NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Just nine days ago, a nurse from Connecticut was among the first Americans evacuated from Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.
Emily “Cali” Callahan spoke with News 8’s Kathryn Hauser for her first television interview in Connecticut after narrowly escaping the horror and bloodshed of the war.
Watch part one of News 8’s special report in the video below.
While caring for civilians, Callahan moved from location to location under the threat of rocket fire, gunfire and bombings, unsure if she’d make it out alive.
“There were rockets firing from 100, 200 meters away and bombs landing 100, 200 meters away,” Callahan said.
She is a survivor.
“Everyone is asking me, ‘How are you?’ And I don’t know. It’s complicated to be back. I feel like I have one-half of myself in each one of the worlds.”
That other world is Gaza, where the 33-year-old began her second mission with Doctors Without Borders to work at an Indoseian-backed hospital in August.
“That’s mostly what my job is,” Callahan said. “I go into hospital settings and focus on ‘how do you give civilians with limited access – the best possible care in the context that they live in.'”
Callahan knew the risk of escalation in Gaza. Although protocols were in place, nothing could prepare her for what happened in early October.
“When I woke up on Oct. 7, it was 6:30 in the morning, and I woke up to rocket fire, and it was a lot,” she said.
Callahan said she quickly opened all the windows of her guest house to prevent the glass from shattering due to the shockwaves. Her team then held an emergency meeting with their boss.
“You could see his fear,” she said. “He started to say they took AIRAS, and there is a ground and air infiltration in Israel, and it’s bad.”
In her family’s kitchen, Callahan showed News 8 video of what it was like in the days after Hamas stormed southern Israel.
She soon became familiar with the distinct sounds of war.
“They sound different,” Callahan said. “So a rocket launch outgoing sounds different than an airstrike incoming. And so you could hear it and figure out pretty quickly, is it outgoing or incoming.”
With little food or water, she said she and her team members spent days moving from location to location to find shelter and evade targeted bombings.
“There was a crowd of people outside, and they had parked cars in front of our garage,” Callahan said. “And they were saying that if we didn’t bring them in the convoy, they were going to kill us.”
Barricaded, with no way out, Callahan said she went to a bunker and sent a text to her family that no one ever wants to make.
“I said, ‘I love you. I want you to know that I’m not scared. I’m OK, and I’m going to fight like hell to come home. I’m going to do everything that I can to get out, and if I don’t, thank you for everything.'”
Incredibly, she said, they managed to leave that location with the help of local Palestinians.
“They are the ones who talked down 300 people ready to kill us,” Callahan said.
They spent days on the move, traveling from location to location, seeking safety and shelter.
Watch part two of News 8’s special report in the video below.
“You don’t get to be a person anymore,” Callahan said. “You don’t get to matter in the equation. You need to keep the people around you safe. You need to keep the people around you alive.”
She stayed close with her coworkers during a time of chaos and uncertainty.
“The bond you have with the other people you are working with, who are witnessing the same thing you are witnessing, it’s incredible,” Callahan said. “You become family very quickly.”
She said they encountered life-threatening situations along the way amid the constant sounds of deadly gunfire, rockets, and missiles.
“What a lot of people in Gaza do, during escalations or during a time of war, is they take a Sharpie marker and write the names of their children on their legs so that if they die, they are identifiable,” she said.
Callahan said she and her team headed south, eventually to a makeshift tent city at a United Nations logistics base parking lot.
“There’s still bombs going off very close to where we are,” she said. “There’s still rockets flying very close to where we are, and this place is filling up with people, and I know we do not have enough food, water, running water, or anything.”
They were joined by tens of thousands of others fleeing the war, sleeping outdoors with little resources. She said Palestinian nationals helped them get by.
“I owe them my life in every way you can imagine, from basic survival needs of food and water to seeing beyond labels,” Callahan said.
They spent more than two weeks in that parking lot camp, with unsanitary and difficult conditions. Every day, they waited for word about getting to the Rafah border.
“Abraham had all of our passports in a stack and fought his way to the front of every mob scene and made sure there was someone advocating for us,” she said. “I remember even then, considering staying, I could go against the direct order to leave. I could stay.”
But she did cross the border into Egypt, a move she questioned.
“I remember my family at one point on the phone asking me to choose to live.”
Back in Connecticut, Callahan continues to process what happened during her time in war-torn Gaza. Her thoughts are still with the people and coworkers she left behind.
She wants people to know “that the numbers on your screens are more than just statistics, that there are people, real people, innocent people dying. The scream a mother makes when she loses a child is the same in every language, and watching grown men crumble under the weight of grief is the same in every culture.”
Callahan said she would return to Gaza to help with the humanitarian medical effort if given the chance.