. Not only did they emigrate from there, but Almadhoun works as a director of philanthropy for a United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees.
    For their US-born daughters, sin embargo, Almadhoun said it wasn’t like anything they had ever experienced.
    The territory is only 140 square miles, but home to nearly 2 million people. That’s roughly the same size as Detroit, but with nearly three times the population.
    It is governed by Hamas, a Palestinian political and militant group designated by the US and others as a terrorist organization.
    Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza’s land, air and sea, while Egypt oversees the southern Rafah crossing. Israel regulates civilian movement and the importation of basic goods into Gaza. It also routinely carries out military operations there. Israeli officials say these measures are necessary to prevent Hamas and other armed groups from smuggling weapons or carrying out attacks on Israel. Palestinians say the measures are violent and oppressive.
    The United Nations has described the blockade of Gaza as thecollective punishmentof the Palestinian people living there and says the circumstances make the territoryunlivable.”
    On many nights, while spending time with his family or working remotely, Almadhoun said he could hear the sounds of drones flying overhead and what sounded like missiles striking targets not far from their home in Gaza City.
    Being in Gaza is hard. At times it was hell. You get maybe six or eight hours of electricity a day, and some days there is not even water,” Almadhoun said. “Drinking water is scarce, potable water is so salty and in some cases dangerous. There is severe poverty with more than half of the population unemployed, and it can cause all kinds of other problems.
    This area was already in isolation. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown


      This area was already in isolation. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown


    This area was already in isolation. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown 03:14

    The coronavirus pandemic has only made the situation worse, él dijo.
    Decades of conflict have left Gaza’s medical system in shambles. Medicines, ventilators and other vital medical equipment are hard to come by.
    As of February 13, Gaza has recorded more than 53,000 coronavirus cases and 536 fallecidos, de acuerdo con la Palestinian Ministry of Health.
    Gaza is not the place you want to get the coronavirus,” Almadhoun said. “It’s not safe to deal with a serious health matter, with little to no health supplies, let alone ventilators.

    ‘Leaving Gaza is never easy

    Almadhoun said his concern for his family grew with every new report of coronavirus cases.
    The Rafah Border Crossing would open sporadically, but he said he could never get his family through.
    We were registered on the waiting list for travel through Rafah but our name just never came up,” él dijo. Every day he would check.
    The family attempted to leave four times, but Almadhoun said they were always turned away by border officials. That’s because their names wouldn’t show up on the local government’s list at the border, even though the list published online included their names.
    Portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hang at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017.

    Almadhoun had traveled to Gaza in 2009, before he was a US citizen, and had encountered similar frustrations trying to enter and exit the blockaded territory through Rafah. En 2013 y 2018, he visited as a US citizen, and was able to leave through Rafah without delays.
    On New Year’s Day, Almadhoun reached out to the US Embassy in Jerusalem but said he was rebuffed in adehumanizing and humiliatingway. He said the embassy’s answers were short and did not provide any assistance or explanation. Por último, he felt as if his family did not matter to embassy officials.
    In an email seen by CNN, the US Embassy denied his family help, diciendo “do not request assistance until after the lockdown is over.
    When asked for comment, the US Embassy in Jerusalem referred CNN to the US State Department. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Almadhoun’s case, citingprivacy considerations,” but saidthe welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State.
    The spokesperson directed CNN to a travel advisory issued in September warning Americans: “Do not travel to Gaza due to COVID-19, terrorismo, civil unrest, and armed conflict.
    The US government is unable to provide emergency services to US citizens in Gaza,” the advisory added.
    Almadhoun was aware of the advisory, which is ever present for the territory. But for Palestinians wishing to see loved ones in Gaza, he said it’s a risk they must take.
    If I were to follow the advisory, I would effectively be cut off from my family and my elderly parents,” Almadhoun said.
    The family at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, after finally leaving Gaza.

    Given his past experiences traveling to Gaza as a US citizen, and the Covid-19 pandemic, Almadhoun expected the US Embassy would help.
    It’s not like we went to Gaza to smoke hookah. We went to see our dying grandfather,” él dijo. “It was a human thing to do. We didn’t expect not to get any help, or even just kind words, from the American embassy. All their replies were robotic and scripted.
    Almadhoun believes that if his family was not Palestinian, the US Embassy in Jerusalem would have treated them differently.
    I never received help from them in the past, but I hoped with the pandemic they were feeling more human,” él dijo. “Es como, you’re an American citizen yet when they see you’re Palestinian, that’s all you are, and that’s how you’re treated. If they ask if you have a Palestinian ID card and you do, they stop listening.
    The State Department spokesperson told CNN: “We provide the same services to US citizens regardless of their background.
    Finalmente, Almadhoun said after weeks of messaging US officials, the family received the help they needed.
    Almadhoun said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine’s office reached out to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, corriente continua, and made a case for the family to cross through the Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt.
    Kaine’s office did not return CNN’s request for comment.
    On Febuary 11, Almadhoun and his family left Gaza for Cairo. They will arrive in the US on Wednesday.
      Even when it gets hard, leaving Gaza is never easy. You don’t know if you’ll ever see your family again, so it’s like yes we want to go home, but it’s very emotionally taxing,” Almadhoun said.
      As a Palestinian, you are a stateless person. Even as an American, when you’re Palestinian, it doesn’t matter. We were abandoned, forgotten by everyone. So we are fortunate to be here and to tell this story.

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