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A wounded WMU alumnus from Gaza is healing in the US, but says “I don't want to be a burden"

The occupational therapist wears her long brown hair in a high braid.  She wears glasses and an animal print shirt.  You can see that her fingernails are painted with orange and blue nail polish and she is holding Abedelazeez's hand with both hands.  Both the OT and the patient have bent elbows almost like they are about to arm wrestle, but the OT uses her left hand to stretch and straighten the bent finders on his left hand.  Abedelazeez holds his free hand to his forehead, as he winces in pain.  He wears a short beard and a dark grey hooded sweatshirt.  From this angel, you can see the cavern on the underside and side of his forearm where shrapnel cut off a significant amount of muscle and tissue.  You can also see the skin graft that covers the wound.
Leona Larson
Abedelazeez works with occupational therapist Bonnie Book on range of motion, wrist flexion and extension. He is right handed and uses that hand to read braille. Surgery at the end of May should help restore feeling and sensitivity in his fingers to help him read and navigate in the world.

The Western Michigan University graduate from Palestine and the surviving members of his family are getting medical treatment in separate American cities.

Five months ago, we posted a story on our website that included a photo of a man with a horrific injury to his arm. Abedelazeez Abu Shaaban was injured by an air strike near his home in Gaza. He lost a daughter in the attack.

I met Abedelazeez Abu Shaaban and his 18-year-old son, Yousof, in April at a medical office. He was there to see his occupational therapist.

Bonnie Book is an OT with Strength Training and Recovery in Grand Blanc. She is working on Abedelazeez’s right arm, to increase his strength, range of motion and fine motor skills.

“I'm going to stretch your hand a little bit more. This is the part he hates,” Book told me.

“It doesn't feel good.”

And Abedelazeez confirmed it, with an expression of pain, and a common expletive in Arabic.

Yousof distracted his father, talking to his dad in Arabic about school. He’d just started university when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

Book uncurled Abedelazeez’s fingers that are tight and bent after weeks in a cast as he tried to get his family out of Gaza.

Abedelazeez reacted in pain again, and complained, “it’s painful.

“I know. I hate this part,” Book agreed.

The injury wraps around his forearm. It’s a cavern covered in scars and skin grafts that prevent Abedelazeez from fully extending his arm.

Dr. Abdalmajid Katranji is Abedelazeez surgeon. He’s the chief medical officer at the Katranji Hand Center in Lansing. He said Abedelazeez will need at least one more surgery. He’s already had two.

“The bones were shattered and several of the structures that help you move your fingers were cut, including the nerves.”

A close-up photo of Abedelazeez, who holds an orange, plastic cone in his wounded right hand.  His eyes are closed and he appears to be grimacing in pain from the occupational therapy exercises.  He wears a dark grey hoodie and you can see part of the wound on his right forearm, where a chunk of muscle was torn off by shrapnel during an October 18, 2023 bombing near his home in Gaza City.
Leona Larson
Abedelazeez Abu Shaaban began occupational therapy at the end of February. The OT says he is improving everyday. When he first arrived, she says he couldn't hold this plastic cone with his wounded hand.

Dr. Katranji said the upcoming surgery should help restore more feeling to his fingers. And while he can’t guarantee that it will be the last surgery for Abedelazeez, he said he is hopeful that it will help Abedelazeez recover some of what he’s lost.

“What compounded this tragedy is that he's a very gentle soul who also happens to be blind.”

Abedelazeez lost his sight completely as a child, when he was 8. He says it was genetics. Katranji said Abedelazeez used his dominate right hand to read braille.

“For Abedelazeez his fingers are actually his eyes, right? He touches the world. He sees the world with his fingers.”

With nerves and tendons cut, it’s like losing his eyesight all over again.

Katranji and the occupational therapy office are treating Abedelazeez for free, arranged by the Palestinian American Medical Association and the Syrian American Medical Society. And he receives continued support from the Islamic community of Flint. It’s a community he said he really likes being a part of. He counts on them for rides to medical appointments, the mosque, stores and for other necessities.

Abedelazeez also received help from the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War. The peace group founded during the Second Gulf War joined with others to help raise money for the family’s travel expenses. And he got help from friends at WMU.

I interviewed Western chemical and paper engineering professor Said Abubakr in the fall, when Abedelazeez and his family were trying to get out of Gaza. Abubakr told me he met Abedelazeez when he was an education student at WWMU about twenty years ago, and was taking additional classes in Blindness and Low Vision Studies.

Abedelazeez would walk by his office in old Welborn Hall on his way to lunch.

“I was so excited to see him, you know, being blind and but able to go to the restaurant, pick up food and come back. So, as I started conversation with him and we became very good friends.”

After Abedelazeez’s occupational therapy appointment I gave him and Yousof a ride back to their temporary home in Flint. On the drive Abedelazeez recalled happy memories of his time in Kalamazoo. He talked about the sheep farm you could visit on 9th Street, and praised the Farmer’s Market.

