Leaving Gaza: A Tale of Two Palestinian Exchange Students and Their Families

Palestinian Exchange Student Ali Aljamal attends Redding School of  the Arts.

In 2021, three Israeli Defense Force missiles struck the Gaza City apartment building Ali Aljamal lived in with his family. Without warning, the IDF targeted an alleged Hamas leader who supposedly lived on the floor just above Aljamal.

Whether the surprise attack killed a Hamas member is unknown, but a notable Gaza Strip doctor’s son died in the attack. Aljamal witnessed a young girl dead in her bed, killed while she slept just 20 meters away from him.

Ever since then Aljamal has believed the conflict between Palestine and Israel was near its breaking point. That breaking point was reached with the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas’ coordinated cross-border attack on Israeli towns and settlements that killed 1,139 Israeli soldiers and civilians on Oct. 7 of last year.

Regional map of Israel and its neighbors.

It was the most casualties suffered by Israel since the Jewish state’s formation in 1948. Israel’s subsequent violent response has laid waste to the Gaza Strip and killed tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children during the past six months. Current estimates of the number of Palestinians killed range from 30,000 to 200,000.

Aljamal has been fasting between dawn and dusk since the start of Ramadan March 10. The proposed ceasefire will last until the end of Ramadan on April 9, if Israel chooses to accept it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Palestinians to Amalek, the mythical Old Testament tribe that was exterminated by the early Hebrews on Yahweh’s command. Human rights activists are increasingly accusing Israel of committing acts of genocide with its ongoing war on the Gaza Strip.

Ali Aljamal is a 15-year-old Palestinian exchange student who came to the United States last September, one month before the Hamas attack. The aspiring graphic arts student currently attends Redding School of the Arts.

In an interview last week, the day after the U.N. Security Council called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Aljamal told A News Cafe he didn’t anticipate the breaking point between Israelis and Palestinians would be reached while he was out of the occupied territory.

With 2 million Palestinians in a 141 sq. mi. area, the Gaza Strip in one of the most densely populated places on earth.

“Before I left Gaza, I always had a feeling that at one point, there’s one side of the conflict that is going to do something that will evoke the other side’s emotions and the other side will show revenge and show the whole world for who they are,” Aljamal said. “I didn’t want to think about which side this was going to be until it happened. I knew if Hamas did this, Israel was going to show revenge in a difficult way.”

Aljamal contacted friends and family members in Gaza as the events of Oct. 7 unfolded on social media. After a couple of hours, it became apparent how damaging Hamas’ sneak attack had been.

“I said to my Dad, ‘like what’s going on? Don’t worry, he said, Hamas, they invaded the Israeli part,’ ” Aljamal recalled. “Then we saw how big the thing was two hours later. The number of dead soldiers, how they were able to evade the Israeli intelligence system, the best in the world, that’s probably dangerous [for Gaza]. We knew what the response was going to be. It’s going to be worse. It’s going to be tough. That’s why my Dad escaped.”

The day after the attack, Aljamal’s father and his younger brother joined his mother, who was already in Cairo, Egypt.

Ali Aljamal (far left) has set up a GoFundMe Page to help resettle his family in Cairo, Egypt.

She works as a liaison between big league soccer teams and smaller local youth teams. His older brother, who plays for a professional minor league soccer team in Spain, has joined his family in Cairo. Aljamal plans to join them there in June after he completes the school year in the United States.

“Probably, I’ll be back to Jordan,” he said. “Then I’m going to go probably from Jordan to Egypt to meet my family.”

The Abu Ramadan family, with former Palestinian exchange student Basel on far right.

Pinned Down in Gaza: Meet the Abu Ramadans

Basel Abu Ramadan, a 24-year-old computer programmer who along with his family is currently sheltering against Israeli bombardment near the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, was not lucky enough to get out of Gaza before the Israeli land invasion began last November.

Ten years ago, Basel attended Central Valley High School as an exchange student. Today, his former host family, Leonard and Inge Lusher, have set up a GoFundMe page to help raise the $35,000 necessary to pay for the seven-member Abu Ramadan family’s admittance to Egypt.

Basel Abu Ramadan at Central Valley High School in 2014.

Like most of the people in Gaza, the Abu-Ramadans currently lack food, water, medicine, electricity and communications. Family members include the patriarch, Dr. Wael, a retired anesthesiologist who spent more than four decades treating patients and performing emergency surgeries at Al-Shifa Hospital. That same hospital has been attacked by the IDF multiple times during the present conflict.

