Family celebrates as Hawaii woman stuck in Gaza gains her freedom

Nov. 2—Family members of Ramona Okumura were celebrating Wednesday after the 71-year-old aid worker originally from Hawaii was whisked out of war-torn Gaza to safety in Egypt.

Family members of Ramona Okumura were celebrating Wednesday after the 71-year-old aid worker originally from Hawaii was whisked out of war-torn Gaza to safety in Egypt.

"It's overwhelming, "

Okumura's niece Akemi Hiatt said in Honolulu. "We're very happy and relieved."

Okumura was among hundreds of foreign nationals and dozens of seriously injured Palestinians who were allowed to leave Gaza after more than three weeks of ducking the hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

Okumura's family said they received a text from her at around 4 a.m. Hawaii time confirming that she had caught a shuttle over the Egyptian border and was on her way to Cairo.

"Luv to everyone who helped get me out, " she said in the text. "Pray for the people of Gaza who now don't have us as shields from harm."

The family members, who had lobbied hard for Okumura's release in both Hawaii and on the mainland, received a heads up Tuesday from the U.S. State Department that there may be an opportunity to escape the Palestinian territory. So family members held a vigil overnight in a group text and a Zoom conference call.

They followed her movements at the Rafah border point from Tuesday night until early Wednesday morning.

"We're grateful—and sad for all those who didn't get to go. We want to continue helping families we kept in touch with, " Hiatt said.

Okumura was one of 46 aid workers, an estimated 500 to 600 Americans and many other civilians who found their way to the Rafah border point a couple of weeks ago but were unable to cross into safety until Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department told The Associated Press that more Americans and other foreign nationals are expected to get out of Gaza in the coming days. Talks were reportedly ongoing among Egypt, Israel and Qatar, which has been negotiating with Hamas.

Born and raised in Honolulu, Okumura taught at her alma mater, Hawaii Baptist Academy, before moving to Seattle, where she worked as a prosthetics technician and lecturer at the University of Washington for 27 years.

Since retiring in 2017, she has volunteered her expertise in prosthetics as part of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund's Gaza Amputee Project, making one or two trips a year there to help youngsters who lost their limbs due to the regional violence. She also trains local medical staff to fashion artificial limbs using basic materials—an important skill with the Israeli blockade preventing the importation of modern equipment and services.

Ramona Okumura's latest journey to Gaza began Sept. 21 and was scheduled to end Oct. 12.

On Wednesday, Niece Leah Okumura told Anderson Cooper on CNN that her family is very proud of her auntie.

"Not just her skills and her dedication to it, but for her bravery and how passionate she is about this cause, about taking care of the children of Gaza and helping them live fuller lives in the conditions they are in, " she said.

Steve Sosebee, president and founder of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, said he too admired Ramona Okumura's dedication and sacrifice on behalf of the children of Gaza.

Sosebee said he was especially worried about the dangerous and chaotic conditions she and her fellow aid workers were exposed to.

"The situation was deteriorating around her. And we were not confident she would get out soon. There was no progress until yesterday afternoon, " he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday.

When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Ramona Okumura was staying in a hotel. She was later moved to a United Nations compound in Gaza City, followed by a location near the Rafah border point in anticipation of escaping to Egypt.

Food, water and fuel are in low supply, and Okumura was describing in texts rockets launching nearby and the ground shaking from explosions.

Sosebee said Okumura's family were "amazing " throughout the ordeal as they worked hard to draw attention to her story.

Leah Okumura and a nephew, Nicholas Pang, joined Sosebee in Washington, D.C., to push for a cease-fire, safe passage out of Gaza and opening the border to allow the delivery of aid to those who lost their homes to the airstrikes.

In Honolulu, Hiatt and another niece, Erika Okumura, met with an aide to U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and conducted numerous interviews with the media.

Ramona Okumura's older brother, Glenn Okumura, said he was proud of his nieces and nephews for stepping up on behalf of his sister.

"They have that social media savvy, " he said.

The brother said this wasn't the first time his sister was exposed to the danger of working in the Gaza Strip. Last August she went to Gaza to help run a children's camp but it was interrupted by a short period of back-and-forth rocket fire.

"The camp was canceled, " he said, "but she still got to work there."

Glenn Okumura said his sister's texts this time were never about just about pleading to get her home safely. He said her main focus was always to push for a cease-fire and opening up humanitarian corridors to allow the innocent to escape the horrors of war.

He said he suspects his sister will return to Gaza one day to continue her work, but that is quite uncertain right now. No one knows what kind of Gaza will remain after the war, he said, or whether Israel will even allow her to return. "She may get harassed, " he said.

For now, Okumura was expected to be safely in Cairo, and Sosebee said his organization will fly her home or to wherever she wants to go.

For Glenn Okumura, he said he's celebrating only halfway for now.

"Until she steps foot in the United States of America, it still seems up in the air to me, " he said. "Until she's in Seattle, opens the door of her house and sits down on that couch and says, 'Aah, ' then I'll celebrate.

"Seriously, for the most part, yes, the family is very happy, glad this part of her journey is over."