Home News Americans scrambled to evacuate their families. Then the border closed.

Americans scrambled to evacuate their families. Then the border closed.


Ghada Redwan, a 48-year-old Houston pharmacist, has been trying for months to get her parents out of Gaza. Their bags, packed and ready to go, sit on the doorstep of Rafah, the Gaza city now controlled by Israel. Launch a military offensive.

But Ms. Redwane encountered obstacles at every turn. Like other Palestinian Americans desperate to get their loved ones out safely, she described a confusing bureaucratic maze involving the State Department, the Israeli and Egyptian governments, politicians, advocacy groups, lawyers and more.

This month, the Rafah border crossing to Egypt – the only route for civilian evacuations – was closed, throwing an already complex system into disarray and leading to calls for the United States to take stronger steps to evacuate relatives of American citizens.

“You feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Ms. Redwane said in an interview. “You’re comfortable, you’re wealthy, you’re an American citizen, and your parents are suffering and you can’t do anything. It’s just crazy.”

Ms Redwan last spoke to her mother on Monday morning, the day after the Israeli attack. Dozens of Palestinians killed In a camp for displaced persons in Rafah.

“There’s no safe place,” her mother told her. “Just pray for us.”

U.S. officials say more than 1,800 American citizens and their families have left Gaza with State Department assistance since the war began seven months ago. They are just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Gazans eager to leave as already dire conditions worsen.

Although the vast majority of Gazans cannot escape, the State Department told Americans late last year that they could ask the department for help in putting their immediate family members — even if they are not U.S. citizens — on a list for crossing the border.

The criteria are strict: Only parents, spouses and unmarried children under 21 of U.S. citizens are eligible. The U.S. collects these names and gives them to the Israeli and Egyptian authorities who control the border, asking for permission to cross.

Then they wait. Families check a Facebook page run by Gaza authorities that is updated when people are allowed into Egypt. If their names appear, they are advised to go to the border checkpoint immediately.

But that’s by no means the end of the story. Often, a person’s name never appears on a list at the border, and they are turned away. (The Facebook page hasn’t been updated in more than two weeks, since the Rafah crossing was closed on May 7.) For those who do make it across the border, they can begin the process of getting a green card and eventually reuniting with family in the United States.

It’s hard to know how long the process will take. Alicia Nieves, a legal advocate with the Arab American Civil Rights League, said she had a client who fled Gaza and received a visa to the United States within a month.

But some people waited longer.

“Every part of this process is confusing to me,” said Sammy Nabulsi, a Massachusetts lawyer who has helped families leave Gaza.

Immigrant advocates and some lawmakers have pushed for an overhaul of U.S. aid, saying the system created after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was far more generous and allowed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to enter the United States with or without family ties, as long as they had a financial sponsor.

“Given the situation in Rafah, and the lack of aid, these people are unfortunately in the shadow of death. We need to do the right thing for our citizens, our country, and expand the criteria to allow more relatives to leave and find a way to the United States,” Nabulsi said.

Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois have also called for expanding the scope of people the U.S. government is willing to help to include siblings, their children and grandchildren, and for speeding up the processing of applications for humanitarian parole, which allows temporary entry into the United States.

A White House spokesman said the administration is “continuously evaluating policy proposals to further support Palestinians who are family members of U.S. citizens and may wish to join the American family.”

Administration officials discussed the idea of ​​allowing some Egyptian Palestinians to enter the United States through the refugee program and considered humanitarian parole, according to three sources familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Congressional Republicans oppose the idea of ​​allowing Gaza refugees into the United States.

“With more than a third of Gazans supporting Hamas militants, we are unsure your administration can adequately vet these high-risk individuals for terrorist ties or sympathies before allowing them to enter the United States,” a group of Republican senators said. Wrote in the letter Earlier this month, President Biden was interviewed.

As the war continues, Palestinian Americans in the United States feel powerless to help.

Abdalwahab Hlayel, a 43-year-old businessman from Minnesota, said he has been worried about his father, stepmother and other family members in Gaza, but their fate has not yet been determined and he cannot bear to speak to them.

“I hate calling them because every time I call, they’re waiting for good news from me,” said Helaier, who has submitted their names to the State Department and has asked the office of Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith to advocate for his family. But the names of his 73-year-old father, who has diabetes, and his stepmother never appeared on the Facebook page.

“I have nothing to tell them,” Mr. Helaire said.

He is not even sure his father will leave Gaza because it would mean abandoning his two children, aged 17 and 21, who do not meet the criteria for naturalization.

So now, Mr. Helaire spends hours each day glued to his phone, checking for updates and tracking the latest news from this small place where more than 34,000 people have died.

Ms. Smith said she had called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department for help on the Harrell family’s behalf.

“Our broken immigration system is unable to respond to the emergency, and Minnesotans like Abdulwahab are struggling with red tape and bureaucracy at a time when processing times can mean the difference between life and death,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) has been advocating for the parents of Rasheda Al-Fayiomi, a 33-year-old U.S. citizen living in Austin. They are trapped in Gaza, but there is only so much we can do while the Rafah crossing is closed.

“We are their only hope,” said Ms. Alfaiomi, who has a dozen relatives in Gaza in addition to her parents. She said she often receives videos of family members begging for help in Gaza refugee camps.

“They were crying on the phone,” she said. “The children were crying. The adults were crying.”

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