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'Do Whatever It Takes': California's Palestinian Americans Seek Safety for Loved Ones in Gaza

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A person with a beard wears a hat and sits on a sofa smiling and looking at the camera.
Mama Ganuush poses for a portrait in their home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

O

ne day in October 2023, Rolla Alaydi woke up in her home in Pacific Grove, outside Monterey — and found that overnight, she had become responsible for the lives of 21 members of her family in Gaza.

“Because for them, I’m the only one in the U.S.,” Alaydi said. “I’m their only hope for them to survive.”

Alaydi’s four younger brothers and their families — with 13 children between them — are currently in Gaza, which Israeli forces have bombarded for nearly five months now. Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israel’s siege on Gaza has resulted in a Palestinian death toll topping 28,000 and over 68,000 wounded, according to Gazan health officials.

And for those who have survived so far, their lives have been forever altered.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been completely uprooted, with over 75% of Gaza’s population displaced. Nearly a quarter of Gazans do not have a home to return to after an estimated 54% to 66% of buildings in the Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed, according to researchers from Oregon State University and City University of New York. These buildings include Alaydi’s family home.

A woman dressed in a graduate gown and standing next to a flag with red, white, black and green.
Rolla Alaydi graduates from the University of the Incarnate Word in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Rolla Alaydi)

Since Israel’s military assault on Gaza began, Alaydi’s family has been displaced multiple times, she said. First, they were forced to flee their family home in North Gaza where they all lived — where one of her brothers planted olive trees, where another planned on opening his own law firm for his community — when it was destroyed by artillery. In the desperate rush, they were unable to grab any documentation like passports.

Now, the family is living in a tent in South Gaza near Rafah’s Crossing: An area at the border of Gaza and Egypt, which has recently been under attack by Israeli authorities.

“If they are not killed by a missile, the starvation is hunting them,” Alaydi said — along with disease because of the unsanitary conditions in such camps. “Death is chasing them.”

Two small children look at the tool and can in their hands.
Ola and Hayah, the nieces of Rolla Alaydi, in Gaza in January 2024. (Photo courtesy of Rolla Alaydi)

‘Do whatever it takes’

Alaydi is not alone. Around the wider Bay Area, the state and around the globe, the Palestinian diaspora is scrambling to find legal options to help their families in Gaza.

And when family members aren’t U.S. citizens — as Alaydi’s aren’t — one of those options is through immigration.

Alaydi herself was born in a refugee camp in central Gaza, and has lived in California for six years after coming to the United States as a Master’s student in Texas. Now, she is currently working with an attorney with hopes of securing humanitarian parole for her family. This temporary emergency immigration status allows certain family members to enter the U.S., and while the legal help she’s receiving is pro-bono, Alaydi is also privately fundraising to cover costs such as filing fees and travel.

A small child with a cartoon embroidered on their grey shirt looks up on a beach.
Ola, the niece of Rolla Alaydi, in Gaza in January 2024. (Photo courtesy of Rolla Alaydi)

“The minute I put my head in the pillow, I just see their faces,” Alaydi said through tears. “And they are just calling me for help and [to] rescue them.”

One of Alaydi’s brothers, Musbah, is diabetic and has gone without access to insulin for months now, she said. Her youngest brother Hammam, age 26, was diagnosed with stage one cancer before Israel’s attacks on Gaza began.

Hammam resisted leaving Gaza at first, Alaydi said, telling her he was going to die. And then, changing his mind, he left Alaydi a voice message one day: “‘Do whatever it takes,” he told her. “I want to get out from Gaza. I want to live. Life is precious.’”

Nightmares and guilt eat at her, said Alaydi — when she checks the news, when she sleeps, when she eats a meal in the knowledge that her family in Gaza barely gets one meal a day. The stress, she said, has driven her to the emergency room three times.

“I just miss them,” Alaydi said. “I just want to be with them and just give them a big, warm hug and just to hold them — like they are going to be okay and they will survive this, and I will see them, Inshallah.”

‘I felt his fear to my bones’

Like Alaydi, San Francisco resident Mama Ganuush — an African Palestinian advocate and drag artist — also has multiple extended family members still trapped in Gaza.

These include the surviving family of their cousin Mohamed, who Ganuush said was killed during a mid-December Israeli attack on a residential neighborhood. Watching Al Jazeera coverage of the attack, Ganuush said they glimpsed their cousin’s face, “thrown dead between dead bodies.”

