The Ones Who Got Away

A market in Gaza, Eid Al Fitr 2018. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi

A market in Gaza, Eid Al Fitr 2018. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi

Eid Al Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and is one of the most important holidays in Islam. This year Gaza celebrates Eid Al Fitr in the absence of thousands of young people who traveled out of Gaza via Rafah Crossing in search of a better future. Here are some of those stories.

Nearly half of the population in the Gaza Strip is under eighteen years old and more than two-thirds are under thirty. Unemployment rates among young people have risen dramatically in recent years; almost 70 percent of Gaza’s young adults are currently out of work. Even with a university degree and a profession, the odds of finding a job, or even short-term employment, are slim. Aid organizations in the Strip, even the most established and the largest, struggle to secure funding, while more and more families in Gaza are being forced to rely on their support. The prospects for an economic turn-around, given a host of circumstances and chief among them the closure imposed by Israel on the Strip since 2007, are bleak.

As time passes, the world seems to grow accustomed to the situation, as if it were a natural disaster rather than a man-made crisis: Gaza teeters on the brink of humanitarian collapse, pushed further with each increasingly destructive round of violence.

These are the conditions that drove mass protests along the fence separating Gaza from Israel in 2018. Protestors, many of them young people, hoped to be seen, to remind the world that they too deserve a future, a full life lived in peace, access to reasonable living conditions, and a solution to the conflict, including to the Palestinian refugee issue.

The re-opening of Rafah Crossing in May 2018, after five years in which it had been mostly closed, was hailed as one of the immediate outcomes of the protests. Since then, Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been open about five days per week. By the end of April 2019, a total of 83,559 exits to Egypt and 55,655 entries to the Strip were recorded at the crossing.

Only individuals meeting criteria for travel determined by Egypt are officially eligible to obtain permission to exit Gaza via Rafah: Foreign passport and residency holders, students with visas to Egypt or third countries, patients with referrals to Egyptian hospitals, and occasionally pilgrims en route to Mecca. In practice, there are also accounts of “special coordination,” people buying their freedom to cross for a price, which reportedly had reached as high as 3,000 USD during peak demand.

Recent media reports have posited that about 35,000 people have emigrated out of Gaza since May 2018. The World Health Organization told Gisha that 150 medical professionals left the Strip in this time. There are no official numbers available, but it’s certain that thousands have taken advantage of the opportunity to exit Gaza in the hopes of finding a better future, away from the poverty and feeling of hopelessness at home. And yet, the waiting list to get through Rafah is still extremely long. The journey from Gaza to Cairo, usually a 6-hour drive, can take 48 hours. Strict security procedures and the curfew enforced by the Egyptian army in the northern Sinai Peninsula between 6:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M. cause lengthy delays. The journey onwards from Cairo can be more arduous still.

Mohammed Abu Jumeiza, 37, left the Strip for Turkey via Cairo in August 2018. From there, he made his way to Greece using an “unofficial” route. He currently resides in a refugee camp on the island of Chios. “Six months on, I’ve realized that everything I’d heard [about Europe] was a pipe dream. The refugee camp lacks the most basic conditions. No one has any money or work. I want to go back to my wife and children. Many of those who’ve arrived here feel desperate and lost.” Mohammed yearns to return to Gaza, but he can’t. He doesn’t have the money for the journey, and if he returns to Turkey, he may be sent to jail since he did not leave the country through an official crossing.

Nivin, Abu Jumeiza’s wife, is 30-years-old and a mother of four. Nivin told Gisha that her husband left Gaza hoping to find a good job and bring the family over to be with him. He sold the birds he had been breeding for income, borrowed money from his sisters, and set off with several acquaintances. The family now has no source of income. “I stopped sending the kids to school,” she says, “because I couldn’t afford the transport costs. The principal asked me to send them back, now she pays for the transport herself. I’ve tried to find work, but I haven’t been able to. Every time we talk to Mohammed over the internet, we all cry. What drove him to make the trip was the same as many other young people, the terrible conditions here. Now I’d tell any young person to think a thousand times before they decide to leave, and I pray things get better here.”

Mohammed Salman, 33, studied accounting in Egypt and had been working as an accountant for civil society organizations in the Strip. He was laid off in 2018 and couldn’t find other work. In January 2019, he traveled to Belgium, where he applied for asylum. He’s still waiting for a response to his asylum application. “If I’d had the option of finding work in Gaza, I wouldn’t have taken on the costs of getting here,” he told Gisha. “My wife and children are still in Gaza. I’m very worried and feel a heavy sense of responsibility for them. Gaza is beautiful, but the situation there has become unbearable, and I had no choice left. I’m still waiting, I still don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Belgium is not what we’ve heard it is. Life here is not all honey.”

Mohammed Al Atrash, 24, used to work as a building-front designer in Gaza. As demand declined, he decided to try to emigrate. He traveled via Rafah Crossing to Turkey, where he made contact with a network that offers to help migrants get to Europe. They disappeared once he had paid them a large sum of money. He spent two months in Istanbul before returning to Gaza. “I feel lucky that I managed to return,” he admits. “I hear terrible stories about people who got in over their heads. Now I beg the young guys to think twice before they go.” Since his return to the Strip, Mohammed found work in renovations, where he is employed two days a week. He longs for things to get better.

Dr. Sami Aweidah is the director of a clinic run by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme in Gaza City. “Gaza residents feel they live in a big jail,” he told Gisha. “It’s the nature of the human spirit to seek freedom. On the one hand, the fact that there’s now a crossing operating regularly creates a certain sense of comfort. The crossing has enabled patients to travel for treatment and others to travel for education and work, or to visit family. On the other hand, there’s a direct correlation between depression, loneliness, even suicide, and financial distress. In the past, most of the patients were coming in to the clinic because of anxiety and post-traumatic stress [related to the conflict]. In the past two years, most people who come in suffer from depression and anxiety because of the dire economic situation. In my estimation, 90 percent of the ailments in Gaza stem from the financial situation. They can be treated and overcome by improving economic conditions.”

The dream of building a better life outside the Strip, a testament to the ever-deepening sense of hopelessness in Gaza, has pushed thousands to take advantage of the relative opening of Rafah Crossing. The opening of the crossing has met the needs of many who seek education, medical treatment, or employment abroad. But Rafah Crossing cannot meet the needs of Gaza’s two million residents for access. As long as Gaza is isolated from the West Bank and Israel, as long as it is cut off from its natural markets, as long as access to raw materials and equipment needed for industry is limited, as long as fishing and farming cannot be undertaken freely and safely, and as long as travel for the purpose of reaching education, professional development, medical care and family remains heavily restricted, so the future of young people in the Strip, and as a result the region as whole, will remain uncertain.

Gisha wishes Eid Mubarak to all those celebrating the holiday with family, and to all who are spending it far from their loved ones.

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