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Bay Area doctor who was trapped in Gaza relieved to be back home

Bay Area doctor back home after being stranded in Gaza
Bay Area doctor back home after being stranded in Gaza 03:44

A Bay Area doctor who found herself stranded in Gaza during a humanitarian mission is back home after being unable to leave for nine days.  

Dr. Haleh Sheikholeslami entered southern Gaza through the Rafah Border Crossing on May 1. She was supposed to return to the United States on May 15, but the crossing was shut down on May 7.

"That was a big blow," Dr. Sheikholeslami said. "Not only was it that we couldn't get out, but also because we knew no new aid could come in. That was really big and unexpected."

The doctor said she communicated with the U.N., W.H.O., and Israeli government to ensure a safe way out of Gaza.

"We were at the mercy of seeing what date [we could leave], and then there's a list and the priority of the list depends on various factors," she said. "We didn't know how long [it would take]. I was hopeful that at some time, it would open."

Although she is happy to be back home with her family and looking forward to working with her patients in San Carlos, Dr. Sheikholeslami described the feeling as "bittersweet."

"I wish it was all sweet," she said. "Don't get me wrong; I love to be back with my family and they've been very supportive. But it came at a cost of leaving behind my coworkers, my colleagues there, and also the people I have met in Gaza who I knew could not come out."

Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the Council on America-Islamic Relations in the Bay Area, said others have expressed similar emotions.

"What we've been hearing for months from anyone who has been able to go is that there is this heartbreak in the privilege of choosing to leave. They are carrying survivors guilt because they are home and safe with their families when they want to be doing more," Billoo said. "Dr. Haleh Sheikholeslami is a local hero. She did was most people could only imagine. She put her life on the line. I'm so relieved she is home, but also heartbroken that no new medical workers have been allowed in since she's left."

A day after Sheikholeslami returned to the Bay Area, an Israeli airstrike in Rafah killed dozens in what Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called "a tragic mishap."  

Search and rescue efforts continue in Rafah's Tal al-Sultan neighborhood, where Dr. Sheikholeslami worked.

"I watched a video of Tal al-Sultan being bombarded and the next thing I saw was the same clinic, the same area that I was working at. The room I would go in, there were bodies," Sheikholeslami said. "There is no safe zone. There could be safer zones, but there is no safe zone in Gaza. Sometimes I would be jolted out of sleep from the bombardments."

Dr. Sheikholeslami is returning to her San Carlos office Tuesday and said she is happy to reunite with her patients after being unable to work with them for more than a week.

"If it becomes a bit safer [in Gaza], I would like to go back," she said. "I think I find that there's just so much need. Hopefully the war stops soon. If all of this stops now, there's just so much that the country needs [after] the destruction of many hospitals, health care systems, the schools. There's so much need and it is just going to be the beginning of trying to restore."

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