Skip to main content

How a San Francisco father rescued his family from Gaza

An older man in a suit hugs two smiling children and a woman outdoors at night.
Khader “Al” Shawa poses for a picture with his daughter Ola and her children Dina and Azam. Shawa returned from Egypt last month after helping his family members escape the violence in Gaza. | Source: Courtesy Khader "Al" Shawa

One of Khader “Al” Shawa’s earliest memories of his childhood in Gaza is of an Israeli airstrike. 

When he was 5 years old, a bomb detonated near his home, and a piece of shrapnel hit one of the big glass jars his mother used to store dry goods. He remembers the sound of beans trickling out of the broken vessel and the clatter they made as they spread across the granite tile. 

It was June 1967—the Six-Day War. The war began an occupation that would define much of the history of the region and the decades of violence and brutal recriminations that would ensue. 

More than a half-century later, with Israeli bombs once again raining down, Shawa, now a naturalized American citizen and businessman with a string of successful cannabis dispensaries like Mission Cannabis Club and Russian Hill Cannabis Club in San Francisco, would find himself flying back the region on a desperate mission to evacuate his daughter and her family.  

A city skyline at night is lit by a fiery glow and smoke in the background.
Smoke rises above a building during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City early in the morning of Oct. 8, 2023. The death toll from the Israel-Hamas war has breached 33,000 people, mostly Palestinians in Gaza. | Source: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

Although he was able to get them out, he still has dozens of family members in Gaza. Like so many of the 26,000 California residents of Palestinian ancestry, Shawa has been bracing for the six-month anniversary of the Oct. 7 war with a mixture of horror and helplessness.

“Every day I’m terrified for the phone to ring and to hear something bad,” he said. “I just don’t know what’s going to be on the other side of the call.” 

A loss of faith

As fate would have it, despite having immigrated to the U.S. from Palestine in 1981, Shawa was in Israel for the start of what has now become the bloodiest episode in the region’s recent memory.

A pile of rubble with damaged buildings in the background under a clear blue sky.
A home owned by Khader “Al” Shawa that was destroyed in Gaza. | Source: Courtesy Khader "Al" Shawa

Taking advantage of a new visa treaty that finally allowed him to fly directly into Israel to go Gaza, he landed in Haifa to visit his brother on Oct. 5 last year. He was still in Israel two days later when Hamas launched its coordinated attack on Israel that precipitated the current war. 

With a knot of dread in his stomach, he quickly left through the Jordan border and flew back to San Francisco.  

“I knew something was going to happen, some sort of war, but I didn’t know that this was going to be the scale,” Shawa said.

When widespread bombing campaigns commenced, he knew this was a different type of conflict. As the Israel-Hamas war rages into its sixth month, the death toll from the conflict has breached 33,000, overwhelmingly Palestinians in Gaza, including roughly 200 hundred members of the prominent Shawa clan from which he is descended. 

Shawa’s experience of the war has come mostly in panicked calls and news reports: An airstrike that left a severed body part in a family member’s backyard. A friend who had their relatives killed in a bombing. A string of names of the dead read out on Al Jazeera. 

An older woman with bandaged head, helped by a man and woman, in a distressed area with laundry hanging and debris.
An elderly Palestinian woman injured in the head as a result of an Israeli attack is seen with bandages near damaged buildings. | Source: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu/Getty Images

“This war has touched every home. Every home in Gaza has been touched by this,” Shawa said. “Whether you lost people close to you, whether you lost properties, whether you were dislocated. Whether, whether, whether.”

Originally landing in the United States as an 18-year-old student at Idaho State University, Shawa curtailed his studies after the 1982 Lebanon War meant that his family was unable to support his education. He was forced to drop out to make a living. 

He eventually became an entrepreneur who embraced the values of his adopted home, but the scars of his past never completely disappeared. This war and American support of the Israeli invasion effort have led to complex feelings for the place he’s lived for the past four decades. 

“I came here when I was very young. I consider myself very American: My family is American; my wife is American,” Shawa said. “I learned everything from this country around giving back, being kind and protecting human rights. But this conflict has almost made me lose faith in the U.S.”

An older couple stands close, the woman embracing the man from behind, both looking thoughtful, in daylight.
Khader “Al” Shawa stands outside his home in Redwood City with his wife, Vivian, on Friday. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

A family counseling session revealed deep-seated PTSD caused in part by a life lived under violence and occupation, including multiple instances in which he was threatened and humiliated by Israeli military forces.

