Why would a person flee one devastated, war-torn country to another? That’s the query most often asked of the approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Gaza in the years following the outbreak of their country’s civil war.
Most of the 250 Syrian refugee families in Gaza have Palestinian origins, and thus saw their journey here as a return to the lands their parents or grandparents lost in 1948 or 1967. However, about eight of the families are new to Palestine—arriving in another war-torn territory due to a variety of reasons, ranging from relatives already in Gaza to an unfriendly environment in their first destination, Egypt. .
Here are a few of their stories:
Hesham Alhurani, 40, is a Palestinian refugee from Syria. He lived a decent life in Damascus as a blacksmith, and owned land and a house there. Nevertheless, he says he found more “sincerity” in Gaza. "Although we lived in Syria our entire life, the Syrian regime used to treat us as worse than foreigners," Hesham says. "We felt homesick for Palestine all of the time. So when the clashes erupted in 2011, Gaza was the only destination we had in mind when we knew we had to flee."
The West Bank was not an option, he explains, due to Israeli control over who enters. He and the others were able to enter Gaza, however, through Egypt. "We knew Gaza is a devastated and a hard-to-live-in place, but it’s ‘home.’”
Mariam, a 24-year-old Syrian from Damascus, now is a senior in English literature at the Islamic University. She had been a student at Damascus University until she and her family were forced to flee to Gaza through the Sinai—which she remembers with a shudder as very risky due to snipers.
"After I came to Gaza, I married my cousin," Mariam says. "I named my daughter Sham (Syria in Arabic), because Syria means everything to me. I named her Sham because I want her to take me to Sham whenever I see her."
Although Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza was a harsh reminder of the violence they left behind in Syria, the most difficult part about moving to Gaza for these refugees is unemployment and the lack of affordable housing.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently agreed to provide some financial assistance, help with housing, health coverage and passports to Syrian families living in Palestinian territories after an appeal from one of the refugees in Gaza. However, the promises have fallen short of practice.
"Before the government of reconciliation was established [an attempt to unite Hamas and Fatah under one authority], we received payment for 18 months of rent,” explains Hesham. “But then, the government provided us with only six months' payment. Eventually the assistance stopped altogether. we had to leave the apartment then."
Instead, Hesham’s family, like several others, ended up in a caravan [trailer] in Alzahra City in the middle of Gaza. “Now we are enduring severe conditions—including extreme heat in summer and cold in winter," he says.
However, many of them are finding it difficult to re-establish themselves in their original professions.
"I tried to revive my career as a blacksmith. Some organizations helped me cover expenses so I could rent a place and buy some equipment, but due to the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel, there isn’t strong demand for my work. I had to give up the place I rented," Hesham sighs.
Rateeba Ahel, 54, is responsible for two families totaling 11 members—hers and her son's —and thus had to start her own business in Gaza to earn living. She opened a bakery in Gaza City. After her initial success, some charity organizations rewarded her with new equipment and ovens. Rateeba, along with her nine family members, left Syria’s Yarmouk camp for Palestinians in 2012, when clashes between the regime and the armed opposition erupted.
There also are social challenges. Although Syrian refugees are treated relatively well in Gaza, some have had difficulty fitting in. "My son is always called the 'Syrian' in school instead of his name," Rateeba says, adding that when her son was hit by a car, the school staff called her instead of rushing him to the hospital. “In the [Palestinian] Yarmouk camp in Syria, no one was called a refugee; we all were equal. I am disappointed in the Palestinians here and how they differentiate among each other."
On the other hand, Mariam observes that, "Some people here treat me very well only because I have a Syrian accent.” (The Syrian accent is perceived to be a prestigious dialect in Gaza)
Regardless of the hardship of unemployment, the lack housing and the threat of Israeli assault, some of the refugees say they prefer staying in Gaza, even if the war ends. "We are tired of running away. We lost everything in Syria, and we won’t risk building a new life. I don't want to feel homesick anymore. I am tired of being a foreigner forever," Hesham says. "Gazans are so kind and friendly. I am already feeling home. I am blessed."
Still, the Syrian refugees follow the news from their old home with grief.
"It is like World War II. The Syrian people are victimized; both the Syrian regime and the opposition are to blame. The regime is a racist oppressor, and the opposition is scattered and fragmented," Hesham sighed. “There is no one who deserves our loyalty.”