Wichitans with family in Gaza mourn lost relatives as they long for peace
The war between Israel and Hamas has devastated Israeli and Palestinian communities across the globe. In Wichita, one couple with family in Gaza has already lost a beloved aunt and cousins to airstrikes.
Hussam Madi thought he could wait out the bombs raining down on Gaza.
In early October, the spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita flew to visit extended family living in the small strip of land sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. His wife, who has an aunt and cousins in Gaza, was supposed to meet him there.
But a day and a half before Hussam left Wichita, a militant, Gaza-based group called Hamas breached Israel’s border on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 captive. In response, Israel started bombing the strip of land with the goal of eradicating Hamas.
The number of people killed in Gaza has topped 17,700 since Oct. 7, according to the territory’s health ministry.
For a week, Hussam hunkered down in Egypt, waiting to see whether he’d be able to enter Gaza.
“Usually, a lot of times, they'll shoot some rockets, they'll bomb them back,” Hussam said. “And then it quiets down.
“And we thought that's what's going to happen. But it didn't.”
The bombs kept coming. He left Egypt and went home to Wichita. His wife, Lana, never left Kansas.
When the chance to see their families dissolved last October, the lost opportunity was more permanent than either could have imagined. Lana says 12 of her family members – her 87-year-old aunt, four cousins and their children – have been killed in bombings in Gaza. And one of Hussam’s cousins was killed in an airstrike while trying to find water, she said.
The two are mourning their loved ones from Wichita and praying the rest of their family will live to see peace.
“Every day … we know that we're going to hear something bad,” Lana said. “But we don't know when.”
Hussam said he understands the Israeli military seeking out Hamas fighters, but he doesn’t understand why civilians are dying, too.
“Why the blind eye on such atrocities? Yes, you want resistance militants or whoever they are, go get those people,” Hussam said. “A lot of these people have nothing to do with it.”
Both Hussam and Lana trace their parents’ roots to areas north of Gaza. But both families fled to Gaza – as did thousands of other Palestinians – during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war after the state of Israel was established.
While Hussam and Lana’s parents left for Kuwait, some of their uncles and aunts ended up in Gaza. The strip of land is Palestinian territory, though Israel has limited the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza for the past 16 years. Lana’s aunt, whom she lovingly calls her auntie, stayed there to raise her children.
Hussam was born in Kuwait. Growing up, he visited Gaza several times – the most recent in the early 1990s – to see his aunts and uncles there. He remembers the city’s poor living conditions.
“They have a rough life,” Hussam said. “Water is not available all the time. Hot water is not available all the time. Sewerage is not very good. They don't have access to things that we have as normal world.”
In the early 1980s, at just 16, Hussam moved to Kansas to attend Pratt Community College. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
But his arrival came just a few years after the Iranian hostage crisis, in which American citizens were held captive.
“It was very rough in the beginning,” Hussam said. “They think we're Iranian, so very hostile towards us, very hostile.
“But we survived it. We bought into the system here. We bought into the democracy, and freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.”
Hussam and Lana met when they were young in Kuwait, where their families knew each other. Lana moved to Syria for college, and the two got engaged. In 1993, she joined Hussam in Wichita.
Staying in touch with family in Gaza
The two settled into Wichita. Both became U.S. citizens. They had five kids of their own.
Hussam got another degree, this time from Wichita State University in computer science. He started his own small auto business with his brother.
Lana started working as a middle school teacher. She also leads a women’s group through the Islamic Society of Wichita.
The two always dreamed of visiting their extended families in Gaza. But the blockade on people and goods in and out of the territory made it difficult to coordinate a trip.
Instead, Lana and Hussam kept in touch with relatives through Facetime and text. Lana’s elderly aunt in Gaza helped connect her with cousins across the world – Canada, Egypt and Kuwait.
“When she talks to me, she will say, ‘Oh, you know your cousin in Canada, she's having her daughter's engagement,’” Lana said. “So I will call her and say, ‘Hey, congratulations.’ So she kept everybody — like put the family all together.”
During the COVID pandemic, Lana’s aunt got sick and struggled. The two video-chatted to help her through it.
“She was like the elder in our family that we fully respect,” Lana said. “She's a wonderful woman, with a lot of wisdom and loving her family even from far away. … She was like the person we look up to after my dad passed away.”
In the last two decades, Hussam and Lana have had to watch from Kansas as conflicts between Israel and Hamas broke out. In 2008, war between the two left 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. In 2012, 150 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.
But Lana said lines of communication with her family stayed open during those times, making it more manageable to watch from afar.
“They used to have … these things but for like, four or five days, maybe a week,” Lana said. “But there was communication. There was like – some help will get to them. Medical help, food, water.”
The current war breaks out
The war going on now, Lana and Hussam say, is different from all the ones they’ve had to watch from the sidelines before.
Hussam said communication is spotty – when he and Lana reach out, it can take two to five days to hear back from family members.
And when they do, the news is heart wrenching.
“They say, ‘We're all dead, it's just we don't know which hour it will be. Yesterday, tomorrow, after tomorrow,’” Hussam said. “…So that's the final message that they have, ‘Hey, we're all dead. It's just we don't know when, basically.’”
What they’ve gleaned is that Lana’s aunt fled her home to be with one of her daughters. Lana said her aunt had to move twice more to try to get away from bombs: once to another daughter’s home, and again to her son’s home. But she ended up dying anyway, alongside her children.
“Her younger son is the only survivor,” Lana said. “And he called us and say, like, you know, we lost everybody.’”
Lana found out about three days after it happened.
“When you lose one person from your family, it really like, hurts a lot,” Lana said. “Imagine that – to lose like, the whole family. I mean, it’s so sad.”
For Hussam’s cousins, the war has meant instability and cramped quarters. He said 10 of them brought their children to live in his aunt’s house, which is in a safer location but is now well beyond capacity. Some have now left to take refuge in a school, Lana said.
Some of his cousins have kids under 5 years old, Hussam said.
“As soon as the bombing happens, they start screaming and … just very, very crying hard from the loud noises,” Hussam said. “They don't get to sleep.”
As their families’ situation grows dire, Hussam and Lana have been posting on social media and participating in pro-Palestinian protests around Wichita to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The Madis want to see more humanitarian aid let into Gaza to help families rebuild their lives and homes – and a long-term resolution, like a two-state solution, for the Israeli and Palestinian people to live in peace.
For about a week in November, a temporary ceasefire gave the Madis’ extended family in Gaza a little bit of relief, Lana said. But it didn’t bring them peace.
“They keep telling us we don't know what's going to happen the next day,” Lana said.
The ceasefire ended Dec. 1, the day after the interview with the Madis. The bombing of Gaza resumed.