His wife, Eman, raised six children and earned a degree in education, working as an elementary school teacher for girls in a government school. Both parents are retired now and need daily medications to survive.

Their second oldest son Mohammed is an agricultural engineer. Bashar is a civil engineer. Basel is the computer specialist. Ola is an Englisher teacher in a government school. Sarah is in middle school. While individually they’ve encountered varying degrees of success, all their lives have been put on hold by the current conflict with Israel.

Basel with his parents on college graduation day in Gaza several years ago.

Internet service has become sporadic in Gaza, so A News Café contacted Basel through his oldest brother Mustafa Wael Abu Ramadan. Mustafa moved to Egypt with his wife and son to complete a doctorate in economics one week before Oct. 7 last year. Now he’s trying to get the rest of his family out of Gaza.

“It is very, very hard and difficult,” Mustafa told A News Café, referring to the logistics of escaping from Gaza to Egypt. “Despite the huge amount of money that amounts to around $5000 per person, you will [still] must wait for your name to be put on a statement that is published daily by a company working here in Egypt called Hala. The road from Khan Younis to the Rafah border is very dangerous because of the drones and airstrikes.”

When he was an exchange student in the United States 10 years ago, Basel Abu-Ramadan made a video thanking then Secretary of State John Kerry for a $200 million aid package granted to Gaza after the 51 Day War in 2014.

Basel Abu Ramadan in Redding, 2014.

Last December, Reem, Basel’s fiancé and two of her sisters were killed by an IDF airstrike. Last week, the day after the U.N. called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Basel sent out a message that might be his last. Following is a version of that message lightly edited for clarity. Basel Abu-Ramadan begins:

“I am now writing this message to give you more details about my situation. Hopefully it will be delivered once I get an internet connection.

“So, about food we have been living on canned food for nearly six months. Our stomachs don’t feel right and we started getting sick, but unfortunately there is no alternative. We don’t have any type of medical care since Israel attacked the hospitals and now shoots anyone that goes near them.

“My elderly father and mother have heart/blood pressure problems, unfortunately there is no hospital to send them to, and the remaining hospitals are full and only accept injuries from bombings.

“The prices are crazy expensive, and we only buy what we need to eat and medicine (if available) to keep us alive. I feel helpless and broken when I see my 74-year-old father suffering from heart problems and I can’t do anything to help him.

“We generally feel desperate and hopeless that even after the security council voted for a ceasefire Israel is still bombing us!! The airstrikes are getting closer and increasing rapidly and when we go to sleep we don’t know if we’ll live to wake up another day. This message I’m writing may never be delivered to you.

“We have enough water to shower once a week which is amazing! I lost some weight because we are not eating much, and we feel afraid most of the time that something horrible might happen. It’s like a very dark time. Gaza is like hell on earth now.

“This war has brought out the worst in people, can you imagine that people are killing each other for a piece of canned food?! Children are dying of starvation! What world are we living in?!!

“I do feel tired and broken in so many ways and sometimes I wish I could just die and end this nightmare. It’s so lonely without my beloved Reem by my side. She kept me strong and hopeful, but she is gone now, I miss her so much and I still sleep crying sometimes, missing her by my side. This war has gone on for so long, it must finish soon, before we are finished for good.”

An IDF Air Force American-made F-16 fighter, fully armed with guided bombs. Courtesy of www.F-16.net.

Saying Goodbye to Gaza

Ali Aljamal was 6 years old when the 51 Day War broke out between Israel and Gaza in 2014. He remembers adults and children playing cards and watching TV to pass the tense time between airstrikes in their Gaza City apartment building.

“The last week of the war for no reason the IDF called our neighbors next to us, 20 meters away from us, and they threatened them, this is a warning and we’re going to bomb you in the next 8 hours,” Aljamal recalled.

“I saw my Dad talking to my neighbors and the owner of the building. They were discussing either to go somewhere far away or hide in the underground garage until the bombing happened.”

The residents sheltered in the underground garage for 11 hours, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. After no bombs were dropped, they returned to their apartments to get some sleep. Aljamal was playing video games on his laptop when he heard the F-16 warplanes approach. He was the only one awake.

“I was like, Dad, it’s probably time!” Aljamal said. “Everyone woke up. I opened the door to our apartment and right after I opened the door big F-16 rockets were dropped and all I heard was glass falling down. The door shut down on my face. I still remember how this affected my hearing for a couple of days, with the air pressure coming through the door and all that.”

