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A Palestinian UW student from Gaza shares his family’s story of hardship and danger

A man in a green plaid jacket and gray shirt looks at the camera. He stands in front of a pine tree.
Melodie Edwards
/
Wyoming Public Media
Abdalrahim Abuwarda is a Fulbright Fellow at UW. His family is currently living in Gaza. He says his children are living without enough food, water or access to medicine.

The war in Gaza might seem far away to many Wyomingites but it’s very personal to one member of Laramie’s community. Abdalrahim Abuwarda is a Palestinian student at the University of Wyoming, here in the U.S. on a Fulbright Fellowship. He left behind a wife and three small children and now lives in terror of bad news from home. Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards sat down with him to hear his story.

This interview was edited lightly for brevity and clarity. 

Abdalrahim Abuwarda: I got the Fulbright scholarship after a long journey of applying for the scholarship. I actually applied five times! I did some research about the International Studies program here in Wyoming and found out that it's one of the best programs in the country. Before I came to Wyoming, I was in Ohio, and then I came to Wyoming and now I consider Wyoming as my home. I love it so much, especially Laramie. It's very friendly, very welcoming, the people are really generous, and they consider me as their brother.

Before I came, I was in Ohio, and we were hosted by the University of Ohio and we were living in dorms. We had food, everything was ready for us. When I came here, there was nothing for me here. I only have the apartment, and it was unfurnished, and I was living on the ground. And actually for a whole week I was thinking of going back to Gaza because when I was in Gaza I was living my life. I had a car, I’m married, I have three kids, I owned a house, and everything was fine. And then I came to Wyoming to sleep on the ground? It was like why did I do that to myself? But then I met Eric Nigh. He is the director of the Arabic and Middle East Studies program and he asked me, ‘How do you feel about Wyoming?’ I told him Wyoming did not welcome me properly. I told him this story that I'm sleeping on the ground and he told me, ‘Today I'm going to bring you furniture.’ Then he called me that afternoon and he had a truck with a trailer and he took me to a place where the department was hosting some Iraqi students and they finished their program and it was fully furnished. He told me, ‘Take whatever you want.’ I took beds, I took mattresses, carpets, everything, and I furnished all my apartment for free.

Melodie Edwards: What's the project that you're working on for the Fulbright?

AA: I'm taking a master's degree in International Studies. Since I'm Palestinian. I thought that pursuing something related to conflict resolution would be a cliche [laughs]. So I decided to move to something else. So my project is about a case study about a nonprofit organization in the Gaza Strip to give them a strategic plan for implementing an artificial intelligence training program.

ME: I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your life back in Gaza?

AA: It's surrounded by struggle and difficulties. We have a saying that, ‘We get our bread covered with blood,’ to express how hard it is. Unemployment is really high in Gaza. It's like 60 percent, especially among graduates, and then you finish your degree and then you stay home, you do nothing. We didn't have the basic things that you have here in the U.S., for example, like a stable internet connection, clean water. We suffer from the lack of clean water and electricity. For 15 or 17 years, we only had electricity for six hours a day.

ME: It sounds very punishing. What do you think is behind that constant clamping down on the residents of Gaza?

AA: Maybe one of the reasons is because Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip, and they want to punish them.

ME: Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by many countries in the world.

AA: Yes, this is also insane. If you want to punish Hamas, you shouldn't punish two million people with Hamas. Because a lot of people in the Gaza Strip do not support Hamas. A lot of them are independents, a lot of them are liberals and open minded and they don't follow or they are not affiliated with Hamas ideology. It's really difficult to punish like two million people just because of a small group taking control of the whole country.

ME: You have three children. How old are they? And are they going to school? What has been the school situation?

AA: My oldest son, Faisal, he is six years old. He's in the first grade. He only went to school for one month and then the war happened. He's now home. Actually, not home because they evacuated our house. Then my second son, his name is Jawad, he's three and a half years old. He was in a preparatory school. And then I have Rita, she is one and a half years old. She was only like two or three months when I came to the U.S. and I miss her so much.

