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"These are things you read about in horror books": Michigan doctor says 20 of his relatives killed in Gaza

Dr. Emad Shehada sits in his Rochester Hills office. Shehada says 20 of his family members have been killed in Gaza since Israel began bombardments in response to a Hamas attack a month ago.
Briana Rice
Michigan Radio
Dr. Emad Shehada sits in his Rochester Hills office. Shehada says 20 of his family members have been killed in Gaza since Israel began bombardments in response to a Hamas attack a month ago.

Dr. Emad Shehada is a pulmonologist in Rochester Hills who's been living in Metro Detroit for more than 20 years.

His parents were born and grew up in Palestine.

His sister, brother-in-law, two nieces, and dozens of cousins and relatives live in Gaza now, he says — and so far, 20 of his cousins have been killed there.

Some of them, Shehada says, died in a strike that destroyed a building next door to his sister. And he says his surviving family is struggling every day to find food and clean water.

“Just an unimaginable situation,” Shehada said from his office in Rochester Hills. “These are things that you read about in horror books, but this is like the daily life of the Gazans at this point."

"This just has to stop," he said.

Shehada has stayed in touch with his sister and family mainly through WhatsApp messages when his sister has WiFi or cell service. Sometimes, like the day the house next to his sister's was bombed, he said, he loses contact with her for hours. “There is no place safe in Gaza. The airstrikes or the missiles and the bombs are reaching everywhere.”

Michigan Radio is collecting stories from people who, like Shehada, are directly affected by the war between Israel and Hamas. You can find all of those stories here, and you can submit your own by emailing callouts@michiganradio.org or calling 313-307-5146.

Shehada spoke with Michigan Radio’s Briana Rice. You can listen to the audio of their interview above, and you can find the text transcription below. It's been lightly edited for clarity.

Please note: this interview contains graphic descriptions of wartime violence. It may not be suitable for everyone.

Briana Rice: Emad, can you tell me a little bit about your sister and what she's like? Are you worried for her?

Dr. Emad Shehada: She's very sweet. I mean, I haven't seen her now for more than eight years. She has two lovely young daughters, 10 and 8 years old. She's very funny. She's very quiet. We love her, and we'll be very devastated if anything happens to her or her family.

BR: This recent strike that killed members of your extended family: Do you know what happened?

ES: As of now, there are two strikes that the bombardment is very close to my sister's house. One that actually, unfortunately, led to the death of 12 relatives there, as well as another one just a couple of days ago that was also very close to her house.

We heard about it from the news. We called immediately, but there was no response for about like 5 hours before she responded back to our texts. So we were very, very nervous and fearful for her at that point.

They actually found, like, human remains in their house. I mean, the window on the first floor, I think, was open. And, you know, some of the remains of our relatives flew from the house, was bombarded into their house, and they could see that with their own eyes.

There were a lot of kids in the house. There were already, I think, five kids before the other relatives moved in. My sister has her two daughters and their sister-in-law has, like, three daughters, too. And then there are a lot of kids who came in with the other relatives. So — so just an unimaginable situation. I mean, those are things that you read about in horror books, but this is like the daily life of the Gazans at this point, and this is just — it has to stop.

BR: I’m sorry, Emad, that is so awful that your family is going through that. I guess I’m just wondering, where does your sister, where does the family go from here? What happens now?

ES: I mean, the problem is, you know, where can you go? I mean, nothing — there is no place safe in Gaza.

The airstrikes or the missiles and the bombs are reaching everywhere. I mean, she actually does not live in the evacuation area in the north that they demanded. She is south of that. But still, I mean, her city is not just not safe. It seems like in the news daily now, that it's been hit on a daily basis.

And going to anywhere else in Gaza is not going to be safe for her.

But people don't understand that a lot of the people in Gaza, all that they have now is their homes. If they leave that and it gets destroyed, they will have nothing left. And a lot of people just prefer to die in their homes with their roofs on top of them, rather than go somewhere else and live in a tent.

The Palestinian people, you know, some of them left their homes in 1948 expecting that they're going to go back shortly. That's been 75 years and nobody has gone back yet. So a lot of them, they will not make that mistake again.

BR: Thanks, Emad. I want to ask you about some of that history. This land is disputed, and the modern conflict over it has lasted for decades. Does this cycle feel different to you?

