Big Island brothers on a mission to bring trapped sister home from Gaza
October 25, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
Brothers Miles and Glenn Okumura, both in their 70s and living on the Big Island, have been desperately trying to raise awareness about their younger sister Ramona, who has been trapped in the Gaza Strip in the Middle East since Hamas surprisingly attacked Israel and took hostages on Oct. 7.
Their sister is a retired prosthetics expert living in Seattle. Since 2018, she has been traveling frequently to Gaza as part of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
She was a teacher for years before pursuing a career in prosthetics at the University of Washington. For the past five years, she has been using her mechanical and technical skills to teach locals in the war-zone areas how to create prosthetics for children who have lost limbs in the longtime violence of the region.
Ramona Okumura was in Gaza for a little more than a week when the current violence began with the well-planned attack by Hamas, the governing organization of Gaza. Now, she is one of nearly 2 million people trying to avoid the ever-escalating Israeli bombing of Gaza, a Palestinian exclave only 141 square miles in size. Already, there have been mass casualties on both sides, about 1,400 Israelis and 5,700 Palestinians. Many of the victims are children and civilians.
The Okumura brothers, whose family is originally from Oʻahu, have been coordinating with other relatives since Oct. 7 to provide media interviews about the plight of their sister, the youngest of four siblings and the only girl.
“We were the older brothers and we had expectations to be masculine and be a jock,” Miles Okumura recalled fondly. “We would make her play games with us like football and baseball.”
They now are doing whatever they can to get her home, with Miles recently leading a peace parade in Honoka’a, where he and others marched with a banner hangs that says: “BringAuntieRamonaHome.”
They are calling for a ceasefire so that their sister, who turned 71 during the ordeal on Oct. 11, and many others can have safe passage to the Egyptian border. For her, it’s been about a 20-mile journey.
Miles Okumura, who lives in Honoka’a and helped organize the peace parade as chairman of the Honoka‘a Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Peace Committee, said when the violence began “I texted my brother, Glenn, in Pahala and I said, ‘Glenn, is Ramona still there?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.'”
Glenn Okumura said he can hardly remember that moment, because “life has been a blur” ever since. “It’s just been a bad dream that you hope you wake up from.”
Following the Oct. 7 attack of Israel, the family immediately started a text messaging group with their sister, who occasionally is able to sends updates. But, some days, the family does not hear from her for hours.
With just the clothes on her back, she has been hunkering down at times, and when it feels safe, trying to make her way to the border with other doctors, medical staff and volunteers of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
The relief organization has been coordinating this effort, with the hope Ramona and the others can make it into Egypt, where they can catch flights home. But every day, plans change.
The brothers say their sister and others have had to move around several times, but are getting closer to the border. Time is of the essence. The border also has not been open.
“It’s getting worse where they are,” Miles Okumura said. “Bombing has been increasing the last day or two, with more frequent bombs closer by. You can hear Hamas launching rockets nearby.”
And he says every second counts to help bring his sister and others home: “Any day there could be an accident, just like with the hospital in Gaza. There could be an all-out war with no aid coming in or out.”
Glenn Okumura agreed: “I’m scared. But I don’t want to let her know that.”
The brothers said their sister remains calm and strong, speaking up about the importance of the ceasefire.
“She’s more concerned about [getting a] ceasefire and the humanitarian aid coming in and things like that,” Glenn Okumura said. “And the children, and the population that are all innocent and stuck in between this.”
Miles Okumura said: “She gets very emotional when talking about Palestine and the people stuck in Gaza.”
“The news does not refer to them as hostages,” Miles Okumura added. “But as far as I’m concerned, they are in the same boat as the hostages.”
For those looking to help, you can sign a petition that’s asking for President Joe Biden, his administration, and the United States Congress to immediately prioritize the safe return of all American citizens and humanitarian aid workers currently trapped in besieged Gaza.
Other ways to help include calling your government officials, including your senators, representatives and the State Department to urge the United States to help secure a ceasefire.