ME: How are you staying in touch with your family?

AA: It's really difficult these days because of the war. The internet keeps fluctuating. For example, I haven't talked to them in two days. Only this morning, I talked to them. I lost completely the internet connection and I was really scared. What happened last night – and this happens with me all the time – when someone from the same town calls me on Facebook, I get terrified because it's not my parents who call. It's not my wife who calls. It's someone else, so they might bring sad news. So I usually don't respond to these calls because I'm afraid, I don't want to be heartbroken, especially because there is a time difference. So when they call in the morning, it's the night here. So I don't want to respond while I am in my room alone. I want to respond with someone around me because if a mental breakdown happens or something happens to me, someone would help me.

I was supposed to finish my masters in December, but I couldn't work on my project. I only started with the structure, the outline. Then the war happened and then I stopped. I couldn't do anything and it's really difficult. I contacted the Fulbright [program] so that they can help me with that. They told me that they will try to extend my program for one more semester so that I can focus on that. So I'm working on that. Hopefully it will work.

ME: Can you tell me what it was like when the war broke out? How did you find out? Can you tell me that story?

AA: I was online browsing Facebook and stuff and then the 7th of October happened and I was terrified.

ME: Which is when Hamas surprise attacked and killed around 1,500 Israelis.

AA: I was afraid when that happened because we know the Israeli response to such actions. But sometimes you have that hope that maybe this time they will not do anything. Maybe this time they would go for negotiation or peace talks or any of this stuff. But no, it didn't turn out this way. It was brutal, and I was afraid. Then on the fourth day, the Israeli army sent leaflets to the people of the north – my family lives in the north – to ask them to evacuate to the south. I immediately told my wife and my parents to leave for the south. They refused. In the beginning, they always assume these leaflets don't do anything. So they will stay. Then another week passed, and things became really intense. So I told my wife, ‘If even if my parents don't want to, you have to leave. Go to my father-in-law's house and live with them,’ because they live in the south. My wife's parents have relatives in the south. My parents don't have any relatives in the south. So they stayed in the north until this moment. And two days ago, there was shelling and bombardment a mile away from my parents’ house. I lost my cousin and his wife and their daughter. Their house was shelled upon their heads and their house was destroyed and they were killed. That was like a week ago.

So the situation now is my wife and kids, they are in the south. And my parents and siblings, all of them are in the north. They are all of them living in the same house. I have six sisters and one brother – five of my sisters are married – but they evacuated to my parents’ house because it feels safer. And there's that thing that we do in Gaza: it's really sad, ‘If we want to die, we should all die together. No one should endure the death and the remorse and sadness of losing someone.’

ME: Do you feel like that house is safe enough?

AA: It is to some extent, yeah, because the whole area is very peaceful. They haven't engaged in any kind of troubles or problems with anyone. They only cared about getting food to their kids, and that's it. But the bombardments happen now in every place. So that's my parents’ situation: they are in the middle of the north, in the middle of the ground invasion. The daily life is really… it's a struggle, it's a hustle. Because there's lack of water, lack of food, lack of electricity, lack of medical supplies. People now are fighting for bread. Literally, they are queuing in very long lines of 200 or 300 people, just to get a bag of bread or something like that.

ME: From what I understand, the diplomats have been saying, we need to let some humanitarian aid in like water and food and medical supplies, but that the Israelis are saying, ‘No, not until Hamas releases the hostages.’ How is that, being completely severed from any sort of aid?

AA: It's really difficult because now there's like a scarcity in almost every element. Food is getting really expensive, there is no water. A lot of the water wells and sanitation plants, they bombed them.

ME: They were targets?