ES: This is at a scale that has never been before. One, from the level of destruction, and from the the fact that there is really no calls for any ceasefire.

The level of the civilians who were killed during this time, it really outnumbers any time of the of the previous wars that happened.

They're starving people by not allowing food, by not allowing fuel to help keep the hospital running, by preventing any significant humanitarian aid to go to help deal with the wounded and all these people who are injured during this period of time. No water. I mean, that's the most crushing need at this time. But there is really no drinking water in most places.

My sister told me that the running water that they have in their house seems to be contaminated with sewage because there is now like a very bad smell and taste to it. They had to go to another city, really, to go to the hospital there and fill up gallons of water and walk all the way back to their house to be able to maintain their daily need of drinking water.

So this is why it seems different than before. I understand all the things about self defense and everybody's right to do that. But this is beyond that.

BR: How are you getting information about what's going on in Gaza? Is it from watching the news or hearing from your sister and family?

ES: From both. We had lost connection with my sister for a couple of days on Friday and Saturday when there was the blackout. But things now are coming back.

I mean, those daily issues that every Palestinian is dealing with in Gaza, that's confirmed by my sister. She’s telling me that for the last three-plus weeks they're only eating potatoes and eggs, because that's the only thing that they can put their hands on.

There is no bread outside. They have tried to bake at home, and God knows how long they're going to be able to do that because they're not going to have fuel shortly.

You can just see it in the news everywhere. I mean, they have no food, they're starving, they're hungry, they don't have water.

It's just — if you're if you survived the bombardment and the airstrikes and the missiles and everything, you will die from something else. You will die from disease, from lack of water, from lack of food. And this is not acceptable at any level. If this is not considered a war crime, I don't know what is considered a war crime.

BR: When your sister loses WiFi and connection, how is she able to find out what's going on in Gaza?

ES: Her husband has to go outside every day for their daily needs. They have to go to multiple cities. You know, just go out every day, try to get some food, some water. They get the news from other places. They see firsthand what's happening.

BR: What your family is going through, that sounds unimaginable. What do you want to see happen now, in Palestine?

ES: The most important thing is a cease fire. This has been going on too long. I don't know how many people have to die before people are satisfied that they have seen enough Palestinian blood, that they feel that they got enough revenge at this point.

Thousands of children have died. Thousands of women have died. And the problem is that nobody is even talking about a cease fire.

There's already I think 15 to 20% of the housing units in Gaza that have been destroyed or damaged. You have more than half of the population there has been displaced. Well, what are you looking for? How many, how much misery and killing and death are you're looking for before you're satisfied with what's happening?

Humanitarian aid is fine, but I mean, what's the point of feeding people and giving them water if you're planning to slaughter them the next day? The most important thing, really, is for a ceasefire to happen as soon as possible and immediately.

BR: I'd like to go back and talk about what brought you here to Michigan. When you got to the states, you lived first in California? What drew you to this community?

ES: I wasn't actually aware of the large Arab and Muslim community here in Michigan when I first came. Basically, California was very expensive at that time. So I needed to move out. And my only connection here in the U.S., other than California, was here in Michigan.

I had a few friends from medical school who were here already. So I came in and basically stayed roommates with them for a while. And then I got to know Michigan.

I love Michigan. You know, I consider myself a Michigander. Now, after 20-plus years, it has everything that I can ask for. Four seasons, you know, great community, great support, great people in general, not only from our community but from everybody here.

The diversity is something that I look for, and it allows me to raise my family the way I want with the beliefs that I hold dear. But at the same time, they’re also enriched in American society and they learn how to be Americans, too.

BR: With everything going on in Gaza, does it feel different being a Palestinian in Michigan now?

ES: Oh, I think we can say that I feel betrayed. I felt that, with the current administration we have, that we will have more appreciation of the other point of view. There is real diversity. That diversity is not a slogan. That we really will care about other people, that we will listen to what they have to say.

But, you know, I didn't really expect at any point that the American administration will stand in full support of the Palestinian people. I don't think that was happening in my life. But I expect that at least there is going to be some humanity, some decency, that when they see what's happening to the civilians in Gaza, that they say, okay, enough is enough.

I mean, the way that the destruction is happening right at this time without any attempt to stop it, there is a very definite possibility that there is not going to be any Gaza Strip by this time next year.

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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