• Washington Post

One Family’s Desperate Escape from Gaza to Egypt

Sima Diab for The Washington Post
Momen Yaghi, 50, a U.S. citizen, and wife Rania embrace on the balcony of their temporary home in Cairo on Nov. 19.

CAIRO – The first sign of trouble was the school bus that turned around and dropped Momen Yaghi’s daughter back home moments after picking her up in Gaza City on the morning of Oct. 7.

There would be no school that day, no school for a long time, Momen quickly understood as word spread of the mass killings and abductions carried out by Hamas inside Israel. Conflict had shaped life in Gaza for generations, but the scale of this attack instantly registered it as different.

Others panicked, but Momen, 50, clung to the belief that his family could ride out the war as they had previous eruptions, by stockpiling supplies and huddling indoors until the bombs stopped.

His miscalculation soon became clear. Their lives unraveled with lightning speed.

Momen saw old friends dead in the rubble of his neighborhood. His wife, Rania, was engulfed with grief over the loss of a beloved sister. Their teenage daughters began shaking in terror from the relentless explosions.

“Baba,” the girls pleaded with him, “it’s time to go.”

The family would set out on the same desperate search for safety as hundreds of thousands of other Gaza residents. But Momen possessed a slim blue American passport that meant his family, unlike most of those fleeing, might have a way out.

Their destination was the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

In normal times, the trip is an hour by car. But Momen’s family would face a 10-day trek through a post-apocalyptic landscape of tanks, smoldering buildings and rotting corpses, their hearts breaking with each step that carried them farther from home.

The family of four recounted their experience through extensive interviews, and provided emails, documents, photos and videos of their journey – and the life they left behind.

“It’s very scary,” Momen said. “You are going into the unknown.”

***

Momen grew up in a house on Mohamed al-Aswad Street, a four-story building where members of his extended family had apartments on different floors, the custom in close-knit Gaza. He left in 1993 to study in North Carolina, traveling back and forth for more than a decade before returning for good to be with his ailing parents in their final years.

After they passed, Momen, Rania and their daughters continued to live in the third-floor unit, which he renovated in 2010. He knew well the volatility of the conflict, the inevitability of Israeli airstrikes. Still, he replaced a wall with large windows and set up what he calls “my station,” a breezy perch where he could look out over the neighborhood as he enjoyed his morning coffee and cigarettes.

Momen was at his station when news broke of the Hamas attack. He checked his phone constantly, joining neighbors in the rush to buy bread and canned goods. They all knew what was coming.

The first strikes in his area arrived before dawn the next morning, he said, targeting a Hamas leader who lived nearby. Momen’s daughters – Malak, 15, and Noreen, 13 – shrieked when the blast shook their house and a bright flash illuminated the dark sky.

“Calm down; it’s not us. Don’t worry,” he recalled telling them. “Nothing will happen to us. They’re going to hit Hamas people, Hamas places.”

But the strikes didn’t stop, and they weren’t confined to known Hamas locations. The bombing was most intense at night, so Momen arranged a place for the family to sleep with a friend who lived down the street – in a house with a basement, a rarity in Gaza.

They spent the daytime in their own home, the girls often sheltering in a closet where they didn’t feel the tremors as much. They pestered Momen to register with the State Department, on a list of U.S. citizens seeking evacuation. He did, just in case, though he was privately doubtful he could get them all out on a single U.S. passport. And he would never leave them behind.

At night, they retreated to the neighbor’s basement with other families. They laid out thin mattresses and tried to sleep, but the adrenaline and explosions made it almost impossible. Momen’s daughters stopped eating. Sometimes they cried and complained. It was worse, he said, to see them fall silent, eyes wide and hands trembling.

On Nov. 1, during a daytime lull, Momen’s younger daughter, Noreen, spotted the kids next door waving to them from across the alleyway. She grabbed her phone and began filming. The nine-second clip shows two little faces peeking out of a window. One smiles when she sees Noreen, who waves back. Rania reminded her daughters to stay away from the windows.

By sunrise the next morning, the children next door were dead.

The strike that killed them happened after midnight, Momen recalled. He joined the men who ran out to help, but it was pitch-black and treacherous.

They began digging with their bare hands. There were eight people under the collapsed building, they believed, but they only managed to recover two bodies.

To retrieve the others, they’d have to wait until daybreak, an agonizing prospect as they listened to the wails of the children’s grandmother.

“Come help us!” she begged, Momen recalled.

The dead weren’t strangers. They were his neighbors of 40 years, people who wished him well when he left for America and welcomed him back when he returned. When day broke, Momen saw one of them “in pieces.”

“It stayed in my head three or four days, just thinking about it,” he said. “But because we have so many stories, so many incidents, you start forgetting.”

The blast next door had damaged Momen’s own home so badly that the family were forced to move into their neighbor’s basement. He was resourceful, Momen said, and ran lines from another neighbor’s solar panels to provide electricity for the growing number of people hiding out in his basement.

