Northwestern University law student Yasmeen Elagha, who had filed a lawsuit against the U.S. State Department seeking help to bring home her American relatives trapped in Gaza, said her two cousins from suburban Lombard were kidnapped by Israeli soldiers in an early morning raid Thursday on their shelter in the town of al-Mawasi, near Khan Younis.
Brothers Borak Alagha, 18, and Hashem Alagha, 20, are among fewer than 50 U.S. citizens known to still be trying to leave Gaza as the death toll in the besieged area climbs to more than 27,000 people.
“My aunt called me … sobbing and her voice was shaking. She was like, they took Hashem, they took Borak, they took your uncle,” Elagha said Thursday, referring to a mentally ill uncle who was also taken with her cousins. “The soldiers knocked their door down at five in the morning, stormed into the house … they tied up the women and children and faced them to a wall against a corner … they slashed the car tires and they took all of the men hostage.”
Elagha said the soldiers raided the shelter, taking with them every electronic device they could find. Hashem hid his phone quickly as he heard footsteps approaching, which is why his mom was able to call, Elagha said.
“Then they disappeared with the men — we have no idea of their whereabouts, we don’t know where they are right now,” Elagha said. ”My aunt is just panicking because she’s thinking that now that the Israeli military knows there are civilians in the house, they are going to bomb them. Whereas in any other situation, knowledge of civilians in a home would mean the opposite. So they have since fled their shelter.”
Borak and Hashem were born and raised in Lombard and moved to Gaza in 2011 with their parents. They were studying engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. The brothers are among three American citizens taken by Israeli forces this week, during the same time Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region to try to mediate a cease-fire and hostage release deal with Israel and regional Arab leaders.
Men of a neighboring household were also taken away, Elagha said, along with other adult male relatives of another Elagha household, for a total of about 20 men.
Elagha had been pleading with U.S. officials to secure Borak and Hashem’s evacuation, along with their immediate family, for months, having sued the State Department for denying her Palestinian American family the same protection allotted to Israeli Americans under the Constitution, and urging the government to evacuate the Americans trapped in Gaza.
Israeli Americans were evacuated on charter flights and ships soon after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Elagha said her family members who live in Khan Yunis have attempted to flee through the Rafah Border Crossing several times, and in October, 10 members of her extended family who range in age from 1 to 62, were killed in a single airstrike that hit their home.
On Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on President Joe Biden’s administration to demand the release of the Alagha brothers and to save other Americans trapped or held hostage in Gaza by securing a cease-fire.
“These American boys are from our backyard — right here in Lombard — kidnapped and taken hostage by an unhinged foreign army we fund and defend, and no outrage from our so-called leaders,” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR-Chicago, said Thursday. “Building political power locally to ensure our representatives put American interests over special interest lobbies is no longer a mere option anymore, it’s literally a question of reclaiming this country for its people.”
CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said CAIR also sent a letter to the State Department and the American embassy in Jerusalem requesting that they demand the immediate release of a grandmother from New Orleans, Samaher Esmail, who was kidnapped by Israeli forces Monday.
Elagha said U.S. officials previously approved her family for evacuation but have been unable to secure their exit.
Immigration attorney Maria Kari said there has been a critical disparity between the efforts to bring Israeli Americans back home to the U.S. versus Palestinian Americans who are in the same — if not worse — predicament.
“The president has been very vocal and has consistently prioritized the safe return of Israeli hostages. We ask President Biden to demonstrate that same level of urgency and commitment for the safe return of these young boys, who are ordinary young men, they have no affiliation to any group or party,” Kari said. “They’ve been caught up, like millions of others, in conflicts that have nothing to do with them.”
And there is a lot that the president can do, Kari said. In 2022, Biden signed an executive order that empowers the federal government to take action against a foreign government that’s holding American citizens hostage.
The executive order directs the administration to “identify and recommend options and strategies to the President to secure the recovery of hostages or the return of wrongfully detained United States nationals” and “coordinate the development and implementation of policies, strategies, and procedures for the recovery of hostages or the return of wrongfully detained United States nationals.”
Kari said the language of the order deems it “mandatory” to take action to bring hostages home.
“If you read the language, it’s not the president ‘can,’ it’s the president ‘shall’ take action to assist American hostages and to work closely with the families,” Kari said. “I trust the U.S. government is going to act swiftly to protect the lives of these young men.”
The Elaghas, a family with thousands of members, are one of the original families in Khan Younis, dating back to the 1500s during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, Elagha explained. The family home, which is now in ruins, was located in the same area as Qalaat Barquq, a 14th-century Ottoman castle.
Borak and Hashem, along with their parents, siblings and grandparents, fled that home several weeks ago and were living in a shelter that has two bedrooms and one bathroom — shared by an additional 30 people from the community.
They’ve been running low on food and water, and space to sleep. Elagha said she and her family in Oakbrook Terrace have been clinging tightly to their phones, wondering when they’ll receive the worst possible news.
“All of us are devastated and we’re outraged because this is the exact thing that we’ve been screaming in the media for the past few months, that this is what’s going to happen if the U.S. government doesn’t get involved,” Elagha said. “The U.S. government failed to get involved and exactly what we knew was going to happen, has happened. And it only gets worse from here.”
Israel’s military response to the Oct. 7 attack has displaced nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people. And according to a report from the United Nations and other agencies, more than half a million people in Gaza — a quarter of the population — are starving.
Elagha said she spoke with various government officials on Thursday, including representatives for Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, as well as an aide for Rep. Sean Casten who represents Illinois’ 6th congressional district, where she resides. Elagha said the conversations didn’t amount to much.
In a statement, a spokesperson from Durbin’s office told the Tribune he’s received an influx of requests, including from Elagha, seeking help for constituents and loved ones caught in the crossfire of the crisis in Gaza.
“The Senator and his staff are doing their best to provide support and resources to assist in bringing those in danger to safety,” Durbin’s spokesperson said.
Casten, Duckworth, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Associated Press contributed.