Mohammad Farid Yousef’s family has been detained at Cairo airport for almost a month. They left the Gaza strip in the aftermath of Israel’s recent 51-day invasion this past summer, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians and injured 11,000 more, creating widespread destruction.
Since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, an estimated 191,000 people have been killed, including over 2,000 Palestinian refugees. Three million have been displaced, with refugee camps sprouting in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. A further 6.5 million are internally displaced, meaning that half of the Syrian population in total have fled their homes.
Prior to the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohammad Al-Morsi, Syrians and Palestinian Syrians could obtain a visa from the airport in Egypt, which encouraged a number to set up life there, until Syria was safe enough to go back to. Yet the 30 June military coup, the rising xenophobia and hateful media incitement endangered the lives of Syrians and Palestinians living there, forcing many of them to flee elsewhere.
Mohammad and his family fled the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 2013. They arrived in Gaza through the Rafah border crossing in April of the same year after a brief stop in Egypt, deciding that they could at the very least lead a dignified life in the coastal enclave.
“We had nowhere to go,” Mohammad, 29, told the Middle East Monitor. “I came to Egypt during Morsi’s reign with relative ease, but the negative attitude of the Egyptian people towards us and their exploitation made my family rethink our options. We found we had nowhere to go except Gaza, especially since travelling by boats from Egypt to seek asylum in Europe had not started then. It began in May, a month after we had already left to Gaza.”
The Palestinian refugee population in Syria had numbered around 600,000. Now, almost half have escaped the fighting in search of security and stability, but face heavy restrictions by various Arab governments, such as Lebanon, which has announced it will not grant entry to Palestinian Syrians.
According to Atef Alamawi, the Director of the Monitoring Committee for Refugees from Syria to Gaza, more than 350 Palestinian Syrian families have fled to Gaza. They are made up of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Syria, including those who are originally from Gaza but have spent the last few decades in Syria.
“What ties us together is that we are all refugees of war who left behind all of our possessions,” Alamawi said. He moved to Gaza with his family from Yarmouk camp two years ago. “We came to Gaza in search of security, stability and a decent life among our Palestinian brethren despite the siege imposed. The majority of us did not have a substitute for Gaza – in addition to not having enough to start our lives over, the other neighbouring countries did not accept us.”
The government of Hamas have given benefits to those families, such as waiving tuition fees for university students, paying the rent for those who cannot afford to, and allocating government stipends – all without the bureaucratic requirements of visas or residency documents. Hamas has also employed one person per family. Yet since signing the unity agreement with Fateh in April 2014, salaries (which are now under the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah) have not been paid to employees.
Writer and poet Shafiq Taluli points out that aid from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) does not measure up to the required level. “They do not cover housing rents and give mostly food parcels and a sum of money that is barely equal to 100 dollars to each family,” he explained, “and that is not enough because of the high living expenses.”
A number of Palestinian Syrians and Syrians have left the Strip after the last Israeli attack, either back to Syria or to Europe by way of migrant boats, but the reason for choosing Gaza in the first place is varied. “Some were encouraged by family members already in Gaza,” Taluli said, “whereas some were left stranded and had no other place to go. Others arrived on the basis that they were going back to part of their original country.”
Recently the Swedish government has agreed to grant Mohammad Yousef’s family asylum, and they are waiting to fly there from Cairo airport. When Mohammad attempted to rejoin his family in Cairo, the Egyptian border officials at the Rafah crossing humiliated him and turned him back, perpetuating his forced separation.
80 per cent of Gaza’s population is made up of refugees, and the irony of Mohammad becoming a refugee within Palestine after spending his entire life as a Palestinian refugee in Syria is not lost on him.
“It’s a scummy feeling being a refugee inside your own country,” he said. “In Syria we’re Palestinians and in Gaza we’re called Syrians. Friends here record my name on their cell phones as Mohammad Al-Soori (the Syrian). But Gaza remains better than the rest of the countries in the region for a simple reason: no one understands your pain except those who have experienced it.”
He is currently finishing studying communication engineering at the Islamic University in Gaza, but has one thing on his mind.
“I want to immigrate,” he declares. “The people in Gaza have been warm and welcoming to us, they treat us like angels that fell out from the sky, but I can’t continue to live here because the future is unknown and I don’t want to lose any more than I already did. I know that I won’t die of starvation here, but I cannot go on living on benefits and aid in light of the scarcity of employment opportunities.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.