It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.
Jehad Adwan had not seen his parents in Gaza for 13 years. The University of Minnesota student and instructor saved money to bring his wife, Lisa, and four children to the region.
It would also be a special trip for the kids. Noor, 11, Zaki 10, Hala, 8, and Zain, 6, had never met their grandparents, nor the scores of relatives living in the region.
The Adwans spent $7,000 on airline tickets in April, when Egypt was still calm. When the family left in early July, President Mohammed Morsi had just been ousted, but the Adwans didn’t expect the kind of chaos that has ensued since they left.
The six Minnesotans flew into Cairo and hired a driver to take them to Rafa, Gaza. They were supposed to return so Jehad could start his job as an assistant clinical professor in the U school of nursing and the kids could return to school. Lisa is editor of the Mizna Journal, a forum for Arab-Americans.
Instead, the violence in Egypt has sealed the border, and the Adwans and their children have been stranded. Several times they were loaded onto hot, crowded buses with 40 other people and brought to the border for transport to the Cairo airport, only to be turned back because the border was still closed.
Lisa Adwan has been communicating with worried friends and family in Minnesota through social media, relaying a grim and grueling ordeal.
The Adwans knew the U.S. State Department “strongly urges” U.S. citizens to avoid Gaza because it is controlled by Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist group. The U.S. has little influence in the area. But the Adwans decided to take the chance to reunite their family.
Even getting into Gaza was difficult. Hala got sick from the heat, and Noor fainted while waiting in line to cross the border.
When the Adwans finally got to Gaza, the effort seemed worthwhile. Writing Tuesday from the refugee camp where they are staying, Lisa described the homecoming:
“When we got to Jehad’s house, the reunion with his mom and dad was tender and heart-wrenching. They held each other for a long time and wept. The kids’ grandmother embraced each of them slowly, affectionately, repeating their names and stroking their heads, saying softly, ‘Ahlan, ahlan’ (Welcome, welcome).”
But life in Gaza is dire. Lisa wrote of sporadic electricity and water, lack of working bathrooms, excessive heat.
Yet, “Our children’s experience in Rafah has been wonderful,” Lisa wrote. “They have had lots of fun running barefoot in the dusty streets, playing soccer with the neighborhood kids, buying sweets from the local vendors with shekels from their aunts and uncles, setting off firecrackers, adopting stray cats and bantering with their cousins in their daily-improving Arabic.”
Then came the trip home. Or attempted trip home.
“Our daily trips to the Rafah border have not only been fruitless but have been deeply stressful for us and for our children,” Lisa wrote.
They have tried to cross into Egypt three times, often waiting in 100-degree heat for hours, only to be turned away by Egyptian authorities.
“On our third attempt, after having waited 6 hours at the border, there came news that 24 Egyptian [police officers] had been killed in Sinai and that the border would be closed indefinitely,” Lisa wrote Tuesday.
The group of Americans the Adwans are with have reached out to the consulate and politicians for help, including Minnesotans Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar talked to the consulate in Israel Monday, and is hopeful the Adwans and about 100 other families will be allowed to leave through Israel or Jordan in the next few days. She said travelers to Gaza are supposed to return the same way they came in, but exceptions are made when the situation becomes too dangerous.
“They were very helpful and asked for more information on the kids, so that’s a good sign,” said Klobuchar. “They are working on getting them home right now.”
Kathy Haddad, a longtime friend of the family, worries about the Adwans.
“It’s really awful,” said Haddad. “They just want to get to an airport so they can get home. It’s not encouraged to go to Gaza, but that’s where their family is.”
“We cannot withstand an indefinite stay in Gaza,” Lisa wrote. “The emotional hardship of a forced stay in a foreign land is very difficult to put into words.”
The Adwan children will no doubt have interesting stories to tell when school starts.