WICHITA, Kan. — A divorced Palestinian man accused of illegally moving his three young children from their Kansas home to the Gaza Strip insists they are safe despite the ongoing bombings his 9-year-old daughter describes hearing while playing with her Barbie dolls.
Ahmed Abuhamda was charged in Kansas with aggravated interference with parental custody after he took his children overseas earlier this year amid a custody dispute with their American mother. He told The Associated Press in an interview that while he believes the family is in no real danger, as a Muslim he has taught his children that everybody has to die one day.
"The kids they accept whatever is going on here and they know that if their time is coming, it is going to come no matter what," Abuhamda, 40, said in the interview Tuesday. "Nothing is going to stop it."
But such talk only heightens fears for the children's safety from their already distraught mother, Bethany Gonzales, who lives in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.
"How do you say to your kids, `If you die then it is OK?' You don't talk to your kids like that," Gonzales said. "You are supposed to be encouraging and nurturing your kids and, you know, wanting them to grow up and have a future."
Despite the threat of bombings from Israel following Gaza's intensifying rocket attacks, Abuhamda said his family is living in a part of the city he believes is safer than the border areas.
Still, evidence of the ongoing conflict is within earshot. Nine-year-old Jannah Abuhamda told AP in a phone call from Gaza that she can hear the barrage of bombings as she plays with her Barbie dolls in her father's home, but insists she is not scared.
"It is normal, like if I didn't go to school," Jannah said. "I still do my homework. I study for my tests, even (with) bombings."
Under the couple's 2008 divorce decree, the children – who in addition to Jannah include her brothers 14-year-old Jehed and 11-year-old Edhem _lived with the father and the mother had visitation rights. Last month, the mother was granted temporary sole legal custody and residential placement of the children, court documents show.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children put the children's pictures and information on their online postings of family abductions.
But the Kansas mother has limited political and legal means available to her in the Gaza Strip, a largely isolated and impoverished Palestinian territory ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas. The Gaza Strip is a densely populated coastal enclave of 1.7 million people.
Gonzales said the U.S. State Department has told her it can't send anybody into the Gaza Strip to do a welfare check or get the children and has advised her not to go there to get them herself.
"It really, really bothers me that nobody can do anything about it," she said. "These are American kids ... and nobody is helping me at all."
A federal court filing alleges Abuhamda used his sister's wedding in Gaza to convince his ex-wife to sign off on passport applications for the children. He picked up the three children from school Feb. 21, but instead of returning the children in March, he unlawfully kept them in Gaza, according to court documents.
The initial divorce decree allowed Abuhamda to move the children overseas, provided he had their mother's permission. Abuhamda has denied all wrongdoing and has steadfastly insisted his ex-wife knew he was not returning with the children. Gonzales said that's untrue.
Abuhamda told AP that the children want to stay with him in Gaza where they have family who love and care about them. He said he allows them to talk with their mother when she calls.
"She is still their mother," he said. "I am not going to cut all the relations between the kids and their mother."
Gonzales said she recently put up her children's Christmas stockings at the Kansas home. Their bedrooms have remained untouched, left just as the children left them. On the Christmas tree is a mismatched ornament that her middle son got last year at the local Hallmark factory during a visit there a year ago with his mother.
"It is hard for me because I don't have my kids. My kids need to be home, and I don't have that," Gonzales said. "I don't have anybody helping me or even giving me a hope that they are going to return back to the States safely."