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‘We’ll Never Get Out of Hell’: One American Family’s Escape From Gaza

Lena Beseiso pulled her blanket closer as she lay on the cold tile floor, and waited for the bombs to fall.

Her husband, two of their daughters, their 10-year-old grandson and Lena’s 87-year-old mother-in-law were stretched out in the same room, silently willing themselves into uneasy sleep.

Nights were the worst, and on this night, their eighth in Gaza since the war began, Lena knew what would come. The rumbling grew louder. She felt the building shudder. She could just make out the figures of her family around her in the dark. Would they survive another night? Would they die in the rubble of someone else’s house? Her chest tightened. “I need to go back home,” she thought.

Home was 7,000 miles away in Salt Lake City, where Lena would be tending her garden, planning for Thanksgiving dinner and shopping for Christmas.

Earlier that day, Lena had received an email from the U.S. State Department that Rafah crossing, between Egypt and Gaza, would be open for U.S. citizens. So, for the second time in a week, her family would pack up and make the risky trek to the border crossing.

The first time they had gone, the crossing had been hit by an Israeli airstrike. They saw a blast in front of the main gate, like a volcanic eruption of sand. “All of a sudden this great big explosion,” Lena recalled. “Everybody was just like, ‘We’ll never get out of hell.’”

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Oct. 14.Credit…Abed Rahim Khatib/Picture-Alliance, via DPA, via Associated Press

This time, Lena’s family was told the crossing would open at noon. Three hours later, it was still closed, with no officials in sight. Lena’s family would stand at the gate, and sometimes walk to a nearby cafe to sit down, though they feared another airstrike. If they left too early, they could miss their chance to cross. They waited long after other families started leaving, then finally gave up.

“The sounds of explosions are nearby,” Lena wrote in a text message on the way back to their refuge.

Over several weeks, Lena sent daily texts and voice messages to a Times reporter, chronicling her time in Gaza. Health officials there count more than 11,000 deaths in little over a month since Israel began its counteroffensive after a surprise Hamas attack in which officials say 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 abducted.

Even as they dodged airstrikes and huddled terrified in the dark, the Beseisos became reluctant war correspondents, sending daily, and sometimes hour-by-hour, updates. The messages provide an intimate account of one family’s attempt to survive one of the most intense bombing campaigns this century. Lena and her daughters careened between terror and hope, at once begging for help from their country, yet outraged over American support of a military attack that could kill so many civilians, and threaten the lives of hundreds of its own citizens who were trapped there.

In a message after Lena’s second failed attempt to leave Gaza, she wrote, “I feel like I’ve been abandoned by my country.”

Lena in the yard of her Utah home, outside Salt Lake City. Her family moved to the United States when she was a child.Credit…Niki Chan Wylie for The New York Times

The Americans

Lena, 57, was born in Amman, Jordan, and immigrated with her siblings and parents, Palestinian refugees, to the United States in 1973, when she was 7 years old. They joined an uncle who had attended college in the United States and who lived in Salt Lake City.

The family often spoke Arabic at home, but they assimilated to life in Utah, even converting from Islam to join the Mormon faith that dominates the state. (As an adult, Lena converted back to Islam.)

After finishing high school in 1984, Lena visited the Mideast to see relatives and friends. On that trip, she also visited Gaza, where she met her future husband, Hamdy. They married, had five children, and eventually decided to split their time between Utah and Hamdy’s family home in Gaza City.

Lena, busy raising the children and worried by the rising tensions in the Mideast, did not visit Gaza for 12 years. This year, as their youngest, Julia, was graduating from high school, Lena thought it was a good time for a mother-daughter trip to Europe and the Mideast. Lena’s husband, grandson and several of her other children — all U.S. citizens —were already in Gaza on an extended stay.

