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How one Palestinian American business owner helped evacuate her colleagues in Gaza

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As the world waits for a cease-fire in Gaza, some Palestinians have made the difficult choice to leave. In early January, Yasmeen Mjalli received a call from her colleagues in Gaza. She is the founder of the Nol Collective, an online Palestinian fashion collective. Two weavers and brothers, Hussam and Waleed Zaqout, who work closely with Yasmeen asked if she could help them escape Gaza and find safety in neighboring Egypt. After months of waiting, Hussam and some of his family are now safely in Cairo. Yasmeen Mjalli joins us now from the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. Thank you for being with us.

YASMEEN MJALLI: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: How did you feel when you finally got the news that Hussam and some of his family were safe?

MJALLI: It was a mixed bag of emotions. I was feeling relief and joy at the evacuation of eight people. And then grief for the four that were left behind.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

MJALLI: It was Hussam, his wife, his four children, and then the two children of his brother Waleed that evacuated. And the reason for that was because Waleed, his wife, and two of his children had gotten a medical permission to evacuate Gaza earlier than the rest of the family. And that is because Waleed was struggling with a failing kidney and is urgently in need of a kidney transplant. The idea was when he got the permission, it would be a matter of days before he was to leave, and it's now been weeks, and they're still waiting.

RASCOE: Well, can you walk us through what this process has been like? When someone wants to try to leave, I understand that it starts with an Egyptian travel agency in Cairo.

MJALLI: Yes, they're called Hala Agency. And normally they are just a travel agency. And they have converted into the practice of evacuating people - of course, for a price. So the first step for us was raising the funds.

RASCOE: And, like, how much does something like this cost in general, to evacuate people?

MJALLI: So the price fluctuated a lot. It started off a bit more affordable, I would say $500 maybe. But as the war dragged on, the price skyrocketed. At one point, it reached 10,000 U.S. dollars.

RASCOE: Is that $10,000 per person?

MJALLI: Yes. Yes, per person.

RASCOE: Oh, OK. Oh, my goodness.

MJALLI: And there was international pressure to reduce the amount, and it was reduced. So the last I checked it was $5,000 per adult and $2,500 for children under the age of 16.

RASCOE: That's still a lot of money. Like, how did you get the money that you raised into Egypt, and how did you raise the money?

MJALLI: Oh, we have a community over on Instagram that follows the work of our fashion collective. So our community was really well versed with the idea of political fashion. So when we called on our community to help raise funds, it came very naturally for them. There were so many people that came to our aid, one of which was a friend and colleague, Nadira (ph). She used to live in Egypt and as a result has many contacts in Egypt. And that was the way that we were able to get funds into Egypt. The issue is that when you transfer U.S. dollars to an Egyptian bank account and you try to withdraw those funds, from what I understand, it can only be withdrawn in the local Egyptian currency, which significantly reduces the value of the money. So we had to find a way to be able to pull out and preserve the value of the U.S. dollar. We were able to do that by working with a contact of Nadira's who has a business account in Egypt. When we got the cash, it wasn't a matter of just either paying the Hala Agency, you know, via wire transfer or even just walking up to them and paying them with a cash payment. If you are not a blood relative of the person that you're trying to evacuate, you cannot pay and register on their behalf. Thankfully, Hussam and Waleed have a sister who is married and living in Egypt. Her husband went and waited in line for two days because the line was so long. It took him two days to finally get to the front of that line and register Hussam, Waleed and their families.

RASCOE: So their names are supposed to be posted about seven to 10 days after the travel agency got their payment. And then that's supposed to allow them to evacuate, right?

MJALLI: Yeah. You're right. So we registered Hussam and their families on the 25 of February. So we were hoping to hear news within the first week of March. Their names were released late Wednesday night, I believe, and they left for the border the next morning at 6 a.m.

RASCOE: Wow. OK. And so they are - at least at this moment, they're out of harm's way. What comes next for them?

MJALLI: That's a great question. Step 1, making sure that they're OK and waiting for the release of their family and waiting for the end of this war. I think that everyone has it in mind that there is a return. I think it's a matter of finding a way to keep afloat, continuing what he loves doing, which is weaving and waiting for the time that they can return home.

RASCOE: That's Yasmeen Mjalli. She's the owner and founder of Nol Collective. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MJALLI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.