Hundreds of refugees found an unlikely shelter in the blockaded Gaza strip, but now inside they have little ability to flee
Fleeing war, Syrians in Gaza find themselves trapped
When Umm Wadiha fled her war-torn country, she hoped to find peace in exile. Instead, she travelled from one conflict to another. “What I have seen in Gaza, I never saw in Syria,” the 37-year-old mother told The National. “I want to tell everyone: do not come to Gaza.”
She hesitated for a second, then rolled up the sleeve of her blue abaya to reveal thick scars on her wrist. “Twice...” she whispered. “I tried to kill myself twice.”
With the conflicts that followed the 2011 Arab Spring, hundreds of refugees fled to the Gaza Strip in search of shelter.
The majority came from Libya and Syria followed by Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. The bulk are Palestinian refugees, scattered across the region by the formation of Israel 70 years ago, for whom their arrival in Gaza is the second or third time they’ve been displaced.
Many say they chose Gaza because of their extended family there or because of promises by Palestinian political leaders that they would receive help. Others say they had originally settled in Egypt, but didn't feel welcome or couldn't find work to support their families and decided to move to Gaza, which was relatively accessible a few years ago.
But within an impoverished and tightly blockaded strip, many say they only found more of what they were running away from.
Umm Wadiha's husband, Nabil, a Syrian man of Palestinian descent, thought they could rely on his relatives in Gaza to help them resettle and create a new life far away from Syria's bloody civil war. So with their three children, they smuggled themselves out of Yarmouk in 2013 – once one of the largest Palestinian camps just outside Damascus, it was besieged for years before a recent offensive by regime forces to reclaim it from ISIS militants who overran the area in 2015 almost obliterated the camp.
Out of Syria, Umm Wadiha and her family flew to Cairo before entering the strip through the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border.
But exactly a year later, a war broke out between Israel and Hamas. Umm Wadiha and her family took refuge in a school with dozens of other terrified civilians. Once the battle over, they found rubble where their new home had been and no way out. Most of the tunnels into the strip had been destroyed by the Israeli air force.
Nabil said he now regrets the move, telling The National that “When I entered the tunnel, deep down I knew it would be a one-way trip.”
One Syrian-born resident of Gaza also complained to The National about living under a new “authoritarian regime”, having escaped the Assad dynasty only to have his every move scrutinized by the Hamas.
“If it wasn't so difficult to get out of Gaza, we would all leave, myself included,” said Mohammad al-Shekh, the manager of a local NGO providing assistance to refugees who is one of those who also fled Syria. “We only want a job and our dignity. That's not something we were able to find here. We are trapped. It was easier to get in than it is to get out.”
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in partnership with international NGOs active in the strip, have been working to resettling some of those families abroad. So far, only a lucky few have made the trip and been resettled in Sweden.
The number of actors involved in the process makes it particularly convoluted. To be successfully resettled in the West, not only do refugees need to meet the UNHCR's criteria, they also have to be accepted by their future country – the most difficult part – and their file has to go through the Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Humanitarians working on resettlement have raised concerns about communicating cases to the Israeli authorities as people smuggled themselves in Gaza by using the tunnels.
The long wait can have dire outcomes. Last January, a 40-year-old Syrian woman living in Gaza died of a neurological disease while waiting for her asylum to be granted, hopefully in Europe, where she could receive treatment.
Moreover, others are not seen as a priority. Syrian refugees of Palestinian descent, like Nabil, “can also be seen as Palestinians living in a Palestinian Territory, so it's tricky,” a legal assistant to an international NGO told The National.
“I feel I don't belong anywhere. I am a stranger everywhere I go,” said Hosan Horami, 26, who fled from Syria to Gaza in 2011 after his grandfather fled from Palestine to Syria during the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, that saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced from their homes due to the creation of Israel.
While he dreams of leaving Gaza after experiencing two wars in two different countries, he says he doesn't have the will to flee again.
“Now, I have to be strong for my son,” Horami added. “And teach him what it means to be a refugee twice.”