Two hands hold an earring with a circular element with the word "Palestine" written on it.
Mama Ganuush holds their Palestinian coin earring at their home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I felt his fear to my bones,” Ganuush said.

Ganuush has been writing testimonies about these family members, about their lives and deaths, to various courts — including the United States case in Oakland and the United Nations’ International Court of Justice — to advocate for a cease-fire in Gaza and detail potential war crimes committed by the Israeli government. (Despite U.S. opposition, the U.N. voted for a cease-fire on Dec. 12.)

When it came to Mohamed, Ganuush said their words were intended to show that their cousin had “a whole life”: His college years in Arizona and his long-standing desire to start his own family. But it is “exhausting” work, Ganuush said, “[writing] down the details for the U.N, or for someone to help his wife … and his children get out of Gaza because of what happened.”

“I don’t need to explain to people that he’s a human by telling them these stories,” Ganuush said through sobs.

Now, Ganuush is also working with an attorney to help Mohamed’s widow — who is suffering from her own injuries, with almost no medical infrastructure left to aid her — and her children make it out of Gaza.

‘Out of the danger zone’

Many Palestinian Americans who do have citizenship have also struggled to leave Gaza. This situation prompted San Francisco lawyer Ghassan Shamieh to sue the Biden administration in November for violating the civil rights of its citizens, saying the government failed to quickly evacuate Palestinian Americans from Gaza.

The lawsuit was ultimately withdrawn after Shamieh’s clients — whose situation had prompted the lawsuit — could leave the region and reach the U.S. One client remains in Egypt to care for her now-orphaned nieces and nephews, who are not U.S. citizens.

A person holds a megaphone with stickers including the Palestinian flag on it.
Mama Ganuush holds a megaphone they use during protests in their home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

However, this lawsuit was just one example of lawyers across the country organizing together on this issue. Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians is a national collaboration of over a hundred volunteer attorneys working on outreach, immigration and humanitarian options for Palestinians and U.S. citizens with family in Gaza, headquartered out of the Bay Area’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

“A lot of attorneys started looking towards each other to say, ‘Okay, we have decades and decades and decades of this experience,’” said Los Angeles-based Ban Al-Wardi, one of these volunteer attorneys. “Not just with the Palestinian community, but with so many Arab and Muslim communities” who have experienced war, she said.

And the U.S.-based fight for people trapped in Gaza has a special precedent, Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians coordinator Amria Ahmed said — because the formation of Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians itself was modeled off a similar collaboration aiding Afghans in 2021 called Project ANAR.

Around 200 legal professionals answered Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians’ original call for volunteers back in November, Ahmed said — bringing over 200 clients and their extended families with them. The requests for help come from the U.S., Gaza, or countries where Gazans fled, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.

Ahmed said that many of the calls to the group come from community members “trying to understand how to get their family out of the danger zone as fast as possible.”

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‘Always been a hurdle’

Whether a Palestinian is a U.S. citizen or not, one of the greatest barriers they’ll face in being able to physically leave Gaza is the need for their names to be on a list.

Gazans are now unable to go to Jerusalem’s embassy and are exiting through Rafah’s crossing, which borders Egypt, Al-Wardi said. And in order for a Palestinian in Gaza to leave the area, they must have their name added to a crossing’s list.

However, “getting permission from the Israeli government to exit from any area within the Palestinian territories has always been a hurdle, and a barrier for people to have freedom of movement,” Al-Wardi said. (Recent satellite images show that Egypt is now building a wall after Israel’s attack on Rafah.)

The U.S. State Department, the Egyptian government and the Israeli government are all involved in adding a name to the list, San Francisco lawyer Shamieh said. But “because there are so many different parties who are involved,” he said, “it’s difficult to really get to the bottom of who really is responsible for this evacuation list.” (The U.S. government previously did have a crisis intake form, which has since been taken down.)

A person with a beard and wearing a suit speaks at a bank of microphones in front of a large building.
Attorney Ghassan J. Shamieh announces the filing of a lawsuit against the Biden administration to ensure the safe evacuation of US citizens from the Gaza Strip in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Nov. 2, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Ahmed said some U.S. citizens have been able to cross into Egypt. But those who have not, she said, have received little help from the U.S. government.

Government officials told her that the U.S. can only suggest that names be added to the list, Ahmed said. “That’s very perplexing,” she said: “The government of the United States of America, saying that its hands are tied with respect to their own U.S. citizens being able to leave the war zone of Gaza to enter into Egypt safely.”

