- A Bittersweet Reunion: The Story of Suleiman Baraka's family
report filed by Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Hany Massoud
Suleiman Baraka is a Palestinian astrophysicist working at Virginia Tech with NASA. His eleven-year-old son Ibrahim was killed in an air strike during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza. After he first told his story on Democracy Now!, the US consulate in Jerusalem contacted him and got his surviving family members out of Gaza. This weekend, at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport, he was reunited with his wife and three remaining children. We take you to the bittersweet reunion. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Israel today after a donors conference in Egypt for aid to the Gaza Strip. In Israel, she reiterated the Obama administration’s “unshakeable, durable and fundamental” support for Israel, following a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, residents are still struggling to recover and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Israel’s devastating three-week assault on the territory. More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, most of them civilian, At least a third were children. More than 5,500 Palestinians were injured.
Today, we follow up on one of those stories. Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous files this report.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: The reunion is very special, and I’m sorry that the reunion comes after a tragedy. It would be much better if we have this reunion without any sad stories, the destruction of houses, killing of my son. But there is always a bright side of the story.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You may remember Suleiman Baraka. He’s a Palestinian astrophysicist who came to the United States in October to work with Virginia Tech and NASA. His wife and four children stayed behind in Gaza. Then, on December 29th, day three of Israel’s assault on Gaza, tragedy struck. Israeli warplanes bombed Suleiman’s house. His eleven-year-old son Ibrahim was critically wounded in the attack. Shrapnel was lodged in his brain, hand and leg. He was evacuated to Egypt for medical treatment. Suleiman immediately left for Cairo to be with his son. On January 5th, Ibrahim died of his injuries. Unable to return to Gaza to mourn with his family, Suleiman returned to the United States. Days later, he told his heart-wrenching story for the first time in an interview on Democracy Now!
SULEIMAN BARAKA: There is no need to describe what the feeling of a father who is looking as his child dying. […] It’s really hard to break in, and I don’t know — sometimes I feel speechless. I cannot say, as a father, and when I look at the photo of my son, I cannot convince myself that I will never see him again.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Suleiman said he was speaking out because he wanted people in the United States to hear his story.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: My house is not a military base. Ibrahim is eleven years old. He doesn’t need F-16 jet fighters to kill him. My house roof was there for me and my children to use my telescope, not anti-aircraft missiles or rockets. I have no language to express what I feel about this.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: At the end of the interview, Suleiman asked that his family be allowed to join him in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Suleiman Baraka, you are asking for your family to come to the US?
SULEIMAN BARAKA: Yes, yes. I don’t want to receive another bad news. It’s enough. I had enough.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Days after that broadcast, Suleiman received an email from the US consulate in Jerusalem. Democracy Now! went to cover the union. We met Suleiman outside the international arrivals gate at Washington Dulles Airport.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: When I told my story, it had reflections all over the world, one of which is from the State Department. And in this regard, I convey my gratitude to US consulate general in Jerusalem, and I name Mr. Alistair Baskey and Vivian Abdallah and all those in the State Department who helped me moving my family from Gaza. They wrote me an email that “We saw your story on Democracy Now! We are devastated, and our hearts go out for you. We offer our deep condolences, and we offer our help if you want to move your family to a safer place to West Bank.”
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Calls were made, emails exchanged, and eventually the Israeli government approved.
And so, the US government put pressure on the Israeli government to allow your family to come here?
SULEIMAN BARAKA: This is very complicated, and it cannot be stated in simple words, but conditional pressure. If the Israelis say yes, it means yes. But if they say no, it’s no. So, no pressure can change, you know, from our experience the Israelis. And now, all these — the tears are in the past. You know, I am now very excited to hug them, to see them and also to listen more about Ibrahim, because over the phone — when you have somebody in person, so the body language and also the story, maybe more the tears, because Ibrahim will stay forever as — I am his father, right, but the way he was killed is really — I hope he will be the last child in the whole universe to be killed this way, from all parties. But the reunion with the family will be just great.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Also at the airport to greet Suleiman and his family was Dr. Nabil Abuznaid, the PLO representative in Washington.
DR. NABIL ABUZNAID: If you look to this situation, a man is going to meet his wife and children for the first time without one of their children. He is missing. He’s eleven years old. He was lost in the war. And we cannot bring him back. The only thing we can do to work for a better future, to bring peace, hopefully his son would be the last. So, hopefully, we can have our own freedom and our independence and to live free, away from occupation and oppression by the Israelis.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And why are you here today? You’ve known Suleiman for many years?
DR. NABIL ABUZNAID: No, I met him after what happened to his son, after his sad story, and we met at the Palestine mission to the US. And today, I’m with him at the airport, and within a few minutes I’ll be going inside to meet his wife and children and to bring them out here.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: As Dr. Nabil Abuznaid went to help the family clear customs, Suleiman waited outside, anxiously scanning the information on the arrivals board. As we waited, he spoke about his future plans for his three remaining children.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: I will move them immediately to school. I want to introduce them to the American school system and culture. I need them to learn English and also to be exposed to diversity, because they lived in a tightly homogeneous society. So I wanted them to value diversity like me, to see people with different attitudes, religion, backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and they socialize with respect and harmony with others. So, they never had the chance to live in a diverse society. And I think it’s good for the children. I wanted just to take them away from the environment and also try to make the transition and the cultural shock smooth, because Ibrahim is my son, their brother, and they shared lots of stories, played together, so we wanted to share this with them. And also, the main point is, as long as I am in the States, they will be with me. Whatever it takes, they will stay with me.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Moments later, Suleiman’s family walked out into the arrivals hall. His youngest, six-year-old Daoud, came out first, followed closely behind by his ten-year-old daughter Irwad, his wife Iman, and their thirteen-year-old son Mohammed. Daoud ran into his father’s arms. Suleiman embraced him and his wife and children. It was a moment of happiness and relief for the family, but not without sadness.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: I need some time to phrase my feelings and put them into words. OK, I left four children, and I received three. But I’m still very happy to have my family here with me. Yes, I left four children, and now we have three. But it’s OK. At least we have survivors. Some other Palestinian families, they lost all the family members.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We asked Suleiman’s wife what her hopes were, now that she arrived in the US. Suleiman translated for us.
IMAN BARAKA: [translated] That my children live in peace and have a good education.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And does she plan to return to Gaza ever?
IMAN BARAKA: [translated] Of course.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And so, while the Baraka family is reunited and together again, they are not whole. Eleven-year-old Ibrahim is gone forever, killed by the Israelis. And the rest of Suleiman’s extended family remain in Gaza. His mother, who was badly wounded in the same attack, his brothers, nephews and nieces are all still homeless after their houses were destroyed in the three-week Israeli assault. Just before walking out of the airport with his family, Suleiman left with one final thought.
SULEIMAN BARAKA: Let’s all pray for peace and stop war and talk to people. Talk always works. You can destroy a mountain by a bomb, but you cannot destroy an idea, and nothing is more beautiful than an idea of peaceful coexistence. Thank you very much, all. Thank you so much.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For Democracy Now!, I’m Sharif Abdel Kouddous with Hany Massoud.
AMY GOODMAN: And special thanks to Sharif and Hany for that report.