x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palestinians in Egypt exiled, forgotten

As Palestinians around the world recently marked the 65th anniversary of their mass displacement during the war over Israel's 1948 creation, the refugees in Gezirat Al Fadel say they have it worse than others who fled to Jordan, Syria or Lebanon.

A Palestinian refugee prepares food for her children in their house in Gezirat Al Fadel village, Sharqiya, about 150 kilometres east of Cairo.
A Palestinian refugee prepares food for her children in their house in Gezirat Al Fadel village, Sharqiya, about 150 kilometres east of Cairo.

GEZIRAT AL FADEL, Egypt // In 1948, Suleiman Mamoudi fled on foot with his parents and other families from their village of Bir El Sabae in Palestine. The 28-year-old and his family walked west for hundreds of kilometres, crossing the Sinai Peninsula before settling in an area about 145 km north of Cairo.

They had not planned to stay long in Egypt's Sharqiya province, until they found themselves unable to return home after the Jewish takeover of their home, renamed Beersheba.

Mr Mamoudi, now 93 years old, is among about 3,000 Palestinians living in the impoverished village of Gezirat Al Fadel. He spends his days sitting on a cushion on the ground outside his sparsely furnished two-bedroom, mud-brick home. The dirt roads make it difficult for him to walk with his cane.

He lives with his 13 children and 28 grandchildren. Like his neighbours, they sleep on mats spread in the corridors of the house.

His neighbour, Khadra Mohammed, 52, lives in a 50 square metre mud-brick house with 19 of her family members. Inside one of the rooms is a rickety bed and a fan hanging from a ceiling covered with spider webs.

Mr Mamoudi has seen three generations of Palestinians from Bir El Sabae born here without access to free education and health care, a right afforded to Egyptians. He says their plight is forgotten and the area they live in ignored.

As Palestinians around the world recently marked the 65th anniversary of their mass displacement during the war over Israel's 1948 creation, the refugees in Gezirat Al Fadel say they have it worse than others who fled to Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. Unlike the millions who live in refugee camps there, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) does not have offices in Egypt and so does not offer Palestinians in the country assistance.

For residents here, there is no foreseeable return from the "Nakba" or "catastrophe" - the term they use to describe when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes during the fighting.

The Palestinians of Gezirat Al Fadel have had to fend for themselves, and are not allowed to hold public sector jobs.

The vast majority of adults and children are illiterate, unable to afford even the low cost of a nearby government-run school. Many of the children, barefoot with torn clothes, spend their days helping adults sift through garbage to find what can be recycled, one of the few ways to earn a meagre living in this tiny village.

Others work in nearby farms and are paid in wheat grains. The women then sift the wheat and grind it by hand to make bread.

A typical home has a roof made of straw and palm leaves. Some families have old refrigerators, while others do not. The homes have no kitchens, so women cook on small, portable gas stove-top burners. They rock toddlers to sleep in a blanket that is tied from all four corners by a rope slung over the shoulder.

They are a tight-knit community and intermarriage between first cousins is common, leading to birth defects among many of the village's children. One family has two deaf children, but lacks the funds to offer the young girls the special care they require.

While many know nothing more of life beyond Gezirat Al Fadel, they say they have not lost their connection to Bir Al Sabae. They say they dream of returning to their land in hopes of living a more dignified life and leaving behind this almost forgotten corner of Egypt, a nation already burdened by a population boom and widespread poverty.