“Egypt and Israel are two countries that are not hostile countries to the U.S. They are allies and friends,” she said, adding that the U.S. also provides millions of dollars in funds to Israel and Egypt.

One of the group’s U.S. citizen clients was stuck in Gaza for two months, Ahmed said — because although his wife and daughters were on the crossing list, he wasn’t. “That’s not something that any American should accept,” Ahmed said.

‘Seeing disparate treatment’

For Palestinian Americans with family in Gaza who aren’t U.S. citizens, exploring family immigration visas is one avenue. However, the application process has a long backlog. Sometimes, the U.S. citizen will be required to travel to Egypt to meet their Palestinian family in person, Ahmed said — that is if that family member can even make it across the border.

Another route is humanitarian parole — which Shamieh describes as a “long, expensive process” — when a person outside the U.S. requests to be brought into the country on special humanitarian grounds such as a medical emergency. Often, these are family-based petitions, “which can be rather quick if the relationship [to the U.S. citizen] is close enough,” Shamieh said.

Then there’s the possibility of Temporary Protected Status (TPS): A designation from the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security for certain foreign countries “due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely.” According to the U.S. government, these conditions include “Ongoing armed conflict.”

This status allows people to stay in the United States for an extended period of time, with a work permit and social security — meaning they would not be considered undocumented. And TPS, Shamieh said, is based on the United States’s own list of countries that “they add and remove as they see fit” — nations whose residents have “suffered from natural disasters to an extent that is unimaginable, like Haiti,” he noted. “Or if there is extreme civil unrest, like in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over — or in Ukraine when the war broke out.

However, after months, Israel began its military campaign against Gaza, no such program — through TPS or otherwise — has been created for Gazans.

“Immigration attorneys across the country are saddened because, again, we’re seeing disparate treatment,” Shamieh said: “From not just American citizens by our government, but disparate treatment for different nationalities.”

He notes that when Russia invaded Ukraine, “the [U.S.] government was very quick to adopt Uniting for Ukraine” — a temporary parole program that is available in addition to the now-extended TPS option for Ukrainians. But for Gazans, “we are not seeing that equal level of treatment,” Shamieh said.

Ahmed, Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians coordinator, said that Arab American lawyers have held individual meetings with members of the Biden administration and learned that officials would not, in fact, designate Palestinians for TPS and have instead opted to defer the deportation of 6,000 Palestinians in the United States for 18 months, as announced Feb. 14.

The volunteers who make up Project Immigration Justice for Palestinians say they are now lobbying the U.S. government to create a program similar to Uniting for Ukraine for people in Gaza. Ahmed said that to her group, the violence Gazans are facing — “violence that’s been called ethnic cleansing,” she said — is a “clear-cut example of a case where it merits a TPS designation.”

“If it could be done for one nationality, why can’t it be done for another?” Ahmed said.

“I feel like my politicians failed me.”

Seeking assistance from politicians has been another way to get their family’s plight recognized. San Francisco’s Mama Ganuush reached out to California Sen. Alex Padilla’s office seeking help for their extended family trapped in Gaza or a statement supporting a cease-fire. Padilla replied with an email saying he “strongly support[ed] Israel’s right to defend itself and the Administration’s swift action to provide support for our ally.”

Ganuush also contacted Nancy Pelosi’s office for assistance. After an initial response stating that her representatives would reach out to the state department about possibly getting their family’s names onto the Rafah crossing list, Ganuush said they hadn’t heard anything back since January.

“I feel like my politicians failed me,” Ganuush said, referring to the fact that the California officials, as well as the Biden administration, have shown mostly unwavering support for the Israeli military during the siege and that repeated calls for a cease-fire in the Middle East have not been met.

If a cease-fire were to take place, Ganuush stressed that their family would not necessarily “need to leave Palestine.”

“They want to just go home or have safety and have some sort of source of food for their children,” Ganuush said. “They just want to escape the killing — until they’re able to go back safely.”

For the Bay Area’s Rolla Alaydi, her role as the eldest sibling drives her to continue fighting for the lives of her loved ones in Gaza. “[I’m] going to do whatever it takes just to save their lives and save the lives of my little nieces and nephews,” she said.

“[The lawyers] are very, very supportive, very dedicated people. The only thing that I’m fearing [is the] time …  Time is very important. And I’m afraid. My family will survive today, but I don’t know if they’re going to survive tomorrow.”

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