AA: We think that now they are trying to starve us. It's like starvation. I have seen pictures of my kids before the war and now and they are losing weight, and this is not a good sign. They are always hungry. They suffer from dehydration. They have water but it's a very small amount of water, like half a liter a day, which is nothing. That's my fear right now that this might result in kidney failure or something like that. If that happens, hospitals cannot accept ordinary patients now. People with cancer, diabetes don't go to hospitals now because hospitals cannot receive them. It's really difficult. Hospitals now have become shelters. There's a lack of medical supplies and electricity and water and everything.

ME: Is there any way for your wife and children to come to the United States and join you?

AA: I'm a Fulbrighter and they have a policy for Palestinians where we cannot bring our dependents to the United States. That was my plan when I applied for the Fulbright, I wanted to come to the U.S. and bring my wife and kids with me. But that was the policy so I couldn't bring them. Now I'm only waiting for the border to be open so that I can get them to Egypt or Turkey or any country, just to escape the madness, and that's it. Then we can find a way to bring them to the U.S.

ME: What is the status there? I saw that they were letting a few people through.

AA: Only people with dual nationalities and only people with foreign nationalities, non-Palestinian nationalities, that’s it. Now the number of injured people in Gaza are, like, 30,000 or 40,000 people. The thing is, in Gaza, if you are injured, I believe death is better than being injured in Gaza. You will have that suffering for the rest of your life. You might have your arm or leg amputated or something like that.

ME: I think that there's a lot of Wyomingites who are kind of thinking of this as something that's happening far away. I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about how it is that this conflict is right here in our communities? And what Wyomingites can do to help?

AA: A lot of people do not understand the whole conflict, like, the 100 years conflict. And they only think that this only started on the seventh of October. We know what happened on the seventh of October is a tragedy – no one denies that. But there is a long history of struggling especially for the Palestinian people. So a lot of people need to understand the context of the history. We have a problem here in the U.S. with the mainstream media; they pick one side and they try to dehumanize the other side, which is really sad. I, myself, I'm not asking the people to pick the Palestinian side. I'm Palestinian, but I don't want this. I just want people to be neutral and to see the truth and that's it.

ME: Now that this is going on, what support have you had from the community?

AA: A lot of support honestly. I wasn't expecting that to happen here in Wyoming, but it was a tremendous support. All of my friends, my classmates, even the staff members, they sent me emails, or phone calls to check on me and see if I'm doing good or not. A lot of them offered to help; a lot of them invited me to go out. They try to distract me from social media and all the bad news or the sad news. Some of them make me food and send it home! It's really wonderful. I'm really thankful and grateful for the people of Wyoming, especially Laramie.

ME: I wonder if you have any advice for leaders on both sides and also, like, U.S. diplomats who are trying to figure this out, just to get through this phase of this war?

AA: My advice is similar to anyone's advice: this should stop. Because it will not achieve anything except killing and death and destruction. Even if you care so much about Israel, and the State of Israel and the Jewish people, you have to stop this because now the public opinion is shifting because of the atrocities and brutality that the Palestinians are witnessing in Gaza. What we have been seeing is it's like some sort of ethnic cleansing to the Gazans. ‘We just want to get rid of them,’ and that's it. This is madness. We are now in 2023 and there are live cameras everywhere. This cannot be hidden, everyone is seeing that. This will harm everyone in the region, not only Gazans but Israelis and everyone around. So if they want things to be good, they should put more pressure on Israel to finish this, to implement a ceasefire and then move to a peace process, like an actual peace process that grants Palestinians an independent state with their sovereignty and self determination. I am very positive that it will generate peace in the coming years.

ME: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and helping us see a first person perspective of what's going on.

AA: It's my pleasure and thank you so much for amplifying my voice, the voice of the voiceless.

Since our conversation, Abuwarda started a Go-Fund-Me campaign to help his family get supplies and to escape the war. It made over $10,000 dollars in just a few days, mostly from friends and colleagues here in Wyoming. In an email, he told Melodie Edwards, ‘This gives me more reason to appreciate and love Wyoming.”

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.

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