Palestine refugees from Syria lose hope in Gaza

Ruwaida Amer

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 30, 2023

It was not the way it was meant to be.

When Alaa Barakat came to Gaza from Syria in 2012, he had hoped for a brighter future.

But going from Syria’s conflict to Gaza turned out to be swapping one troubled place for another.

“We lived a very happy life in Syria [until the fighting started],” Barakat, 52, told The Electronic Intifada. “I had a job and a house. I provided my children with everything they needed.”

According to Gaza’s Department of Refugee Affairs, 365 Palestinian-Syrian families came to Gaza in 2012-2013 to escape Syria’s fighting.

For many, the choice of Gaza now feels like the wrong decision. Many wish they had tried to go elsewhere.

Barakat is originally from Gaza and still has family there, but he was born in Syria and is now assessing his options. He wants to save his children from a difficult life in Gaza, but sees no easy way of securing this.

“My friend returned to Syria with his disabled children because he felt he couldn’t raise them [in Gaza]. He has found the conditions [in Syria] much worse.”

He and his family’s constant homelessness is taking its toll, and refugee agencies, whether UNRWA, the body specifically for Palestine refugees, or UNHCR, the body that cares for all refugees, are of only limited help.

“Do you think I can pay rent for a house and meet the expenses of five people by driving a taxi?” Barakat, a father of four, said.

Few good options

Iman Alulu, 42, remembers fondly her life in Aleppo.

Her husband of Palestinian origin ran a taxi office and worked in real estate and her four children were well cared for. Things, she said, changed in Gaza, though not until after Israel’s 2014 military assault.

“Perhaps the best year was the first year,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “After the 2014 war, problems with rent, work etcetera, began to appear.”

Israel’s 2014 aggression on Gaza cost the impoverished coastal strip some half a billion dollars, and led to a spike in unemployment and poverty.

Today, Alulu said, she and her family live under constant threat of eviction since they can’t always pay the rent on time.

“I have no social network here, neither friends nor relatives,” Alulu said. “My children sometimes need a tutor to help them with their studies, which unfortunately comes out of the limited money that we have to pay for rent and other necessities.”

The recent devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey also caused her great distress, not only because they were a reminder that returning home was still not an option.

With brothers still in Aleppo and one sister in Homs, it took four days for her to reconnect with them, days of worry over their wellbeing.

“My brothers told me they had lost their homes [to the earthquake] but had all escaped unharmed.”

She also has brothers who had left Syria for Lebanon. Their homes were damaged during aftershocks, and they had had to sleep in their cars.

“I worry about all of the Syrians who are now homeless. They have neither homes nor shelter.”

Losing hope

Mahmoud Shawish, 75, has experienced displacement for decades. Originally from Gaza, his family left after the 1967 occupation and eventually wound up in Kuwait where he lived for 20 years.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he had saved enough money to start a new life in Syria, but, 22 years on, Syria’s conflict broke out.

“I lost everything. I had no choice but to return to Gaza.”

Shawish lives in his brother’s house in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. His brother lives in Britain and Shawish pays him rent.

Housing is the biggest issue for those who came from Syria, conceded Rami al-Madhoun of Gaza’s refugee affairs’ department. The department is in contact with other official bodies to address the issue with a view to housing everyone in apartments, Al-Madhoun told The Electronic Intifada.

However, of the 365 families who originally came to Gaza, only 179 remain, according to al-Madhoun. The rest found the conditions too difficult.

So from that perspective, Shawish is lucky. Many refugee families are unable to find adequate housing, forcing some to leave Gaza.

Some of them tried to emigrate through regular channels while most – denied such official options by immigrant hostile policies elsewhere – tried to reach Europe in boats. The result can be the tragedy of refugees drowning at sea.

“I had a very dear friend who lost hope in Gaza and went to emigrate to a European country. But he drowned in the sea.”

Shawish said some of the families who had come from Syria had formed a committee to liaise with relevant institutions, including from the Gaza administration, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as well as UNRWA and UNHCR.

The results have been mixed. The families managed to secure Palestinian IDs through the PA in the West Bank (and ultimately with the permission of Israel), while local authorities provided funding allowing them to waive the fees.

They also secured two years of rent from UNRWA when they first arrived as well as a commitment from the local Gaza authorities to find them temporary work.

According to Thomas White of UNRWA in Gaza, families who came from Syria are also eligible for the agency’s “education and health services” in Gaza as well as cash and food assistance.

For his part, Rami al-Madhoun said Gaza’s authorities are working with universities to provide refugees with grants, and other departments for financial assistance.

It is too little too late for people like Alaa Barakat, who is now taking medication for depression.

“No one cares about us. Life has become more difficult with each successive war in Gaza and the deteriorating economy. I am exhausted.”

Ruwaida Amer is a journalist based in Gaza