Aljamal said it was the first time he became cognizant of the war and what was really going on in Gaza.

“I woke up and said, yeah, there is something I don’t know about, there’s a conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said.

After the 51 Day War ended, Aljamal began attending an American school in Gaza City, where the curriculum was taught in English. The family moved to a new apartment, and he focused on his studies, trying to ignore the nonstop war that’s been going on around him since the day he was born in 2008 in the occupied Gaza territory.

“Most people know about the big wars,” Allijami said. “Oh yeah, 2014, 2018, 2021 and now it’s 2023. No! Every year at least there will be one week where it goes crazy then it goes back to ceasefire. The ceasefire is just temporary. They say oh, it’s going to be five years this time, three years, two years, no. It’ll be like six months. One of the sides will not comply to the ceasefire.”

Despite these ongoing hostilities, Aljamal’s hardworking parents provided a decent middle-class upbringing for their three sons by Gaza standards. His dad worked for a telecom company and later owned a print advertising business and a family coffee shop. His mom worked at a nonprofit agency before switching to the sports field.

It took more than a year to get used to English, but Aljamal went on to form strong bonds with both his male and female peers at the American school, which was co-ed in a place where most of the public and private schools are separated by gender.

“It’s kind of strict there, but for my case it’s not as strict as people think,” Aljamal said. “They’re like Oh no, you can’t talk to girls. My school was one of the only schools in Gaza that was mixed boys and girls. So, I have a friend group, they’re really good people, I really miss them, they’re boys and girls. I mean the girls were my best friends, we used to hang out every day, we had so much fun.”

Ali Aljamal serving Palestinian food with his host family.

Now, at least four of his friends have been killed since Israel’s land invasion began last November. He’s still trying to get used to the idea he won’t see them again.

“It’s not about going home, it’s about helping,” Aljamal said when asked when he’ll go home to Gaza. “I want to help rebuild the Strip and all that. But now, currently, living in the Gaza Strip, I don’t think I’ll do that. That’s going to be risky.”

Truth be told, Aljamal’s heart may have already left Gaza, back in 2021, when the IDF sent three missiles hurtling toward his apartment building at 5 a.m. One came from the left, one came from the right and one struck the building head-on. Only one of the missiles exploded, killing the alleged Hamas target, and a well-known doctor’s son and a young girl.

“They are saying it is Hamas,” Aljamal said. “But is it? If he was Hamas, why now and why this way? They killed different people that didn’t have anything to do with it. They didn’t even announce it. I went upstairs and saw this girl in her bed. She was dead. How does that make sense?”

“That was like my turn-off,” he continued. “I said Gaza, I don’t want you anymore if it’s going to stay like this. I don’t care what’s going on between you two guys, I just want to live.”

Where will Ali Aljamal go next? The aspiring graphic designer will no doubt visit his mom, dad and two brothers in Cairo when he returns to the Middle East in June.

Asked if his family intends to move back to Gaza City when the current war ends, Alimajal said, “Not necessarily. Why go back? I don’t think I want to go back.”

He’s been to Egypt plenty but doesn’t think he’d like to live there permanently. He’d consider moving to the United States if the right opportunity arose. But the Arabic/English-speaking graphic designer’s services might be more in demand in the Persian Gulf, in the oil rich nations of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.

He understands that tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen are fleeing the Gaza Strip at the same time. Emigrating isn’t going to be easy. While there’s an extensive Palestinian diaspora throughout the Gulf States, it may not be large enough to absorb so many people fleeing at the same time. Citizenship is not guaranteed.

“I know they’re doing it for a reason, so Palestinians don’t forget about their land,” Aljamal said. “Even though I believe there’s some hypocrisy in this, the leaders in the Middle East, they just want Palestinians to suck it up and live with it. I mean, whatever the reason is, I know it’s going to be a little bit hard.”

Perhaps. But there’s no way it will be worse than living on the Gaza Strip in the present day, as the latest message from Basel Abu Ramadan makes clear.

“I wrote this after my girlfriend Reem was killed in an airstrike by Israel,” Basel Abu-Ramada said of the heart-wrenching eulogy for his deceased fiancé including in his message. “She was not Hamas. She was not a threat, she was the kindest person you could meet. Unfortunately, I didn’t even get to make a funeral for her because of the war.”

If you appreciate journalist R.V. Scheide’s reporting, please consider contributing to A News Cafe to help keep this site going and growing.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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