Columbia College student loses family in Gaza fighting

07/24/2014 8:29 PM

07/25/2014 11:00 AM

A Columbia College student learned Wednesday that she lost her parents, two brothers and a 4-year-old nephew in an Israeli rocket attack in the Gaza Strip, according to friends and leaders of a program that brought the 20-year-old to the Midlands.

Iman Abu-Aitah, a rising junior with a double major in literary studies and biology, is attending Columbia College as part of a program called the Hope Fund, which brings academically talented Palestinian students to 28 U.S. colleges that provide scholarships.

In addition to her relatives killed, two of Abu-Aitah’s sisters and another brother also were injured in the blast, Hope Fund officials said.

“She’s about the only one left in one piece in her family,” said Nancy Qubain, the group’s executive director.

Approximately 800 Palestinians and more than 30 Israelis have been killed in the Gaza fighting.

Soon after receiving the news about her family, Abu-Aitah called Fatima Alshantti, another Hope Fund student from the Gaza Strip.

“She said no one was picking up the phone (at her home in Gaza), and she knew something was wrong,” said Alshantti, who is studying biology at Illinois College.

Alshantti said she has known Abu-Aitah for three years and also knew some members of her family. She recalled Abu-Aitah’s mother as being “really nice” and one of brothers as “wonderful and brilliant.”

Some of the Hope Fund’s Palestinian students have lost their homes while attending U.S. colleges, but no one had lost relatives before in the program’s history, dating back almost 15 years, said Deya’ Leonard Dresner, the fund’s director of development and student affairs.

“We want to students to come and get an education with all the opportunities here,” she said.

Hope Fund students are required to return to their homes after college to share their knowledge and expertise, Dresner said.

At Columbia College, Abu-Aitah is known as conscientious student, said Julia Baker, a chemistry professor.

“It was a big deal for her to get into Columbia College,” Baker said. “I was difficult to get her out of Gaza. She has fit in well at the college.”

Columbia College has asked for “people to pray for her and everyone affected by this violence,” spokeswoman Tracy Bender said.

Abu-Aitah could not be reached for comment.

She told the Hope Fund in a letter that she has a 3.92 grade-point average. She told the program that she created a nonprofit organization called Youth For Change-Palestine.

“Our goal is to empower Palestinian children, specifically from Gaza, and give them leadership and service opportunities in which they can be active and make a difference in the community,” she wrote.

Abu-Aitah took summer courses at Columbia College before heading to Michigan to visit the family who hosted her for a year in high school as part of a U.S. State Department program. She said she planned to get a driver's license and shadow a pediatric nurse in Michigan as well as work on getting her non-profit started.

“I have become more responsible, determined, and independent than ever,” she wrote the Hope Fund.

But the conflict back home has affected Abu-Aitah, reflected in posts on her Facebook page, which kept up with news of the fighting.

Alshantti said she and other Palestinian students have been watching newscasts constantly for information since conflict between Israelis and Palestinians flared again earlier this month. The Gaza Strip is roughly the same size as the city limits of Columbia but has 1.7 million more people.

“It’s hard to stay here,” Alshantti said of the United States. “You’re safe and know there in not anything you can do. It’s hard. I have barely slept in the past 18 days.”

Communication with her family is infrequent, Alshantti said. After the death of Abu-Aitah’s parents, “I have to expect anything from now on.”

The Associated Press contributed

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