How one Gaza drama played out in a Kansas home

Kansas City StarJanuary 11, 2009 

OLATHE, Kan. — The mother-to-be screamed in pain. Her brother-in-law yelled into a cell phone, begging for an ambulance.

With Israeli missiles shattering the night, this was a bad time to be having a baby.

On the flip side of Earth, in the pin-drop quiet of his living room in this Kansas City suburb, Yaser Wishah could only wait.

His first child, a baby boy of the Gaza Strip, could not.

Wishah's English is soft-spoken and precise: "In Gaza, you have to be patient. This conflict, it started in 1948, before we were born. If we couldn’t be patient, we’d all be thinking of killing ourselves. So you just live with patience."

A Motorola cell phone served as Wishah’s only link to his pregnant wife, Rewaa, his brothers and the two dozen other Palestinian relatives huddled in a single room in a refugee community at the center of the Gaza Strip.

Text messages trickled in between the occasional calls from Rewaa. As labor approached, her voice strained from troubled breathing.

Rewaa Wishah, phoning her husband on Friday: I tried to hold the baby inside me as much as I could.

She is 24, an aspiring broadcast journalist who married Yaser last February when he was back at his birthplace visiting his ailing father. Their parents arranged the wedding.

He is a U.S. citizen, 38, and co-owner of Xpress Fuel & Lube in Kansas City. He waits for her green card to be processed so Rewaa may join him here in a peaceful subdivision next to a cornfield.

Late Wednesday, Yaser was on his cell phone relaying his concerns for Rewaa to a reporter. The line clicked — an international call coming in. "This may not be good," he said.

The caller was his brother, Jaber Wishah, who began with a word not spoken by many Gazans during these last two weeks of bombardment from Israel and rocket fire from Hamas militants.

Congratulations! Jaber said. You are a dad.

•••

About 3,000 Palestinians have been wounded and more than 700 reportedly killed since the conflict began on Dec. 27.

Hospitals overflow with casualties, forcing paramedics to ferry patients past military checkpoints into neighboring Egypt.

Shortly after the first Israeli bombs fell, Yaser Wishah's family — wife, brother, father, mother, nephews and nieces — fled a home situated near the family of a senior Hamas militant.

Oldest brother Jaber is deputy director of the independent Palestine Center for Human Rights. He is married to a physician who does work for the United Nations. The family backed the moderate Fatah, the party from which Hamas wrested away control of the Palestinian Authority in elections three years ago.

Jaber, quoted last week on an Irish newspaper's Web site: We moved from our house in Bureij (because) a house nearby received a recorded threat from the Israeli army to evacuate. . . . We went to my brother Basem’s home because it is less exposed than ours to bombing and shelling.

We are 28 persons.

The house lacked electricity, a burden shared by most of the 1.5 million residents crammed into the Gaza war zone, five miles wide and 25 miles long.

Phoning her husband early last week, Rewaa reported that half a dozen houses were hit less than 200 yards away and six people died.

She also whispered of having abdominal pains. I don't wish to alarm the others.

"I could hear in her voice she could hardly breathe," Yaser said. "She wanted me to keep talking so she wouldn't have to."

She would later tell Yaser that her pain brought hope. The greater her distress, the better the chances that an ambulance might respond — so long as the baby did not arrive at night.

In the Gaza Strip, at night, any moving vehicle or flash of light is a bull's-eye.

Of course, the baby chose the night.

Shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday, Gaza time, with his sister-in-law writhing on a mattress, Basem Wishah, owner of the house, called friends at the hospital where he works in the laboratory.

Please do your level best to secure an ambulance, Basem told them. Mother and baby are in danger.

At first they said no, Basem later said.

The hospital and its clinics were full, with Israeli warplanes overhead.

At least 10 missiles already had struck the central Gaza Strip that night, knocking out a police station.

But Basem persisted for 45 minutes. He made up a story that Rewaa was bleeding.

Finally, a dispatcher told him paramedics would arrive if he’d try something just as risky: Get on the roof. Take a high-powered flashlight. Wave it around for as long as I takes.

He did so for 10 minutes. An ambulance pulled up.

Rewaa told Yaser on the phone Friday: I felt like dancing. But I could tell the ambulance had just come from the war areas. There was blood all over the floor. It was hard not to imagine rockets coming down and hitting us.

Her son, Saied, was born 15 minutes after she arrived at the Gaza clinic, where Rewaa had to share her bed with another maternity patient.

•••

Friday morning in Olathe, Yaser Wishah tried eight times to phone his brother but kept getting a recording:

The number you're trying to reach is unavailable at the moment.

He would wait some more.

He silently paced from his kitchen to his overstuffed couch. Jaw tensing, lips tightening, he wondered aloud if something had gone wrong.

"I told them to keep the phone open. This usually doesn't happen. They were expecting my call."

He turned on the speakerphone. More ringing. Then brother Jaber’s voice: Yaser!

At the coffee table, where the cell phone family reunion unfolded, Yaser dropped to his knees.

Brother Basem could be heard in the background. In Arabic, Rewaa told her husband that she was holding their baby. Little Saied has a dimple in his chin like yours.

Jaber: Actually, today was a relatively happy day, because the baby received his first bath.

There was a pause in the fighting for three hours, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. This allowed our sister and her husband to come visit us to watch the bathing.

Despite the dire situation, it was joyful.

Still no electricity, but the family had enough propane in the house to warm the water.

Yaser listened and grinned, knowing he'd be at least two hours late opening his shop.

Jaber: Maybe we were exaggerating, all the joy we poured out. Perhaps it's a mechanism we use to compensate for the shortage of such moments of happiness. . . . You know, he's probably the youngest citizen of Gaza!

Rewaa joked about the infant stretching out his arms and legs during the washing.

But his first night was sleepless. Saied shook at the sounds of rocket fire and explosions, she related.

And why wouldn’t he want to return to the safety of the womb? she said.

As their ordeal continues, it is the hope of Michael Brown of the Institute for Middle East Understanding that mother and child will be with Yaser in Olathe by month's end — if the barrage of attacks is over by then.

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