Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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.’”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.” The AmericansLena, 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.‘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. Even as they faced airstrikes, they had to go through the process of renewing their passports. They never knew what would happen if they tried to leave the country, and they feared for their lives. 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 surrounding 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.RefugeesThe 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,…

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