But they began running low on food. Everyone ate just one meal a day. Rania and the girls were friends with the neighbor’s wife, so they would spend their days upstairs, having tea and comforting one another before it was time to go back underground after the last call to prayer.

Around 9 each night it was “party time,” Momen said with a dry laugh. The flash from a strike would arrive before the sound, a terrifying split-second.

“You see the light is coming but you don’t see who’s going to get hit,” Momen said. “Is it us or not?”

***

Momen weighed their best chances for survival. Strikes had turned much of their district into a moonscape of knee-high rubble and tangled wires. Electricity was nearly gone. Momen, who has diabetes, kept taking insulin even though it could no longer be refrigerated.

During this stretch, when cell service flickered on for a few minutes, Rania received news that her sister Rana had been killed in a strike in another part of Gaza along with her 3-year-old son Ahmed and 5-year-old daughter Nisreen.

Rania had adored her niece and nephew. A video of Nisreen from before the war showed her dancing at a family celebration. Ahmed, whose short life had entailed surgeries for a heart condition, had been blown apart.

“First, they found his leg,” Rania recounted, sobbing.

She worried constantly about the rest of her family, scattered and unreachable. Rania had almost no news of her parents or eight surviving siblings. Last she heard, her 73-year-old father, too ill to flee with the others, was under bombardment at a U.N.-run clinic in the north. He told her he could see Israeli tanks from the window.

“I call him 200 times for it to connect even once,” she said. “Just to hear his voice.”

From the basement, the strikes sounded like they were getting closer, though the family said they never received a warning call from the Israeli military. Sometimes a “weak” one hit first – a warning before a heavier blast. Their resolve to stay put was wavering. The neighbor’s wife packed up her children and left. Her husband stayed.

Their departure may have saved lives. In the early evening of Nov. 2, around the time Rania and the girls were usually aboveground having tea, a strike hit the house.

A deafening blast shook their hideout. The shock wave, they said, rattled their bones. Smoke poured into the basement, along with water from a burst tank upstairs. Noreen and Malak ran to their parents and clung to them as they put on masks and wheezed in the darkness.

“We couldn’t breathe,” Momen recalled.

Escaping wasn’t an option until daybreak. They tried not to think of the worst-case scenario: that their exit might be blocked by the pancaked house above them. Their sanctuary, they feared, would become their tomb.

At dawn on Nov. 3, the owner, Momen and another neighbor made their way upstairs and felt the morning air hit their faces. The bomb had ripped through the walls, and the upper floors had collapsed.

“We looked at each other – me and the owner of the house and the other guy,” Momen recalled. “I told them, ‘I think it’s time to leave.'”

The family scrambled to fill backpacks with essentials for their escape: a couple changes of clothes, two sleeping mats, a pillow, their ID cards and, most importantly, the U.S. passport.

The only personal effects Momen took were his collection of prayer beads and a thin stack of photos from his time in America – snapshots of him lounging by the water on the Outer Banks, as a fresh-faced college graduate in cap and gown, at the diner he opened with the hopeful name New Dawn. He was proud to become a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Those memories seemed to belong to a different person, he said, rather than the sleepless, chain-smoking man who stuffed them into a bag, steeling himself for an uncertain journey.

“You’re taking it step by step and you don’t know anything,” Momen said. “Where are you going? What will be the next place?”

Like thousands of other Palestinians looking for a haven in Gaza, the family decided their first stop would be al-Shifa Hospital, the sprawling medical complex that had become a focal point of the war. A hospital administrator, a nephew of Momen’s, had pledged to look after them.

The family piled into a neighbor’s sedan for the short drive to the hospital. For the first time, they saw the seemingly endless destruction of their city. Favorite cafes and shops were obliterated. Dazed survivors picked through debris.

They made it to al-Shifa around noon and lingered in the courtyard until they could track down Momen’s nephew. Displaced people were sleeping in tents, in stairwells, in any patch of space.

Wounded people arrived by car and by donkey cart. Their bodies were shredded, bloodied, burned. The morgue was overflowing. A refrigerated ice cream truck had been repurposed to store bodies; Rania was horrified to see a man place his dead child inside.

About two hours after they arrived, an Israeli strike hit an ambulance just outside the gates of the hospital. At least 15 people were killed.

“I was lucky,” Momen said. “I was going to get coffee, but I didn’t go to that door. I went to the other door.”

He had managed, once again, to stay a step ahead of death.

***

Momen and his family spent the next week at the hospital. His nephew had secured Rania and the girls a coveted spot in the medical library, already packed with displaced people. Momen slept in his nephew’s office in the administration building.

They survived mostly on dates. One man set up a makeshift stand selling fava beans and falafel – without bread – but most families didn’t have money for that.

The building they were in had potable water for about half an hour a day. “You have to hurry and fill up in those minutes,” Rania said.

