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Final Stop: Why Syrian Refugees Have Ended Up In Gaza

Khaled's family is one of the 190 from Syria that have recently moved to poor and isolated Gaza. Doors elsewhere for refugees are closing, especially to the Palestinian minority fleeing Syria.

Sunset in Gaza
Sunset in Gaza
Francesca Paci

GAZA CITY - Gaza has again become one of the most forgotten places on earth. This may help explain why hundreds of Syrians fleeing the country's civil war have found refuge there.

As the war moves into its third year, having already claimed more than 120,000 lives, it may seem like a paradox that those who escape from hell are finding shelter in an open-air prison that's home to nearly two million Palestinians.

Still, the Syrians do not have much choice, as they are less and less welcome in other neighboring countries: from Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now account for nearly one-quarter of the population, to Jordan, which hosts Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp, to Turkey, every day more determined to close the border, not to mention post-Morsi Egypt where fleeing opponents of the Syrian regime are associated with the hated Muslim Brotherhood.

Gaza is the last option, says 46-year-old physician Khaled Hussein, speaking in the Gaza City apartment where he has lived since September with his wife and their 16-year-old daughter. In this faceless block apartment, the only sign of home back in Syria is a single hand-woven handkerchief.

He'd spent his adult life in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus, where he'd arrived with his family 25 years ago. "Soon after we arrived, I started working at the hospital," Hussein recalls. "Life was good. We had a nice house with a garden, the salary was good."

Hussein explained that the the system in Syria was organized differently from Lebanon, where he'd lived before and where "Palestinians have no rights." He said that he was not excluded from any line of work. "I have always kept away from politics and even when the revolt started three years ago, I was on the sidelines," he said.

A doctor's duty

But Assad soon after began to accuse Palestinians. "Things got complicated. As soon as some rebels came to take refuge in Yarmouk, we immediately became the targets of the loyalists," he said.

Then one day an injured commander of the Free Syrian Army arrived at the first aid where Hussein was working. "I performed surgery on him. It was my duty," he recalled. "Shortly after, a regime general came in, telling me to disconnect the oxygen tube. I am a doctor; I take care of sick people. I could not kill my patient."

Hussein tried in vain to explain. "But there was nothing to do: the general gave me 48 hours to leave the country. So I went back home, I picked up my wife and my daughter and fled to Lebanon with only a few clothes."

A recent Gaza rally in solidarity with Palestinians under siege in Syria (Mohammed Asad/APA Images/ZUMA)

Khaled’s story is similar to those of about 190 Palestinian-Syrian and Syrian-Syrian families who have wound up in Gaza over the past five months. After being mistreated in Lebanon, the family went to Jordan, and found more of the same. "If the Syrian refugees are unpopular, the Syrian-Palestinians cannot even set foot in the country," he said. "A taxi was waiting for us at the border with orders to take us directly to the port of Aqaba to embark for Egypt. But once in Cairo, it was a real nightmare."

President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had just been banished and the Syrian-Palestinians were considered spies and traitors. "We stayed two months living like animals, eating thanks to the aid of humanitarian organizations and we could not even take a shower," he explained. "Since I had relatives in Gaza I decided to play my last card: I waited for the Rafah crossing to be opened to spare my wife and my daughter at least the humiliation of going under the tunnel as thieves."

A waiter named Basem Shnar, had also fled Syria around the same time, and works in a small bakery in Gaza City. But he too does not want to talk politics. The Geneva 2 conference seems remote, a meeting among powerful countries that pass right over his head, and destiny. "I would like to rebuild my life in Europe or in America," Shnar said. "When I left to go to Gaza, the (clandestine) sea voyages from Egypt to Italy had not started yet, otherwise I would have left."

Gaza has its own problems, with an unemployment rate exceeding 40% and a fertile “business of the tunnels” across the Egyptian border, which has been destroyed by the Egyptian army, and left thousands of youths waiting for a contract.

Two-way street

Over the past two years, some young people have left Gaza to fight in Syria against Assad. A few months ago, 28-year-old Fahd al Habash recorded a message for his family living in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, asking not to mourn his eventual death. He said he wanted to go to Turkey to search for a job and did not mention Syria. Now it's up to his brother Shehata to explain to two little orphans that their father was killed near the Syrian city of Homs.

Since 2011, at least 30 Palestinian militants are believed to have left Gaza to join the Syrian rebels. However, the counter-exodus, Syrians arriving in Gaza, is much more significant. Before the crisis, at least half a million of Palestinians where living in Syria: they are refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, and their descendants.

According to the United Nations, the current fighting in Syria between government and rebels has forced at least 150,000 Palestinians to flee from the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Just few days ago, a young girl called Israa al Masri died of hunger in the camp, and her picture made global headlines.

Currently, the UN is taking care of at least 1,000 Syrian-Palestinians who fled to Gaza.

Hamza Issa, the Syrian chef of a new restaurant in Gaza City, chose to come here for different reasons. "I am fully Syrian but I had a very bad experience in Lebanon and Turkey, since it was too expensive. So I came to Gaza instead," he said.

Syrians are often skilled businessmen and traders, and Issa has reinvented his life in just a few months. But he doesn’t want to stay, "My girlfriend is still in Latakia (western Syria). She is not as conservative as the women here, she could not resist, but as soon as things improve I will return to Syria."

Ahmed, who works in a kebab kiosk, escaped with his family from Dara’a, in southern Syria, where the revolution against Assad began. "The Damascus government has massacred hundreds of thousands of citizens."

Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, severed its relationship with Damascus in 2011, embracing the Sunni cause sponsored by Qatar and Turkey. Those who live under its control, sympathetic or not, keep a low profile, so to receive $500 per family promised to Syrian refugees.

But this amounts to mere material and psychological crumbs. Home is back in Syria, while all that's left here is woven into that last remaining handkerchief.

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