Hawaii family working for auntie’s safe return from war-torn Gaza

Erika, Miles and Glenn Okumura carry a “Bring Auntie Ramona Home” banner Saturday in Honoka‘a. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today

Oct. 26—Ramona Okumura, a prosthetics expert, was volunteering with Palestine Children’s Relief Fund in Gaza when the hostilities broke out Oct. 7. She has been stuck there ever since.

When the Peace Day Parade returned to Honokaa for the first time in four years Saturday, there was one entry that stood out.

ADVERTISING


Family members of Ramona Okumura, the Hawaii woman trapped in Gaza, carried a banner bearing an image of her smiling face and declaring “Bring Auntie Ramona Home.”

Okumura, a prosthetics expert, was volunteering with Palestine Children’s Relief Fund in Gaza when the hostilities broke out Oct. 7. She has been stuck there ever since.

Okumura is one of 46 aid workers, an estimated 500 to 600 Americans and many other civilians who have found their way to the Rafah border to Egypt but are unable to cross into safety.

Back home, the woman’s nieces and nephews have been working hard to draw attention to her story.

“It’s become my job, ” said Okumura’s niece, Akemi Hiatt, who otherwise operates a marketing firm with her husband in Honolulu. “We’re very concerned for her, and we’ve been in constant vigilance for her.”

Last week another niece, Leah Okumura, and a nephew, Nicholas Pang, along with Steve Sosebee, founder of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, went to Washington, D.C., to push for a cease-fire, safe passage out of Gaza and opening the border to allow the delivery of aid into Gaza to those who have lost their homes to the airstrikes.

On Monday, Hiatt and another niece, Erika Okumura, met with an aide to U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who told them to get the word out about her plight so that more pressure can be applied to get their aunt home.

Last week, Hirono joined 35 colleagues in the Senate in issuing a statement urging “the swift implementation of sustained access for humanitarian aid, including water and medical supplies, to save civilian lives in Gaza.”

For Ramona Okumura, the situation appears to be getting even more serious. Erika Okumura said Wednesday that her aunt is reporting in texts that the explosions and bombs seem to be drawing nearer every day.

“They feel the ground shaking under them, ” the niece said.

Ramona Okumura, 71, was born and raised in Honolulu. She 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, the woman began volunteering her expertise in prosthetics as part of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund’s Gaza Amputee Project, helping youngsters who lost their limbs due to the violence. With the decades-long blockade making it almost impossible to secure modern equipment and services, she has also trained medical staff to fashion artificial limbs using basic materials.

She has made an annual trek to the Gaza Strip the past five years or so. Her latest journey to Gaza began Sept. 21 and was scheduled to end Oct. 12.

The family has been on an emotional roller coaster the past few weeks as aid workers were promised passage to Egypt on at least two occasions, only for negotiations between authorities of Israel, Egypt and Hamas to break down.

Hiatt said her auntie has only been able to communicate by brief texts once or twice a day.

“There was a stressful two or three days where we didn’t hear from her at all. It was pretty frightening not knowing what was happening to her, ” she said.

When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Ramona Okumura was staying in a hotel. Later she moved to a United Nations compound in Gaza City and then to a location near the Rafah border in anticipation of the move across the border that has yet to materialize.

Food, water and fuel are in low supply, Hiatt said, adding that what few truck convoys with supplies have been allowed into Gaza have fallen far short of what’s needed.

Hiatt said that while her aunt was on the move, she described rockets overhead and the ground shaking from explosions. She said local drivers have been shuttling aid workers between compounds, while rockets were fired around them.

“Despite everything, the locals risk their lives to meet our needs at every step of the way, ” the woman texted. She ended up donating some of her clothing, including some of her prized aloha shirts, to her driver and his family.

Erika Okumura said she’s deeply moved by the bravery of her aunt and fellow aid workers in face of such adversity.

“I feel sad, ” the niece said. “I really don’t want to lose my aunt. I really want her to come home.”

Hiatt said her auntie previously communicated that she and her colleagues seem to be safe, although the situation is far from ideal. Many of them, she said, are sleeping in cars or on the pavement outside. Some evacuees are using debris, such as pallets and metal poles, to fashion temporary shelters.

“She’s a very strong person, and she’s trying to keep us calm, ” Hiatt said.

On Saturday Erika Okumura flew to Hawaii island, where she joined her auntie’s older brothers, Miles Okumura and Glenn Okumura, in holding the banner in the annual Peace Day Parade.

Miles Okumura is chairman of the Peace Committee of Honokaa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which produces the annual parade that was on hiatus during the pandemic.

“This year the Peace Day event became very personal for me, ” the brother told Big Island Video News. “I’ve really gotten an understanding of what the horrors of war are like, what it’s like to be anxious and worried and be concerned about the violence that happens to so many people. It’s personal because it’s my younger sister, and we’re still working hard to get her home.”