DEARBORN — Zakaria and Laila Alarayshi, the couple from Livonia who were stuck in war-torn Gaza for a month, have made it back home. They shared their experience of being in Gaza as the conflict ensued.
The couple spoke at a press conference at the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL) offices in Dearborn on Wednesday, where they were joined by family members. They said they were visiting family in Gaza when the violence developed.
“The noise… I can’t explain to people the strength it felt like,” Zakaria Alarayshi told reporters at the news conference. “It was bad. I don’t know if I’m going to live the next minute ― not thinking about the next day. Every minute, I think I’m going to die. That’s it, if I’m going to die, die, let me die. I don’t want to be cut in half and be alive (to suffer.)”
He said his family kept him going.
They were originally supposed to travel back home to Livonia on October 20, following the end of their vacation. They have been residents of the city for 24 years. The ACRL and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D- Detroit) played pivotal roles in their safe return home to the States. They left Gaza Friday evening and boarded a plane in Cairo, Egypt, leading them to their arrival in Metro Detroit Tuesday afternoon.
“The first list that came out of citizens that were allowed to leave included Zakaria but did not include Laila,” ACRL Chairman Jim Allen said. “Being the man that he is, he wasn’t going to leave his wife in harm’s way. It was Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib who made the phone calls all around the world to contacts she had in Washington, Cairo, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”
“I’m happy to be here, but my mind is there with them and I need to get them out before they die,” Zakaria Alarayshi said.
The family’s home in Gaza was bombed and when Alarayshi reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Israel, he and his wife were advised to head to the Egyptian border. The border was 30 minutes away, but dangerous road conditions can affect that trek.
Reports also stated that the remaining access from Egypt also was shut down temporarily due to airstrikes hitting near the border crossing.
Alarayshi set the scene as he shared their daunting experience drinking salt water, looking for food and pleading to be helped.
With the bombing of their Gaza home, they had to leave and travel to his wife’s family’s home. He said they watched Al Jazeera television there and stated that the same images were not being shown in the United States.
“I watched a young boy on TV be told to leave his backpack to enter a compound and he would not ― he said that his brother’s body parts were in the backpack and he would not leave him behind,” Alarayshi said. “All you can do is watch and cry and think, I’m next.”
The ACRL worked diligently to get the Alarayshis home as they continued to contact state and national lawmakers and express support for their return. Their son Yahya, a Canton Township resident, also advocated for his parents’ return home. A federal lawsuit was also filed by the ACRL and ADC to accelerate their return to the United States.
ACRL Founder Nabih Ayad stressed the ongoing advocacy for trapped U.S. citizens in Gaza. Ayad urged the U.S. secretaries of State and Defense to intensify efforts, emphasizing the need to streamline the evacuation process not only for Americans but for Palestinian civilians facing grave circumstances.
“The situation on TV over there is nothing like what you’re seeing here,” Yahya Alarayshi said. “The fact that no one has water, food, electricity, cars to drive, nothing. It’s really hard. I’m grateful to have my parents back. It was a tough day. I’m thankful for my wife for standing beside me. I haven’t worked for almost a month.”
“I can’t understand how in this day and age people haven’t learned lessons from history,” Yahya’s wife, Lisa Alarayshi, said. “My heart was broken when the bombs started and it became very hard to maintain my composure at work knowing that my in-laws and my husband’s family are all there… The people of Gaza don’t want to leave Gaza ― that’s their home, but I would really love for my brother and sister-in-law to be here with us.”
ACRL Executive Director Mariam Charara has worked directly and eagerly to bring the Alarayshis home. She said the organization is being asked to fill out a crisis forms administered by the State Department to determine in which priority certain citizens should be added to an evacuation list.
“People are waiting minute by minute to see their name on the list and… it should not have taken a month to get them home,” Charara said, adding there are issues of separating families with the list of evacuees.