In Gaza, it was a joyous reunion. Julia spent time in the family’s compound in Rimal, an upscale neighborhood in northern Gaza. She rode horses on the beach, and hung out with cousins and friends she had not seen in years. Suhayla, Julia’s grandmother and the family matriarch, lived on the first floor of the family’s building. As her children married, they moved into their own spaces on the floors above, where they raised their families. The entire building held generations of Beseisos.

Julia returned to the United States over the summer to get ready for her first year of college. Her mother and sisters stayed behind to renew two expired passports, and planned to follow as soon as they could.

The view from the kitchen window of the Beseiso family home in Rimal, northern Gaza, in October, before the family evacuated south.

‘Is it our turn tonight?’

Lena and her family were shocked when they saw reports of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.People in Gaza expected Israel would respond, but the Beseisos were unprepared for what followed.

The whole neighborhood shook, she said, amid a barrage of airstrikes that rattled their doors and windows. At one point, the attack was so close that it shattered a large window in their entry and blew a door off its hinges.

Each night, they looked out into darkness broken only by the orange glow of explosions. From her kitchen window one day, Lena watched smoke rise from a nearby demolished building. The pounding was relentless, she said. They were trapped.

“Once the darkness hits, and the airstrikes get heavier, you think, ‘They’re going neighborhood by neighborhood just bombing it away,’’’ she said in a quick phone call. “‘Is it our turn tonight?’”

Aden, her normally sunny 10-year-old grandson with a head of unruly curls, could not stop crying.

Lena just wanted to escape this new and brutal war.She could hear people crying out in the street. She called a friend in Utah. “I feel like I live in a graveyard,” she told her.

On Oct. 13, the sky rained leaflets. Israel was warning people in the area to go south. But Lena had heard reports that some families fleeing in that direction had died in airstrikes on the road. And, where would their large clan go?

Right before evacuating the family’s house, one of Lena’s daughters, Suzan, 31, paused amid the panic to walk through the home and its lush walled garden one last time, taking video on her phone.

“I felt like it’s 1948 all over again, and we’re never coming back,” Suzan said. She was referring to what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes and lands during the war that led to Israel’s creation.

The family drove south, a long, slow journey through flattened neighborhoods and blasted streets. Lena had no idea where they would end up. Then, at 2:47 p.m. local time, she texted: “We found a family that let us in,” followed by five crying emojis.

The Beseiso family’s Gaza neighborhood on Oct. 10, after an Israeli airstrike.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Refugees

The sound of the airstrikes was now distant. For the first time in days, Lena slept for a bit. But the apartment they had crammed into was overflowing with people also fleeing airstrikes. Hamdy, her husband, called an old acquaintance in southern Gaza he had not seen in years and asked if his friend could house his family.

They moved into the new apartment, and all slept together in the living room, with most of the family sleeping on the tiled floor.

Lena thought about her family in Salt Lake City, her two adult sons and Julia, who was 19 and had just started college.

“I can’t wait to be home and just heal and hold my daughter in my arms and tell her how proud I am of her because I am so proud of her,” Lena said at the time. “And I want to be there to see her graduate, to her being a bride and seeing her children.”

In the mornings, out of fuel for the stove, they “brewed” Nescafe in cold water “to make you feel like you’re having coffee,” Lena said. She instructed the children to conserve drinking water by taking tiny sips, and only if they felt like they were dying of thirst. They almost never showered.

“It got to the point where you had everything, and then you had nothing,” Sireen, 36, one of her daughters, said.

Compared with many people in Gaza, they knew they were lucky. Hospitals were under siege, and food and water were growing scarce. All around her, Lena said, she saw people paying “the price of this sick war.” On her drives to and from the border, Lena saw wounded families and children with severe burns. Sometimes, she said, she saw children sleeping on the street and eating scraps of food from the ground.

“My heart cries 24/7,” she texted in late October.

At least the Beseisos had a roof over their heads. They could borrow their downstairs neighbor’s stove. They had some phone signal through Lena’s cell service. Thanks in part to the neighbor’s reserves of dried beans and rice, they never ran out of water or food, even if it was never quite enough.

