Palestinian Americans trapped in Gaza wait desperately to leave

Almost a month since the war broke out, Folla Saqer and her two children are still trapped in Gaza.

Her husband, Ramiz Younis, is anxiously waiting for news that they have finally got out.

The children - Zain, two, and Zaina, nine months - are American citizens. Along with Ms Saqer, a permanent legal resident, they are among roughly 1,000 people waiting to cross into neighbouring Egypt and begin their return to the US.

The children are on a list published by Gaza's border authority approved to leave the enclave on Thursday, along with some 500 other foreigners, including 400 Americans.

Ms Saqer - whose name is not on the list - attempted to pass through the Rafah crossing on Thursday morning but was denied, according to Justin Eisele, a lawyer for the family.

He said no reason was provided, but "based on comparing notes with other people", her immigration status - a permanent resident, but not a citizen - "seems to be the distinction".

Since Wednesday, foreign passport holders and injured Gazans have been allowed through the Rafah crossing for the first time since the war began.

But the US State Department has struggled to provide specifics on its processes for getting people out, and critics allege that government officials have been haphazard and vague in their correspondence.

It is all stoking growing frustration among some Palestinian Americans as they, or their families, scramble to get out of Gaza.

According to Mr Eisele, Ms Saqer was never made aware until her visit to the border that she - as a green card holder - would be unable to cross into Egypt.

When her passage was barred, "she elected to not hand her babies to a stranger", he told the BBC.

Ramiz Younis and Folla Saqer with their children, Zain (right) and Zaina (centre)
Ramiz Younis is suing the US government to get his wife Folla and their two children out of Gaza

"Before we give Israel $15bn, could we take a minute to organise a mother crossing the border with her children?" he asked. "You can ship rockets that can level a building but you can't organise a simple border crossing with two of our allegedly strongest allies?"

In a statement to the BBC, the State Department declined to say why Ms Saqer was unable to pass through the Rafah crossing.

"The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas. It has been a top priority for us to get Rafah open not just for trucks coming in, but for US citizens and other foreign nationals coming out," a spokesperson said.

"We expect exits to continue over the next several days. We will not stop working to get US citizens and their family members out as safely as possible."

So desperate is Mr Younis to have his wife and children back home that, on Monday, the 51-year-old filed a federal lawsuit accusing the US government of discrimination and failure to do its duty towards its citizens.

The legal action, which names Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin as defendants, alleges the family has been "let down and ignored as if we are second-class citizens".

A FaceTime call between Mr Younis and his children
Mr Younis has tried to contact his family several times each day since the war broke out

The Gaza-born Mr Younis returned to the enclave four years ago after marrying Ms Saqer. The couple resettled in Baltimore, Maryland, last year.

Feeling homesick, Ms Saqer took the children to Gaza on a short trip earlier this year. She intended to come back in mid-October, by which time Mr Younis had completed their move to Little Rock, Arkansas.

When the conflict erupted, Mr Younis immediately urged her to travel to the Egyptian border and wait for an opportunity to cross.

In those first three days, he said, he didn't contact the State Department: "The crossing was open and I thought I can do this on my own," he said.

Ms Saqer took the children to her sister's place in Rafah, a 10-minute drive from the border. But the first time she attempted to leave, the waiting area by the crossing was bombed. In the frantic rush for cover, she left all their luggage behind.

With the crossing closed, Mr Younis provided his family's information to the State Department. He received an email on 14 October with instructions that the crossing would open for five hours the next day.

Ms Saqer and the children again went and waited, but they were not let through.

Similar updates, including from local US embassies, would follow in the ensuing days, urging Ms Saqer to go to the border. She made four more trips.

"Whenever we have the chance to communicate, my wife asks me for news [from the government]," said Mr Younis.

"Sometimes I don't have news, but I keep the hope alive. I need to keep the hope alive even if there is nothing happening."

The Okals, a suburban Massachusetts family who have been trapped in Gaza, are on the list of foreigners approved to leave the territory on Thursday.

Abood Okal and Wafaa Abuzayda took their one-year-old son, Yousef, to the enclave last month to visit the grandparents he had never met.

Wafaa Abuzayda, Abood Okal and their son, Yousef
Wafaa Abuzayda, Abood Okal and their son, Yousef

The family shared meals, went to the beach and rode horses together - until Hamas launched its attack on Israel six days before the Okals' intended departure.

From Ms Abuzayda's home in Jabalia, in northern Gaza, the trio heeded Israeli warnings and fled south. Nobody knows if their home - which is located very close to a refugee camp bombed on Tuesday - is still standing.

For nearly three weeks, the trio have stayed in a single-family home in Rafah with 40 other people, waiting for an opportunity to cross into Egypt.

Every single day, they have contacted the State Department, as well as US embassies in Cairo and Jerusalem, according to Sammy Nabulsi, a family friend.

On four separate occasions, they were advised to go to the Rafah crossing, waiting up to eight hours to cross.

"Their circumstances right now are completely dire and dangerous," said Mr Nabulsi on Wednesday.

The 40-person house has lost running water and fuel, he told the BBC. Its residents are limiting the number of times they flush the toilets and with no cooking oil on hand, the family is largely living off canned tuna and fava beans.

Their last visit to the bakery lasted six hours and their last water run yielded only a few litres for the whole house to share.

Worst of all, Yousef often wakes up screaming inconsolably from night terrors and cannot go back to sleep.

"That poor kid is just completely traumatised," said Mr Nabulsi, adding that Yousef's parents have run out of milk for him to drink.

Mr Okal, who holds a PhD in cancer research, is a director at the Bristol Myers Squibb pharmaceutical company. Ms Abuzayda worked at a local non-profit and now cares for their son.

"They're just the kindest people. They're really funny and sweet," Mr Nabulsi said.

"They live in Massachusetts. They should be in Massachusetts."

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