“It's wonderful. You know, I bought a watermelon from there. The sweetest melon I tasted in my life.”

He said he was tired and as I drove the conversation grew quiet. I glanced in the mirror at a stop. Yousof had closed his eyes. And in the passenger seat, his father appeared to doze.

We arrived at the two-story suburban Flint home donors are lending the family. I encouraged Abedelazeez to get a bite to eat, knowing that the hardest part of the interview is about to begin.

“No, no actually, we are fasting. We are Ramadan,” he explained and apologized that he could not serve me anything.

But I was the one who apologized. I had completely forgotten it was Ramadan.

A little girl with long dark hair and wearing a furry pink coat sits in a car covered in pink and white parade float flowers.  She's wearing a pink Barbie cap and smiles sweetly, looking directly into the camera.  The steering wheel of the car is covered in pale pink fur and white sparkles.
Courtesy of Yousof Abu Shaaban
This photo of Abedelazeez Abu Shaaban's youngest daughter, Jehan, was taken before the Israel-Hemas War, when he says they had a "settled life."

What was life was like before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7?

“We were like settled family. I was an employee. I am teacher, I received my salary.”

Abedelazeez was an English teacher for visually impaired middle school-aged children in a suburb of Gaza City.

“As a category of people, back home, they are very needy people, you know. They aren’t employed, they are unemployed, and they don't have money. So, I tried to help them in different ways.”

When Israeli forces warned of retaliation in the days after the Hamas attack, Abedelazeez took his family and left the home he’d inherited. He’d heard the US Embassy was evacuating American citizens. And his son Yousof is a US citizen – born in Kalamazoo.

They drove to the Rafah border crossing into Egypt but it was closed. Then they spent two nights in a crowded shelter at a school.

“My family found it's very difficult to stay in a school for a conservative family, because, we don’t have privacy in school, we don't have clean bathrooms, enough sorts of water, electricity. So, we decided to go home to Gaza City.”

Abedelazeez said that on October 18, the Israeli military bombed his neighborhood.

He huddled with his wife, sister and three children in a basement corridor. An airstrike sent shrapnel and debris tearing through the house. It ripped into Abedelazeez’s arm and his nine-year old daughter Jehan’s leg.

His wife, Jamila, was shielded by their 14-year-old-daughter, Joud.

Hours later at Al-Shifa Hospital...

“There I realized that my daughter is dead. And this is bad, one of the most bad moments in my life.”

Abedelazeez said on his second day in the hospital his in-laws came to bury Joud.

For weeks the family moved between hospitals and homes. In November, they finally crossed into Egypt.

Dark haired Yousof Abu Shaaban, 18, wears a khaki green buttoned down shirt and glasses. His face is resting on his right fist as he watches his dad at his occupational therapy appointment.  Visible are a large scar on the back of his hand and another scar on his chin.  Those are the scars from shrapnel wounds after a bomb was dropped near his home in Gaza City on Oct. 18, 2023 during the Israel-Hamas War.
Leona Larson
Yousof Abu Shaaban watches intently at his fathers occupational therapy session. Shrapnel wound scars are clearly visible on the back of his hand and his chin. He was wounded in the Oct. 18, 2023 bombing of his Gaza City neighborhood.

A month later, the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund sent Jehan for medical help in Philadelphia. Her mother went with her.

Father and son joined them early this year, but then Abedelazeez traveled on to Flint for care. And Yousof, whose shrapnel wounds had healed, went with him as his eyes.

Abedelazeez’ sister went to Canada.

Abedelazeez says he’s overwhelmed by and grateful for the help his family has received. But admits it’s hard to accept.

“I don't want to be a burden on the community. For example, like, you know, they send us food, and they give us house, and I don't like that. I need to depend on myself.”

Abedelazeez asked me about my feelings on the Israel-Hamas war. I told him that as a reporter, my opinion is not supposed to matter. So he makes a request.

“Ask your government to stop supporting the Israelis. Not because to stand beside the Palestinians, but it's a humanitarian issue.”

Abedelazeez said he’d like to return to Gaza someday. For now, he cannot wait to visit Kalamazoo with Yousof.

He’s got other plans too. He wants his son to get his driver’s license and to enroll in college.

Abedelazeez would like to enroll in college too. He said he’d like to get his PhD at Western. But first, he wants his family reunited.

He laughed and said his daughter Jehan is trying to bribe him to get her to come to Michigan.

“I would like to make you laugh about my daughter. She has a condition. If she wants to come, she needs me to bring her a cat,” he chuckled. Then added “it’s very difficult here in the US to have a cat as a pet because it’s responsibility.”

And Abedelazeez already has enough of that, so Jehan will have to wait to get a cat.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.