They used to scramble 10 eggs for the children to share. Now everyone split two eggs. Then the hen stopped laying — from stress, they thought.

The smell of death was everywhere, Lena said, a rotting, pervasive stench they could not escape. When Suzan ventured out to a corner store, she saw bodies lying in the street.

Lena’s daughter Julia, 19, who had just started college, at their home in Holladay, Utah. Julia was visiting Gaza with her family but left to return to the United States before the war started.Credit…Niki Chan Wylie for The New York Times

‘It’s not okay’

In Salt Lake City, Lena’s daughter Julia could not sleep, so she stayed awake through the night, connected to her family by a phone line.

To draw attention to the war in Gaza and her family, Julia, who attends Salt Lake Community College, did several local television interviews. She also spoke at local pro-Palestinian protests in Salt Lake City and hosted a vigil.

One of Lena’s sons reached out to U.S. officials in the State Department, Congress and the White House, pleading for more help.

Through a contact, the Beseisos were able to reach the office of U.S. Representative Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York. Mr. Lawler’s district director, Rafi Silberberg — whose job also involves outreach to the Orthodox Jewish community, and who is Jewish himself —said he stayed in daily contact with the Beseisos, providing updates on U.S. evacuation efforts.

“There were days, day after day, night after night, that this family would literally send me voice recordings on WhatsApp, and hearing bombs exploding right next to them,” Mr. Silberberg said.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials were shuttling between Israel and Egypt, trying to broker a deal for the two countries and Hamas to allow the evacuation of more than 7,000 foreign and dual citizens, along with some wounded people and Palestinian employees of international organizations. Egypt, Hamas and Israel all threw up roadblocks, stretching out the complex negotiations for weeks.

“Still alive,” Lena texted The Times the afternoon of Oct. 20.

Suzan, one of Lena’s daughters, waiting on Nov. 2 for permission to leave Gaza, at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.Credit…Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

She wondered if there was any news about the border for U.S. citizens leaving Gaza. Late that night, she got an answer: an email from the State Department that said the border should be open the next day at 10 a.m. but that U.S. officials did not know for how long. The email said Americans “should expect a potentially chaotic and disorderly environment.”

The following day, Lena and her family went back to the border — their fourth trip — as the first aid trucks were scheduled to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing. Hoping they would finally get to cross, the family waited at the border for hours, along with hundreds of others. Around 4:30 p.m., there was still no movement and no officials at the gates, Lena said. Dejected, the Beseisos decided to head back before it got dark.

Over the next several days, Lena’s daughters in Gaza were “holding on by a thread,” Lena wrote in a message. Lena said she frequently called the State Department, but they could not tell her when she might be able to leave.

A State Department spokesperson said the agency has helped more than 600 U.S. citizens, residents and family members leave Gaza and has made “thousands of phone calls and sent thousands of emails to U.S. citizens” and their families.

On Oct. 26, Lena reached her breaking point.

“I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” she said in a voice message. “It’s so scary and frightening. I can’t hold it together. We’re so scared.”

“I have to be this strong person in front of them … but I can’t do it,” she added, pausing at points to gather herself. “I’m going to have a breakdown. I keep it in and I say it’s going to be okay. But it’s not okay. There’s nothing okay about all of this.”

The next day, Lena lost cell service completely. In Salt Lake City, Julia was panicking.

“I didn’t know if they were alive or not,” Julia said. “I would just keep getting images of them in my head being blown to pieces and them being dead.”

transcript

Lena Beseiso and her family waiting at the Gaza side of the Rafah border on Nov. 2 after their names appeared on a list of people approved to evacuate.

We’re at the Palestinian side of the Rafah border, and let’s just hope we can make it through today.

Lena Beseiso and her family waiting at the Gaza side of the Rafah border on Nov. 2 after their names appeared on a list of people approved to evacuate.