She passed the time by visiting a wounded family friend in the part of the compound that was still functioning, barely, as an emergency room. To get there, she walked past injured people lying in pain on the floor, heard the screams of patients undergoing surgeries without anesthesia, watched medical staff carry body parts wrapped in cloth.

“All you see are dead people,” she said. “And then their families come and start screaming and shouting. Some of them, they lost everybody.”

In their first days there, strikes hit a nearby Italian restaurant and a supermarket parking lot. Shrapnel flew into the compound. After dark, the strikes grew louder, closer. The family said they were happy if they managed to get an hour of sleep each night.

“We were scared,” Momen said. “We knew something was going to happen.”

It was time to leave.

***

Their next goal was to make it across Wadi Gaza, the gateway to the southern part of the Strip, one step closer to the Egyptian border. Maybe there, Momen figured, they’d have cell reception and could see if the embassy had written with new instructions.

They were following the route Israel had ordered them to travel, but they also knew the south had not been spared from strikes. Momen and Rania tried to stay positive for the girls. Pack light, Momen told them, just a backpack each. They would leave everything else at the hospital.

No cars were available, so they set off on foot to the home of Rania’s aunt in the Shabiya district. From there, they took a car to a way station, then a horse-drawn cart to al-Kuwait Square, the starting point for the most treacherous part of the route: Salah al-Din Road, Gaza’s main north-south artery.

Men weren’t allowed to carry bags; Momen was to walk with his hands up and eyes down.

Other fleeing families had offered tips for survival: Don’t drop anything. Don’t help others. Don’t talk.

No food or bathroom breaks for the entire four-mile gantlet. Whatever you do, they were told, don’t stop.

They stepped out onto the road and joined a stream of the displaced; tens of thousands of families would walk the same path. The image alone was crushing, Momen said, reminiscent of black-and-white photos from the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the word Arabs use for the forced displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s creation in 1948.

“The scene was shocking, how they humiliated us,” Momen said. “You feel like you’re leaving your house, and who knows when you’ll be back.”

Within minutes, they reached a cluster of tanks and Israeli forces. At gunpoint, Momen’s daughters saw Israeli soldiers for the first time in their lives. The forces barked orders at the families.

“Noreen was very shaky,” Rania said of her younger daughter. “I held her hand and tried to comfort her.”

The family kept their eyes down but it was impossible not to see the people in wheelchairs struggling to move over the uneven, bombed-out path. The mother walking with two young children on her back. A man carrying his elderly father.

They flinched at the sound of strikes and tried not to gag at the stench of death.

“Concentrate on the road,” Momen whispered to his horrified daughters.

At one point, a young man walking near them was plucked from the crowd and made to strip naked in front of the Israeli soldiers.

“They want to show that, ‘We’re going to make you nothing,'” Momen said.

The family hadn’t been able to shower or change clothes in over a week. They had barely eaten. Exhausted and hungry, the girls asked if they could sit, just for a few moments. But they had to keep going.

Finally, they reached Wadi Gaza, the wetlands that bisect the Strip.

Crossing into the south had been easy before the war. People came and went all the time. But that day, Momen said, he felt as if he was entering another life.

One line kept flashing through his mind: “We’re losing Gaza.”

The family rested briefly and collected their thoughts. A horse cart took them to a friend of Rania’s father in the city of Deir al-Balah.

Warplanes buzzed overhead but, for the first time in weeks, Momen said, they felt a measure of safety. Now he just had to get his family across the border. He had been approved for entry while they were stuck at the hospital and wasn’t sure he was still eligible. Then word came from the U.S. Embassy: Anyone on a list since Nov. 1 could leave.

This was their chance. The next morning, Momen, Rania and their daughters said tearful goodbyes to their host and left for the border.

Momen’s stomach was in knots: “I was thinking, ‘How are we going to go through?'”

The war has complicated his identity as an American, Momen said. Some of the bombs that fell around him were U.S.-made; he was pained by the Biden administration’s refusal to join international calls for a cease-fire. Neighbors, furious after airstrikes, cursed Washington for their misery.

“Sometimes they tell me, ‘Look what the Americans are doing to us,'” Momen said. “What am I going to say?”

At the Rafah checkpoint, the family moved between the Palestinian Authority office and U.S. personnel, whom Momen described as helpful and friendly as they rushed to get Rania and the girls purple emergency travel passports.

After about seven hours, the family was approved to enter Egypt. All of them.

It was bittersweet, Momen said. Only Noreen and Malak were happy. Rania mourned her sister and was distraught at the thought of leaving her father.

As they boarded the bus for the final crossing, Momen swallowed hard and took one last look behind him. He felt like he was being divided in half. He said a prayer for those who couldn’t make it out.

“I was saying, ‘Bye, Gaza,’ in my head,” he said. “And I hope to come back one day.”

Sima Diab for The Washington Post
Malak Yaghi, 15, left, hugs her sister Noreen, 13, on the balcony of their temporary home in Cairo.