Americans rushed to get their families out of Gaza. Then the border slammed shut.

Ghada Redwan, a 48-year-old pharmacist from Houston, has been trying to get her parents out of Gaza for months. Her suitcases, packed and ready to go, have been sitting by her door in Rafah, the city where Israel is carrying out a military offensive.

But Redwan has hit obstacles at every turn. And like other Palestinian Americans desperate to get their relatives to safety, she has described a confusing bureaucratic maze involving the State Department, the governments of Israel and Egypt, politicians, advocacy groups, lawyers and more.

This month’s closure of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt – the only exit for civilians – has thrown an already complicated system into disarray, leading to calls for the United States to make a stronger effort to evacuate citizens’ families. Americans.

“You feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Redwan said in an interview. “You live comfortably, you have money, you are an American citizen and your parents are suffering and there is nothing you can do for them. “It’s just crazy.”

Ms. Redwan last spoke to her mother on Monday morning, a day after an Israeli attack that killed dozens of Palestinians in a camp for displaced people in Rafah.

“There is no safe place,” his mother told him. “Just pray for us.”

Since the start of the war seven months ago, more than 1,800 U.S. citizens and their families have left Gaza with the help of the State Department, U.S. officials say. They are just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Gazans desperate to leave as already dire conditions there deteriorate.

And while the vast majority of Gazans have no way to escape, the State Department told Americans late last year that they could ask the department for help getting their immediate family members, even those who are not U.S. citizens, were on the border crossing list. .

The criteria are strict: only parents, spouses, and unmarried children under age 21 of U.S. citizens are eligible for help. The United States collects the names and provides them to Israeli and Egyptian authorities, who control the border, and asks them to be allowed to cross.

And then they wait. Families consult a Facebook page run by Gaza authorities, which is updated as people are approved to cross into Egypt. If their name appears, they are advised to go immediately to a border crossing.

But that is by no means the end of the story. Often, a person’s name never appears on the list kept at the border and they are turned away. (And with the Rafah crossing closed since May 7, the Facebook page hasn’t been updated in over two weeks.) For those who cross, they can begin the process to obtain a green card and ultimately reunite with their family in the United States. State.

It’s hard to know how long that process will take. Alicia Nieves, a legal advocate for the Arab American Civil Rights League, said she had a client who escaped from Gaza and was able to obtain a visa to the United States within a month.

But some people expect much more.

“Every part of this process has been bewildering to me,” said Sammy Nabulsi, a Massachusetts attorney who has helped families navigate the system to leave Gaza.

Immigrant advocates and some lawmakers have pushed for a review of U.S. assistance, saying the system established after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was much more generous. That system has allowed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to enter the United States, regardless of family ties, as long as they have a financial sponsor.

“Given the conditions in Rafah and the lack of aid, these people are sadly on the brink of death. We need to do what is right for our own citizens, our country, and expand the criteria to remove more family members and find a path to the United States,” Nabulsi said.

Democratic senators, including Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have also called for expanding the categories of people the U.S. government is willing to help to include siblings, children of siblings and grandchildren, and speed up processing. of applications for humanitarian permission, which allows temporary entry to the United States.

A White House spokesman said the administration was “constantly evaluating policy proposals to continue supporting Palestinians who are family members of American citizens and who may want to join them” in the United States.

Administration officials have discussed the idea of ​​allowing some Palestinians in Egypt to enter the United States through the refugee program, as well as considering the possibility of obtaining humanitarian permission, according to three sources with knowledge of the talks. They requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Republicans in Congress have opposed the idea of ​​allowing Gaza refugees into the United States.

“With more than a third of Gazans supporting Hamas militants, we are not sure that your administration can adequately screen this high-risk population for terrorist ties and sympathies before admitting them into the United States,” he wrote. a group of Republican senators in a letter to President Biden earlier this month.

As the war continues, Palestinian Americans in the United States feel powerless to help.

Abdalwahab Hlayel, a 43-year-old businessman from Minnesota, said he constantly worries about his father, stepmother and other family members in Gaza, but he can’t bear to talk to them while their fate is in limbo.

“I hate calling them because every time I call them they expect good news from me,” said Hlayel, who submitted their names to the State Department and has had the office of Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., press her family’s case. . . But the names of her father, a 73-year-old diabetic, and his stepmother never appeared on the Facebook page.

“I have nothing to tell you,” Hlayel said.

He is not even sure his father would leave Gaza, because it would mean leaving behind two of his children, ages 17 and 21, who do not meet the criteria.

So now, Hlayel spends hours clutching his phone, checking for updates and tracking the latest news from a small enclave where more than 34,000 people have been murdered.

Ms. Smith said she had called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department to ask for help on behalf of the Hlayel family.

“Our broken immigration system is not equipped to deal with urgent response situations, and Minnesotans like Abdalwahab are running into bureaucracy and red tape at a time when processing times mean life or death,” he said. it’s a statement.

Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, has been defending the parents of Rasheda Alfaiomy, a 33-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Austin. They are trapped in Gaza, but there is much that can be done while the Rafah crossing is closed.

“We are the only hope they have,” said Alfaiomy, who has more than a dozen relatives in Gaza in addition to his parents. He said he regularly receives videos of family members of him in refugee camps in Gaza asking for help.

“They’re crying on the phone,” he said. “The children are crying. “The adults are crying.”

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