After almost 24 hours of no communication, Julia finally heard from her family. They were alive, but strikes in the south, where they had been told to evacuate, were intense.

Late on the night of Oct. 31, Lena was awake, as usual, unable to sleep as the strikes grew louder. She looked at her family. Her daughter Sireen was sleeping with her hand over her son Aden’s ear, to block out the noise from the airstrikes. Suzan had fallen asleep with her hands covering both ears.

She looked at her phone and saw a new email from the State Department: The border would open for some foreign nationals the next day. But only a handful of Americans were allowed to cross.

In the early hours of the next morning, Lena saw that authorities had included them in a group of people approved to evacuate.

“Our names are on the list!!!!” she wrote in a message.

In Salt Lake City, Julia ran and told her brother and her friends. “We started dancing and screaming in my kitchen,” she said.

That Thursday morning, the Beseiso family rushed to the Rafah border for the fifth time. The mood was tense, edging toward relief as they, along with hundreds of people, waited in line for hours for the officials in Gaza to check their documents against the list.

While waiting, the crowd was rattled by the sound of a nearby airstrike, and a piece of shrapnel appeared to fall on the metal canopy of the terminal area.

“We are frightened, to be honest,” Lena said minutes later in a voice message.

After hours of waiting, they showed their U.S. passports to border guards on the Gaza side, and they passed into Egypt.

Lena and her relatives boarded a bus to Cairo.

Sireen, left, puts her 10-year-old son, Aden, to sleep at a hotel room in Cairo, after the family made it out of Gaza.Credit…Nariman El-Mofty for The New York Times

“I’m so grateful that we made it out alive as a family, but it’s just devastating to leave innocent people behind too,” she said.

Several of Hamdy’s relatives, who are not American citizens, were not able to leave Gaza.

Around 3 a.m., Lena and her family arrived at the InterContinental Semiramis hotel in Cairo. Lena had her first real shower in weeks.

“I could lather my hair, I could scrub my skin …” she said in an interview at the hotel, pausing. “The things we take for granted,” she said.

She heard doors slam, and she jumped. She repeated one phrase to herself, a mantra to keep calm: You’re in a safe place. You’re in a safe place. You’re safe.

At the hotel in Cairo, Lena said that they did not know whether their house in Rimal was still standing. “I don’t know, I don’t want to know,” she said, shaking her head.

Sireen was not so much sad as furious — at Israel, but also at the United States for supporting and arming Israel, at the media for what she felt was a one-sided portrayal of the conflict, at the rest of the world for watching videos of dying children and failing to stop it.

As Sireen spoke, her son sat in Lena’s lap, watching a video of someone on a bike riding down a road in Gaza dotted with sprawled, bloodied bodies. Noticing this, Lena put her arms around him from behind, gently took the phone and closed the video, kissing the back of his neck.

Julia greeted her mother, Lena, at Salt Lake City International Airport on Nov. 10.Credit…Niki Chan Wylie for The New York Times

Homecoming

On Nov. 10, Julia ran through Salt Lake City International Airport in search of her parents. “Where are you?” she asked her mother on the phone as she scanned the arrivals area.

Julia turned around, and saw them. She ran toward her mother and embraced her, crying. Other family members had gathered at the airport too, including Lena’s mother, brother, and one of Lena and Hamdy’s sons, who live in Salt Lake City.

That evening, Lena and Hamdy walked out of their house to find a group of around 25 neighbors, friends and relatives in their driveway, with balloons.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Lena told them between long embraces. “I’m exhausted, it was a long journey.”

As relieved as she was, Lena’s mind focused on those she left behind in Gaza. Her best friend. Hamdy’s brother, his wife and their children. And so many others. She knew the fear they felt.

Her first night at home, Lena woke up several times in her sleep, not knowing where she was and “wanting to go home to SLC,” she said in a message. She would then realize she was indeed home, in her bed. You’re in a safe place, she reminded herself. You are safe. You are safe. You are safe.

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