Communities in Gainesville and abroad feel the impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict
At 7,000 miles, the horrors of the Israel-Hamas conflict may seem far away to most Americans. But for others, including some in Gainesville, the anxiety of battle may seem all too close to their hearts.
“My nephew, 18 years old, has already been to a few funerals,” said Boris Kuchuk, 45, president of My IT Masters Inc. “It’s not directly family or so, but there's friends and everybody knows someone.”
In the city of Gainesville, Jewish and Palestinian citizens are minorities compared to the overall population. Yet, there are thousands of residents left worrying about the well-being of their relatives and friends.
While divided by religion, culture and centuries of history, Jewish and Palestinian residents in Gainesville said they share common feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones. And the breakdown of the Internet and communications have made it worse.
Kuchuk moved to America from Israel 13 years ago in August 2010. With all his family and friends living in Israel, this situation distresses him immensely.
“It hurts, it’s my people,” Kuchuk said.
Israel has a population of more than nine million people. Given the small population, “everybody had losses here and there,” Kuchuk said.
Nadine Ghourra, 20, is a third-year political science major at the University of Florida and has family currently living in Gaza. As her father left Gaza at 18 to attend school in America, the territory holds a special place in Ghourra's heart. So, when she was given the news war had broken out in her native home, she was gripped by worries of devastation and terror for her family.
"This has impacted us greatly. Every day, we're scared we're going to hear that one or all of my family has been killed in an air missile or in a bomb," Ghourra said.
With a lack of means to communicate with her family, Ghourra feels helpless, as there is little she can do to help her distant family.
"I feel so bad that I'm not there to support my father in any of this," Ghourra said. "There's nothing I can do to help him, and there's nothing he can do to help me deal with the fact that one day we might wake up and Gaza will no longer exist."
With the concern she feels for her family every day, Ghourra said she is able to persevere through this challenging time with 'faith.'
“Our faith is strong, and we use that every day,” Ghourra said.
Taylor Mayer, 22, is a recent UF graduate and works for Honest Reporting, an activist organization that monitors media bias against Israel. As her father is Israeli, she dreamed her whole life of moving to Israel and planned to leave the U.S. for a seven-and-a-half-month program in Israel on Oct. 8. But on that Saturday, Oct.7, her plans instantly changed.
Mayer practices Shomer Shabbat, meaning she does not use electricity on the Sabbath, from Friday evening to Saturday evening. She was not informed about the attack on Israel until she received a call from her mother saying, "Israel was at war."
"I go through waves of crying every night," Mayer said. With many of her family and friends serving in the IDF, Mayer has constantly communicated with her loved ones as they fight for their country.
"It's horrible, really horrible, but my family is very strong," Mayer said. "They're saying they've never seen anything like this. They're in their bomb shelters like half the day, every day. They were telling me to come, and when it hit the fourth day of the attack, they said, ‘Do not come.’"
Although the last few weeks have been a formidable time for Mayer and her family, it has redefined her love and yearning to move to Israel.
"This attack has just made me realize how important it is for me to move to Israel and completely embolden my bond to Israel that I know once I move there, there's no way I can leave," Mayer said.
Many people like Mayer are able to keep in contact with their family and friends in the Middle East through the messaging application, WhatsApp.
Mayer is able to speak with her loved ones through this “every other day” to ensure their safety.
Given that both of his parents grew up in Ramallah, the West Bank in Israel, Waleed Aref, 20, computer science major at UF, has strong ties to this conflict.
“We haven't seen anything like this in a decade or two to this significance,” Aref said.
Aref moved to Jordan when he was 7 years old and moved back to the United States when he was 14. He describes himself as a practicing Muslim. And with Islamophobia on the rise in the past month, Aref says he deals with much confusion and heartache.
“Islam is known as a religion of love,” Aref said. “The only time I've heard about it being associated with terrorism has been in America.”
Jason Scheuer, 22, former president of Alpha Epsilon Pi, graduated from UF in 2023, and now lives in Rishon, Israel, spending a year there teaching English to middle schoolers. While visiting his cousin in east Jerusalem, Scheuer woke up to three rockets passing through the iron dome and landing close to where he was residing. Hearing the blaring noises of the sirens and screams, his cousin's husband quickly boarded up the house and gave Scheuer a knife to protect them and his cousin's infant.
"Since the war started, a lot of time is spent in bomb shelters," Scheuer said. "You're waking up in the middle of the night and having to run, waking up in the morning. I've been shaken awake by my roommate, saying, ‘Go, go.’”
As a teacher of young children, Scheuer has set aside his own emotions and fears to provide support and stability for his students facing the unsettling reality of war.
"I really wanted to stay to be there for my kids because I know a lot of them are going to have family members who were killed or might be traumatized," Scheuer said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the organization recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between October 7-23. Scheuer believes it's crucial for Jewish individuals residing in the U.S. to recognize this conflict significantly affects them as well.
"My message for Jewish people at home is to hopefully wake up and realize that for better or worse, what happens here affects them at home," Scheuer said.
Dania Atresh, 18, a first-year biomedical engineering major, is an American citizen with dual Palestinian citizenship. When the war broke out, she was concerned the public would associate all Palestinians with Hamas and label them "Neo-Nazis."
Atresh has many family members living in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, including cousins, aunts and friends who she has visited frequently prior to the war. Atresh has found it deeply distressing to witness a land she holds dear experiencing such loss and suffering.
“What the land means to me as a Palestinian is family," Atresh said.
With no end in sight, this conflict weighs heavily on people such as Issa Abuayyash, 22, a student pilot at the Aviation Sciences program of Santa Fe College, with family who currently live in Gaza.
“It has been a mental struggle for me, I can say that it heavily impacted me,” Abuayyash said.
Shahar Katz, 26, a former Israeli search and rescue soldier, is currently participating in an exchange program at Hebrew University, pursuing a bachelor's degree in biology and philosophy at UF. Learning about his country being at war while in Gainesville was "very hard" for Katz, but a more significant hardship looms as his brother serves in the IDF in Gaza.
Without a phone, communication with Katz's brother during this turbulent battle has been incredibly challenging for the family.
"We're really worried and scared,” Katz said. “Me, my mother, my sister—everyone is concerned for him, so that's the main thing."
In addition to the fear and anxiety his family is experiencing, Katz’s family home is right at the feet of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel’s national cemetery. Living here, he recalls hearing ceremonies or joyous noises from Independence Day, but for the first few weeks, all they could hear was the heartbreaking sounds of funerals.
“My sister told me the first week she was crying the whole time,” Katz said.” I was trying to be as supportive as I can from here, you can't do much from far away, but I was trying.”
While families and friends grapple with the traumatic loss of loved ones, people in Israel are uniting in remarkable ways, both as a community and a family.
"I think one of the most amazing things during this period is people coming together in truly amazing ways,” Katz said. “Jews and Arabs are volunteering side by side to support the soldiers. On the first day of these events, a friend told me she waited in line to donate blood for five hours, and they couldn't even take blood from everyone because so many people had come."
One thing holds true among everything occurring with this conflict: these two groups of people are in pain. But a common point of agreement among many is the shared aspiration for peace on both sides.
Atresh hopes "both Palestinians and Israelis can be liberated of living in constant fear and war."
While away in the center of the conflict, all Scheuer wants is harmony.
"We're all praying for peace here," Scheuer said. "War is a nasty thing, and I don't wish any more innocent people to die, and I hope that soon both the people in Gaza and the people here can live in peace without the threat of war."