Maya Roman — the family member of two women kidnapped by the U.S.-labeled terrorist organization Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023 — spoke in front of over 120 students at Tufts Hillel on Wednesday. At the Hillel-branded “Critical Conversations” event, Roman spoke about her experience and subsequent activism to earn the release of Israeli hostages — including one of her family members still held captive.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Roman awoke to the sound of missile alarms ringing through her brother’s apartment. While missile alarms are common in Israel, according to Roman, she said that she first became concerned when she started receiving WhatsApp messages from those in the Israeli media.
“Very quickly I started getting a lot of WhatsApp messages telling me that something unusual was happening,” she said.
Her concerns grew when her cousin, Yarden Roman-Gat, failed to respond to relatives’ messages. Roman-Gat, along with her husband Alon Gat and daughter Geffen, was visiting her husband’s family for holiday in Be’eri, a kibbutz just over five miles away from the Gaza Strip at the time of Hamas’ attacks.
Roman heard only rumors of what had happened until Gat informed the family via phone the following day.
“At about 10 a.m., armed terrorists entered their home,” Roman said. “Even though they lived in the south, no one really thought that something like this could happen, so they didn’t take it as seriously as you might assume people would take it, even when they saw the alarms were going off.”
According to Roman, Gat informed the family that he, Roman-Gat and Geffen were put into a car headed to Israel’s border. When the car briefly stopped, Roman said, the family ran from the car with Roman-Gat holding her 3-year-old daughter.
“At a certain point, the terrorists started shooting and Yarden realized that she couldn’t run fast enough,” Roman said. “So she gave her daughter over to her husband so he could run faster and hide. She stayed behind.”
Roman said that Gat and his daughter hid in a ditch covered with shrubs for hours before encountering the Israeli military, who allowed him to call his family. Roman-Gat, along with her husband’s sister, Carmel Gat, were taken captive and brought into the Gaza Strip by Hamas.
According to a post made by Hillel’s Instagram account, Roman has been a large contributor toward the campaign to rescue the Israeli hostages. Now on her second trip to the U.S. since Oct. 7, Roman has spoken to U.S. senators and met with the State Department on the issue.
After 54 days of captivity, Roman’s cousin was released by Hamas and reunited with her family in Israel. Carmel Gat, however, remains in captivity and in “quite harsh physical conditions,” Roman said.
“It’s probably the happiest moment of my life,” Roman said in reference to the reunion with her cousin. “It’s really strange to say that the happiest moment of your life is connected to the worst thing that happened to you.”
After recounting her family’s story, Roman — who “hopes and believes” the hostages will eventually be freed — fielded questions from the crowd gathered at Hillel. Roman wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Bring Them Home Now,” and a pendant with the phrase “Our hearts are captive in Gaza” written in Hebrew.
When asked about her preference for a specific deal to be made between Israel and Hamas, Roman said that she was “for any deal that can be reached” that would end in all hostages — Carmel Gat included — returned to their families.
“I also think that we should take what we can get and we should get the people that we can out of there as quickly as we can,” Roman said.
Roman also acknowledged that she is not a supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that she believes he could be doing more to earn the safe release of the hostages.
“He has stated that the war has two goals: bringing back the hostages and ending Hamas’ reign,” Roman said. “I think those two goals are very important, but we’re seeing that they don’t coexist at the same time, and I believe that bringing back the hostages takes priority.”
When asked to address the widespread weaponization of sexual violence on Oct. 7, Roman said her decision to refrain from the topic’s discussion was intentional.
“We don’t want to increase [hostages’] trauma by having the entire country talking about how they were sexually assaulted,” she said. “When they come back … they’re going to have to deal with that … so we’re in this terrible position where we want to talk about it. We want the world to know. But we want to protect the people that are actually suffering from it.”
Roman finally addressed what individuals could do on college campuses to bridge public opinion divided on the Israel-Hamas war.
“These are complex conversations that, at the end of the day, you can only have one-on-one or in small groups, not on social media,” Roman said.