If you’ve protested against the occupation of Gaza in or around Los Angeles, you might’ve seen the Choo Bus. 

It’s a 2009 Thomas School bus that Mahmoud Abed and Kara Masteller take to protests to memorialize and humanize the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military in recent months.

Abed and Masteller met in Los Angeles through mutual friends in 2018, shortly after Abed acquired the school bus. Once they met, Abed started taking the school bus out to Black Lives Matter protests, Palestinian liberation marches, and other actions in and around LA. 

“I removed two letters off the back of ‘school’ and just left it as ‘choo bus,’ and people started calling it the Choo Bus. Every time I would pull up to a protest, everyone would start clapping and cheering, and I’m like, well people really seem to love this,” Abed said. He saw the bus as a way to gather more eyes towards Palestine.

The duo’s friendship eventually blossomed into a romantic partnership. Now, the couple is engaged to be married and is using the Choo Bus at Palestinian liberation protests throughout LA.

Israel’s current bombing campaign began after Hamas fighters broke through the barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Israel on October 7, 2023, and killed around 1,200 Israelis. Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion against Gaza, destroying schools, hospitals, homes, and more, and blocking aid. As of publication, Israel has killed at least 31,774 Palestinians since October 7. A key UN representative said there are “reasonable grounds” that Israel is committing the crime of genocide in the region, according to CNN. 

According to the UN’s top court, over a million people in Gaza are now facing mass famine. “We’re seeing the highest hunger level of anywhere else in the world in terms of total numbers,” WFP Palestine Country Director ad interim Matthew Hollingworth said in a statement last month. 

The names of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military are written on the bus. (Ryanne Mena / LA Public Press)

In November, Al Jazeera published the names of thousands of Palestinians who had since been killed by the Israeli military, which sparked an idea in Masteller’s mind. “We have the names. We should write them on the bus,” she said. Masteller and Abed called a few of their friends and family members to help out.

“To put it in perspective, to write about 2,500 names took us about 40 hours,” said Masteller. The duo then took the bus out to the streets.

“We ended up going to one of the protests in Downtown LA. We passed out as many Sharpies as we could and we had the names printed, made sure everyone was crossing off each name as they were writing it down. Almost everyone at the protest took a Sharpie and started writing names down. Once their wrists got tired, they passed the Sharpie to somebody else,” Abed said.

With the Choo Bus, Abed and Masteller aim to introduce Angelenos to Palestinian culture and to Mahmoud, “letting him tell his story so they can connect a face to the cause,” said Masteller.

For Abed, Gaza isn’t a far-off place. Abed, his parents, and his five siblings went on a trip to Gaza in 2006. The trip was only supposed to last for a couple of months but turned into two years. Their father was able to leave Gaza on his own, and he went back to the US to make money to send back to his family, including Abed, in occupied Gaza.

“They opened and closed the [Egyptian-Rafah] border all the time, and sometimes for months at a time. So we were there with the intention of just staying a couple of months and we ended up staying for like six months, and at that point we kind of just gave up on leaving,” Mahmoud said. He also said the US embassy was of no help, and Israeli officials didn’t do anything to help the family.

Ten-year-old Abed didn’t mind; he loved Gaza. “You feel like it’s such a safe place to be just because you’re surrounded by everyone that loves everyone,” he said.

He was surrounded by family members, many of whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. “I never wanted to leave,” Abed said.

Abed was living in Gaza when Israel put the occupied Palestinian territory under an indefinite blockade, which Human Rights Watch has called an “open-air prison.”

“There were times where we’d get picked up for school and drive half the way, and then the school bus would turn around and drop everyone back off home because the streets were a mess and it was too dangerous for us to go to school,” said Abed.

In 2008, when Abed was 12 years old, an Israeli airstrike hit close to the family’s home. “We just heard huge explosions. Iit was a five-minute walk from where we lived, and there [were] multiple airstrikes…. And everyone there was killed,” Abed said.

A portrait photo of Mahmoud Abed sitting in the Choo Bus.
Mahmoud Abed says he remembers leaving Gaza in 2008. (Ryanne Mena / LA Public Press)

That’s when life in Gaza for Abed and his family changed. Leaving Gaza, even as US citizens, was challenging. Although Abed did not want to leave Gaza, the family managed to leave in 2008. “That’s where my heart is and it’s where it will always be.… If I had the opportunity to go back today I would,” Abed said.

After a three-hour bus ride and a 30-minute walk, Abed, his mother, and five siblings arrived at the Israel border. “It was so hot out, and there was this gate we had to go through, and one of the Israeli soldiers thought we were walking too slow, so they started shooting in the air,” Abed said. People started panicking and squeezing themselves into a door meant for one person to go through at a time.

“In my mind, I’m like, I haven’t been killed yet, so I can’t die,” Abed said. “I wasn’t scared, I just stared [the Israeli soldier] dead in the face, and once we were through that gate, I actually did spit towards the guy. Obviously it was far enough to where it wouldn’t hit him, but I was just so mad.”

Growing up in Southern California, Abed and his siblings were often the only Palestinians in their school. “I got called a terrorist a lot,” he said. Talking to his father and other family members who have had their own brutal experiences in Gaza and experiences of racism and Islamophobia in the US helped young Abed cope with reality and life in the United States as a young Palestinian man.

Islamophobia and antisemitism have been on the rise in the US since October 7.

Today, Abed and Masteller want to show the world that Palestinians are so much more than their pain and suffering. They plan on filling the Choo Bus with Palestinian music, books by Palestinian authors, art by Palestinian artists, and a small kitchen with Palestinian food. The duo also aims to humanize Palestinian lives beyond a death toll number.

“Everybody just wanted to do something, but what the hell do you do?” Masteller said. “You can’t help but think about that person as you write their name. And even though that person will never know and their family will never know [about the Choo Bus], you’re saying their name to yourself being like, ‘I see you, I know you exist. I wish that your name wasn’t on this list. I almost wish I didn’t know your name.’”

Protesters write new names and messages on the bus at each protest and rally Abed and Masteller attend. Currently, there are about 8,000 names written on the Choo Bus. 

“That’s the least that we can do, spend our weekends going to protests,” Abed said.

Going forward, Abed and Masteller plan on traveling with the Choo Bus all across the country within the next year. Upcoming bus renovations include adding a library, kitchen, bathroom, and more.

“The end goal is to have a traveling museum that we could go to pretty much every state and talk to as many people as we can, and just spread the word. It doesn’t have to even be protests, it could just be spreading our culture.… And let them have a taste of Palestine,” Abed said.

“I feel like one person could affect another six people, and those six people could affect another one thousand people.… It’s not about changing minds, not about them having to choose sides. We just want our side of the story out there,” Abed said. “It’ll never be fair, but we still have our side of the story out there for people to hear.”

Leave a comment