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Half a world away, four-year-old Gaza boy gets a new lease of life after losing an arm

Helping hand: Omar Abu Kuwaik with his aunt, Maha Abu Kuwaik, at Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia on February 28, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

Omar Abu Kuwaik is far from his home in Gaza. The four-year-old’s parents and sister were killed by an Israeli airstrike, when he lost part of his arm.

He’s one of the ‘lucky’ ones.

Through the efforts of family and strangers, Omar was brought out of Gaza and to the U.S., where he received treatment, including a prosthetic arm. He spent his days in a house run by a medical charity in New York City, accompanied by his aunt.

It was a small measure of grace in a sea of turmoil for him and his aunt, Maha Abu Kuwaik, as they looked to an uncertain future. The grief and despair for those still trapped in Gaza is never far away.

Ms. Abu Kuwaik is glad she could do this for her beloved brother’s son, whom she now considers her fourth child.

Difficult choice

But it was a terrible choice. Going with Omar meant leaving her husband and three teenage children behind in a sprawling tent camp in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. With Israel carrying out strikes in areas where it told civilians to take shelter, including Rafah, Ms. Abu Kuwaik knows she might never see her family again.

“My kids love Omar so much,” she said. “They told me, ‘We are not children anymore. Go, let Omar get treated. It’s what is best for him. It’s his only chance.’” Omar was an outgoing boy, she said, and he is clever like his late father, an engineer. Now he is often withdrawn and breaks into tears easily. Ask Omar a question, and he covers his ears with his right hand and the stump of his left arm, declaring, “I don’t want to talk.”

“Kindergarten was nice,” he eventually admits, “and I was happy on the first day.” He started school just weeks before the war. But he does not want to go to kindergarten anymore. He is afraid to leave his aunt’s side.

Flying to New York may have given him a new dream, though. “When I grow up, I want to be pilot,” Omar said, “so I can bring people places.”

Two weeks into the war, Omar and Ms. Abu Kuwaik narrowly escaped death. The two families evacuated their Gaza City apartments just before Israeli airstrikes flattened the buildings.

With only the clothes on their backs, the families split up to stay with different relatives.

On December 6, two Israeli airstrikes slammed into Omar’s grandparents’ home in the Nuseirat refugee camp. The explosion peeled the skin from his face. His left arm could not be saved below the elbow. He had burns on his leg and torso. His parents, six-year-old sister, grandparents, two aunts and a cousin were killed.

‘Anywhere is better’

Omar was pinned beneath the rubble. Rescuers dug until they found his little body, still warm, bleeding but somehow alive. “Our view was, anywhere is better for him than being in Gaza,” said Adib Chouiki, vice president of Rahma Worldwide, a U.S.-based charity, who heard about Omar from the group’s team in Gaza.

Israel and Egypt tightly restrict movement of people out of Gaza, allowing just a few hundred to exit each day, mostly those with foreign citizenship. The World Health Organization says 2,293 patients — 1,498 wounded and 795 ill — have left Gaza for medical treatment alongside 1,625 companions. Yet roughly 8,000 patients remain on a waiting list to go abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.

Mr. Chouiki began reaching out to contacts in the Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian governments. He got new passports for Omar and Ms. Abu Kuwaik, and Israeli security clearance for them to travel to Egypt. An ambulance brought them to the border, where an Egyptian ambulance whisked them across the Sinai desert.

Inside an Egyptian military hospital, Omar and his aunt waited for weeks until U.S. Customs and Border Protection gave them the green light to fly to New York on January 17.

At Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Omar had skin graft surgery for the burn on his leg. He was eager to get his new prosthetic arm on Wednesday, smiling mischievously as he reached out to touch it. “My arm is nice.”

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