The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Tsunami tragedy forms a Palestinian-Israeli friendship

An act of kindness by a Lutheran Palestinian couple enabled an Israeli couple to reach home after the Dec. 26 tsunami, which left almost 150,000 people dead and thousands more injured, hit southeast Asia just after Christmas.

Sally and Sami Khoury, both 29, and Yossi and Inbar Gross, both 30, found themselves stranded together on their hotel roof in the resort area of Phuket, Thailand, but the Grosses lost their passports as well as money in the tsunami. The two couples stuck together until they reached the airport the next day.

"I didn't even think of them as being Israelis. My first instinct was to do the humane thing, to help them," said Sami Khoury, from East Jerusalem, who gave the Grosses money to buy airplane tickets. "I can see the interest in a Palestinian helping an Israeli, but the thought didn�t even cross our minds at the time," he said.

The Khourys had just finished eating breakfast on their first morning at the beach when they noticed a crowd gathering near the shore. Not knowing what it was, they also walked down to see.

"At first people didn't realize what was happening," recalled Khoury from Jerusalem a week after the disaster. "Then we saw yachts floating too close to shore and the beach chairs were floating away in the water. There were was a huge suction and the beach suddenly disappeared."

Within seconds a looming wave of about 25 feet — Khoury said he could gauge the height of the wave because he compared it to the Israeli separation barrier that cuts through his East Jerusalem neighborhood — crashed down upon them.

"I just grabbed my wife's hand and started running straight for the hotel," he said.

Cars were floating by and if they had not taken a straight path for the beach they may have never made it to the hotel, he said. Even as they reached the hotel's inside stairwell, rushing to reach higher ground, the first floor was flooding and the water lapped up toward the second flight of stairs.

"There were people who were just behind us who didn't make it," Khoury said.

The Grosses, from the southern city of Kiryat Gat, were on their honeymoon and had also made their way to the roof along with some other 30 people. There the two couples met and decided to stick together until all were safely on their way back home.

"Maybe because they were a young couple like us, maybe because after all we were all from here, but they are the ones we spent most of the time with. We just decided to stick together," said Khoury, who before the intifada (uprising) worked in tourism and had a lot Israeli work acquaintances. "They were a very nice couple and even if we hadn�t met under such circumstances we probably would have gotten along."

The four watched helplessly as below them two more waves approached the shore, dragging people away before their eyes. The worst part, Khoury said, was the lack of information of not knowing what was happening and what to expect.

Finally they climbed down from the roof to try to reach safer ground. The water had not reached their second floor rooms and so both couples could retrieve their belongings. The Gross' money and passports were lost in the hotel safe on the first floor.

They managed to stop a van that took them to Phueket city, and there the Khourys paid for a hotel room and dinner for the Grosses that the night. The Khourys found places on a flight back to Tel Aviv for the following morning before the Grosses, but the two couples went to the airport together. There the Khourys gave the Grosses some money to help them buy tickets.

"Sami and Sally are wonderful people. We spoke on the human level and it didn't matter [where he came from]. I know we now have new friends who are very good people and I really appreciate them," said Yossi Gross in a phone interview, adding that he never before had personal contact with Palestinians.

The two couples have been in daily contact since their return, said Khoury, probably because, of all their friends and family, they are the ones who best understand what each has gone through.

"My wife and I both agree we made two new friends. We will definitely stay in touch with them. We plan to see them very soon," Khoury said.

Only now in the safety of his home, is he able to comprehend how lucky they were, Khoury said. If he had been successful in his attempts to be assigned a beach-side bungalow, or if they had opted to take an early morning tour or finished breakfast a few minutes earlier, things may have turned out much differently, he said.

"We were very lucky. We didn't realize the magnitude of the tragedy until we got home. It is too much to fathom," said Khoury, noting that he and his wife are donating both of their December salaries to the relief effort. "My faith has gotten much stronger — to an individual level. Maybe we had a guardian angel. We are more appreciative of what we have. Both Sally and I have new birthdays, and that is Dec. 26."


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Embracing diversity