“Before the war, Syria was an ‘open’ country. We could move around and live. I never travelled internationally but we knew that we could visit neighbouring countries like Lebanon or Jordan. Psychologically, knowing that you can move and travel is totally different to being here in Gaza. Now we are just stuck inside a big prison which we know we cannot get out of.”
These are the words of 43 year-old Eyad Yusef, who was born in Jaramana refugee camp in southern Syria into a Palestinian family who had been displaced forcibly from a village near Safad during the 1948 Nakba. Yusef says he had always dreamed about returning to Palestine and when he and his family fled from Syria in 2013 he felt that there was, at last, a chance of reaching at least one part of his homeland.
After reaching Lebanon, Yusef and his family flew to Egypt: “Once I reached Egypt I was told the easiest way to reach Gaza was through the tunnels. Passing through the tunnels only cost me 100 shekels and it took just a few minutes until I was inside Gaza.”
For Eyad Yusef and the other Palestinian refugees from Syria who entered Gaza through the tunnel system before it was largely destroyed, the realisation of what life in Gaza has become was painful. He told me that there are around 220 refugee families from Syria in Gaza, but there is no one to look after them. “I cannot work as I’m blind, and the [international] agencies — the Red Cross, UN and others — do nothing for us. We are entitled to support from UNRWA but it has no money. I have only received 900 shekels in the last 3 months from UNRWA.”
Yusef was not blind when he came to Gaza. He says that he began to suffer from very severe headaches before he finally lost his sight in January 2015. Doctors believe that his condition was brought on by stress. He now dreams of finding a way out of Gaza to find doctors, somewhere, who may be able to help him.
Another Palestinian refugee, whose family originates from Jaffa, has also faced medical difficulties since making the journey from Syria to Gaza via the tunnels in 2012.
“My son is sick,” explains 45 year-old Abdulhadi Shantaf. “His body cannot grow properly and doctors say that he needs injections of growth hormones every three days which we cannot afford. I am a plasterer but have not worked in three years. UNRWA promised us 900 shekels every month but, in reality, we only get 900 shekels every three months.”
Shantaf’s wife was born in Gaza and has a Palestinian ID. Whilst the tunnels were open she entered Gaza a couple of times to visit her family, but in 2012 when she returned to Syria she was detained and refused entry. Syrian officials told her that she must “go back to Gaza.” At that time, Shantaf knew that the only way he could be with his wife and children was to try and enter Gaza himself. “I had to keep my family together and I felt that at last I had a chance to enter Palestine, but from the first minute I knew I had made a mistake.”
During Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza, Shantaf and his family had work in Syria and he says that their situation was comfortable. Whist watching events in Gaza unfolding through the media, he says, his family were desperate to do something to help his people in the occupied Palestinian territory.
“My sons began saving their pocket money during the 2008 war and sent it to Gaza to help people. It was all we could do. When we came here and had nothing at all; we could not buy shoes or food for them to eat. One of my sons asked me, ‘Why did we save our money and donate it to them in 2008, and now no one will help us?’ I told him that we need help only from God. What else can I say to my boys?”
Shantaf appreciates the difficulties for everyone in Gaza. With a huge lack of employment opportunities and high poverty and aid dependence levels life is more than difficult for everyone trapped within the besieged coastal enclave. With his family in a desperate situation, though, it is hard for his children to understand. He says that they feel let down.
Although the vast majority of refugees from Syria who found their way into Gaza are of Palestinian origin, a small number of Syrians also arrived through the tunnels from Egypt. Among them was Muhannad al-Nabulsi, who arrived in 2012 following advice from a friend in Gaza: “I was very naive. I knew nothing about politics, Gaza or how difficult life really was here but my friend just advised me to meet him in Gaza and I came. The economic situation was a little better then than it is today, and I started a business. If I could leave today I would close my restaurant this minute, lock the door and just go, but there is no way out.”
Al-Nabulsi’s first business venture turned sour and he lost much of his savings, an experience through which he became bitter about business in Gaza. He insists, though, that “away from business people have always been good to me here.” Today he runs a small restaurant in Gaza City selling traditional Syrian “shawarma” sandwiches.
Syrian refugees internationally are under the care of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, yet the issue of UN support becomes more complicated in Gaza, because the UN agency looking after refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories is UNRWA. “Its mandate, however, is only for Palestinian refugees,” explains Al-Nabulsi. “For Syrian refugees in Gaza to get help from UNRWA they need to be married to a Palestinian, which I am not. So even the UN can’t help me here.”
According to UNHCR more than 11 million people have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria, of whom approximately 5 million have fled the country. Research by Medical Aid for Palestinians has found that of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees who were officially registered in Syria before 2011, more than half “have lost their homes” and more than 100,000 have fled the country. Millions of refugees are now dispersed around the world whilst thousands of others have died during the journey.
Muhannad Al-Nabulsi’s decision to go to Gaza after fleeing Syria still haunts him. He has learned quickly about the realities of life in Gaza and is desperate to escape the prison that Gaza has become: “Palestinian families in Gaza cannot feed themselves so how can anyone offer help to us? We went from war to war. Just show me a way to get out and I will go.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.