“If you give a person a chance to thrive, if he owns a car, if he has a life, if he’s looking forward to tomorrow, are you telling me this guy will ever commit a terrorist act?” Shawa said. “But if you strip everything from him, then what does he have to lose?”

A desperate return

Shawa returned to the Bay Area again last month from the Middle East, where he navigated daunting bureaucratic and logistical obstacles to evacuate his daughter, Ola, her husband, Hazem, and their two children, Azam and Dina, from Gaza. 

“She loves Gaza. She didn’t want to leave,” Shawa said. “But when this happened, she said, ‘Dad, take me. I don’t ever want to go back.’”

A photo on a phone shows an older person and a younger person smiling together.
Khader “Al” Shawa pulls up a photo of his daughter on his smartphone inside his home in Redwood City. He took a desperate mission to Egypt to get her and her family out of Gaza. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

He first tried going through the U.S. State Department, but although his daughter has had a visa application to the U.S. on file in Jerusalem since 2010, she was not considered a citizen. 

So he flew to Egypt to get her and her family out. One option was Hala Consulting & Tourism, a “travel company” with close ties to the Egyptian government that helps transport Palestinians over the border. Costs for the service have dramatically increased since the beginning of the war, and demand is so high that it takes weeks for clients to cross. 

Needing a faster option, Shawa spoke to members of the Palestinian diaspora and was introduced to someone who worked as a middleman for a high-ranking member of the Egyptian state department. After paying him around $20,000, his family’s names were put on a list at the Rafah Border Crossing, and they were let through.

Travelers with luggage walk towards a gate beneath a building with flags and Arab script signage.
Palestinians walk to reenter the Gaza Strip via the Rafah border crossing on Nov. 24. The border is the sole crossing point between Egypt and Gaza. | Source: Ali Moustafa/Getty Images

“That’s how people are getting out now. It’s basically the people with money,” Shawa said. “The people with no money, which is like 95%, they have to stay behind.”

Shawa said he still has four siblings and their families left in Gaza—totaling more than 40 people. And although he sends money for them to buy necessities like food, water and clothing, he simply can’t afford to pay all of their way out. Most are in Rafah, near the border with Egypt, which is teeming with evacuees and facing a planned invasion by Israel. 

He has started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for family members still struggling to leave. 

“Sometimes I wish this was a dream, like I could wake up from this nightmare,” Shawa said. “But it’s not.”

Both his daughter and son-in-law were educated professionals who grew up and raised their children in relative wealth and safety. When he was finally able to see them again, they were emaciated. 

“[Ola] just said, “I want to stay in the bathtub for a whole day,” because they haven’t been taking showers. There’s no water. There’s no electricity. There’s no hospitals,” Shawa said. “It’s not a human life.”

An elderly man in a blue suit sits on a brown ottoman; a woman looks out a window in a cozy room.
Khader “Al” Shawa sits inside his home in Redwood City on April 5. After growing up in Gaza, Shawa came to the United States when he was 18 years old and has spent more then four decades in the country. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

With only a trickle of aid into the region, those left behind in Gaza, like his family, have resorted to eating common mallow, a type of weed, for sustenance. 

“Seeing the kids and just how they were looking at normal items like a banana or an apple was heartbreaking,” Shawa said. “They haven’t eaten in five months, and it broke my heart.”

His daughter and her family were forced to move three times around Gaza because of bombings and evacuation orders with little more than the clothes on their back. Their neighborhood was leveled, leaving them stranded in a basement for over 18 hours.

Shawa said that a home he owned in Gaza has been reduced to rubble, as well as an apartment he purchased for his brother. The home where his daughter used to live is still standing—barely—as a hollowed-out shell with the walls blown out.

“It’s horrible. People now don’t have anything to go back to,” Shawa said. “Even the people that were able to escape to Egypt. What are they going to do?”

Although his daughter and her family are safely out of Gaza, they are still contending with extreme stress and trauma daily, particularly with many close family members still stuck waiting on the other side of the border. 

What the future holds for them and the rest of the Palestinian people is uncertain, but Shawa still dreams for something better. 

“For their sake and the world’s sake, enough is enough. Seventy-five years of miserable killing and bloodshed on both sides,” Shawa said. “Give them their rights, give them the right to exist and they are going to shine and be helpful and give back to the world.” 

Kevin Truong can be reached at