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Palestinians in Chicago mourn loss of family in Gaza

Mohammed AbuSafia came to the U.S. in July for a two-month medical program at the Cleveland Clinic, but he was stranded in the U.S. by the war in Gaza. At least 39 of his relatives have since been killed. <strong></strong>
Mohammed AbuSafia
Mohammed AbuSafia came to the U.S. in July for a two-month medical program at the Cleveland Clinic, but he was stranded in the U.S. by the war in Gaza. At least 39 of his relatives have since been killed.

Dr. Mohammed AbuSafia is a doctor from Northern Gaza. He traveled to the United States at the end of July for a two-month-long medical program at Cleveland Clinic. He planned to be back in Gaza by October 7. But due to travel delays, he had to start his externship one week late, meaning AbuSafia was still in the United States the day of the Hamas attack on Israel.

"I cried at the border when I had to say goodbye. And I cried constantly during the car ride from the border to the airport. Because I knew things can go bad at some point," AbuSafia said in an interview with Morning Edition.

While AbuSafia was away, things did turn bad. He says his entire direct family was wiped out in two separate Israeli airstrikes. AbuSafia says the first airstrike hit his home on October 13th, killing his father and badly injuring his two brothers. A second airstrike on October 29th killed the rest of his family. Now he doesn't have a home or family to return to in Gaza. He's staying with his uncle Mohammed Abu Realh, who is a nurse from Gaza living in Chicago.

The day of the first airstrike, AbuSafia recieved an unusually long text from his father before he was killed.

"I knew something bad [was] about to happen for some reason. In the message he said, just look after yourself and we hopefully will be okay. And after that, I received the news that night that my father was killed," AbuSafia said.

AbuSafia says that his brother Ahmed suffered a spinal fracture. His youngest brother Amru's body was full of ricochets from the strike, and one of the ricochets penetrated his lung. The hospital needed to extract the ricochet to close the hole in order for him to breathe normally. AbuSafia's brothers stayed in the hospital for three days, but needed to stay for longer.

"As somebody who works in healthcare in America... this patient with these symptoms would need about ten days in the hospital until his lung collapse recovered," said Abu Realh. "[The] other 17-year-old with a fractured spine should stay [on] his back with minimum movement for at least one month."

But that's not possible with the huge number of critical cases overwhelming hospitals all over Gaza. After the brothers were forced to leave, AbuSafia's family had to find a car to transport them to his aunt's house two miles away from AlShifa hospital.

"If the patients are stable enough to actually be let out, even though the need the care, they are forced to leave because there are people with more severe casualties. There are people who lost limbs," said AbuSafia. "This is how bad the situation is."

The rest of AbuSafia's family sheltered at his aunt's home too. They thought the area around the hospital would be more safe. Then AbuSafia said the second airstrike hit his aunt's house, killing everybody else in his family except his aunt.

"A colleague at the AlShifa Hospital, she texted me saying, 'I don't know how to put this in words, but your brother Osama was killed.' Because an Israeli airstrike had hit my aunt's house where they evacuated," said AbuSafia.

After he heard the news, he was devastated. And at the same time, he was scared for the rest of his family.

"Where are they? Are they under the rubble? Are they alive? Are they injured? And it takes another five hours of waiting. Knowing that the worst could actually happen, which in fact happened. To hear that all of them were found, killed," he said.

All together, at least 39 members of AbuSafia's family have been killed, including his mother, father, and five brothers. When NPR spoke to Abu Realh and AbuSafia on November 15th, the day Israeli forces raided AlShifa hospital, they were waiting to hear from their remaining family.

"We are waiting every single second to see if somebody tells me that they are still alive. That is the most difficult part," said Abu Realh.

They were waiting for updates on AbuSafia's aunt and two toddlers who were hospitalized in AlShifa with severe burns. His aunt had to leave the hospital because there was no space. Abu Realh says he would typically get a text message from his family in Gaza every day with updates. On the day Abu Realh spoke to NPR, he did not get his daily text message.

"I'm not sure that they can survive without oxygen, without proper ventilation and proper care. There is no supply, there is no care, no electricity, no connection whatsoever. These are children," said Abu Realh.

After the interview ended, communications remained down. They heard nothing from AbuSafia's aunt of the two children at AlShifa hospital for days. After a full week of limbo, Abu Realh texted NPR with the news that the two children, Malik and Noor AlDeen Shameya, had succumbed to their wounds.

AbuSafia remembers his family in the tribute below.

"I want people to know that she was the most kind and the most loving mother ever. And that she was my, and my father of course, the very building blocks and original supporters of my whole life and my whole career. And they have taught me how to succeed since the very beginning. And they have dedicated their whole life just to see their kids grow, learn, work, and give back to the society. My father, he was my role model. He was one of the most patient, most strong [person] that I have ever known. Even if they're not there, I hope they can know that I continue on that path that they want me to take. I want them always also to know that they are alive with me. Everywhere I go. And with everything I do."

"My oldest brother, his name is Albaraa. I want the people to know he's the guy, whenever you have a problem, however slight it is, I go to talk to him. And we tried to figure out a solution together. We help each other. He's the person that you would call whenever you're in trouble, because you trust them infinitely. ANd that's Albaraa," said AbuSafia. "He got engaged just three months [ago] and he was preparing for his wedding."

"For Osama, when you're passing through a certain path, you always want company with you. And when you make a decision in your life, you always want to have company with you in order for you both to support each other, and to hold each other's hands to be able to push themselves through. Me and him, we worked together. We studied together. We taught each other. And we walked in the same path. I want people to know he's the person to have by your side whenever you decide that you're going through a very long-term life decision. He's way more than a friend or a brother. He's a brother friend, or even something bigger," said AbuSafia.

"Husam was the closest of them. Husam is a high school student, he always looked up to me. He used to read up things online, scientific discoveries, read up about history, read up anything. And he would come up to me and start a discussion and we'll get to talk to each other about certain things. Because he liked to talk to his older brother. Both of us also played a lot of chess, and he used to actually beat [me] in chess. He's very bright, he liked artificial intelligence. And he wanted to grow and to explore all the opportunities the world would have given him. But unfortunately, that was taken from him."

Photo of Ahmed
/ Mohammed AbuSafia
Mohammed AbuSafia
Photo of Ahmed

"For Ahmed, he was a college student studying engineering. Ahmed was the funniest of my brothers. He was full of energy. Each time we go out, he's the person to give us all the best time, either with his jokes or with anything else. He's the person that everybody wants to be friends with."

Amru with his family cat Absi.
/ Mohammed AbuSafia
Mohammed AbuSafia
Amru with his family cat Absi.

"My youngest brother (Amru), he is what we call the fruit of the family. He used to play a lot of video games. And whenever he had any problem with any sort of thing during his playing time, he used to interrupt whatever I'm doing, whether it be studying or working. And he would interrupt you just to fix his games. And let me tell you, it's one of the things that I miss most is him interrupting me. I know he won't be interrupting me anymore."

Treye Green edited the digital article contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mohamad ElBardicy
Mohamad ElBardicy is an editor on Morning Edition and the UpFirst podcast. Before joining NPR in 2019, his career focused on international news with Al-Jazeera, CNN, Eurovision and other outlets during his 15 years in journalism. He's produced, edited and reported stories from around the world. ElBardicy's field work during 2011's Arab Spring helped shape his mission to bring global views and voices to American audiences. He is an American-Egyptian who speaks Arabic fluently and, when he's not being a news junky, you can find him practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.