Until recently, people who emigrated from Gaza had no great reason to return. The levels of unemployment and poverty are extremely high, the territory remains under siege and the threat of a major Israeli attack is ever present.
Then came COVID-19. Improbable as it may seem, the outbreak of this disease has prompted many of Gaza’s emigrants to come back.
Ahmad al-Masri, 25, is among them.
In March 2018, he was shot by an Israeli sniper as he took part in the Great March of Return protests to demand that Palestinian refugees have their rights upheld. Al-Masri’s right leg was badly injured by an exploding bullet.
After undergoing surgery in Gaza, he went to Cairo for further treatment toward the end of 2018. Once he had recovered sufficiently, al-Masri planned to leave for western Europe via Turkey.
Yet in August this year, al-Masri moved back to Gaza. Restrictions introduced by Egypt in response to the coronavirus meant that his options had narrowed.
“I was stuck in Egypt and ran out of money,” he said. “I actually had to borrow money so that I could return to Gaza. The pandemic has been very tough for people from Gaza who are looking for a new home.”
Return or starve
Large numbers of passengers have nonetheless traveled through Rafah whenever the crossing has been opened. During the first week in November, the United Nations monitoring group OCHA published data stating that approximately 21,000 people have entered Gaza this year.
A significant proportion of that number were emigrants coming back.
The phenomenon of emigrants returning is somewhat at odds with previous trends.
As part of efforts to make Gaza unlivable, Israel has reportedly been encouraging emigration from the territory for at least a few years. In 2018 alone, some 35,000 Palestinians left the territory.
Turkey has been a key destination for people emigrating from Gaza. The Turkish authorities are willing to issue 12-month residence permits to Palestinians.
Having arrived in Turkey, many Palestinians then try to enter western Europe. Doing so often requires paying a people smuggler and undertaking perilous journeys.
Refugees have few other choices. The European Union behaves in a highly repressive manner toward people fleeing hardship and war.
Earlier this year, Ismail Jamal, 30, was laid off from his job in an Istanbul hotel. That left him without any source of income and without anywhere to live.
He spent the next few months in temporary accommodation with other young Palestinians who have moved to Turkey.
Jamal, an English-language teacher, traveled to the country in November 2018. He had planned to venture toward Belgium yet that hope was never realized.
Because he could no longer make ends meet in Istanbul, Jamal is back living with his family in Gaza City.
“A lot of Palestinian emigrants have found it hard in Turkey,” he said. “They have been let go from jobs that didn’t pay enough in any event. The conditions got worse after the pandemic broke out. Many emigrants spent nights homeless on the streets. Others, including me, returned home instead of starving.”
“Generation of lost youth”
Muayad Ammar, 38, returned to Gaza on the same day as Ismail Jamal.
Ammar moved to Turkey in April last year. He found a job in a mall but was laid off after eight months.
Being jobless meant that he could not afford to live in the same place when the pandemic broke out. Rather, he had to move between different apartments.
Ammar hails from al-Shujaiyeh, a neighborhood in Gaza City. That area witnessed some of the worst atrocities caused by Israel during its 2014 attack on Gaza.
“I wanted to get away,” he said. “I wanted to get away from Israel’s bombings, the destruction and the sounds of drones.”
“But Turkey was not like I imagined it would be,” he added. “Life was hard there. Even when you find a job, you cannot build a good future from it. And then the coronavirus came and it forced me to return and suffer in Gaza.”
Mahmoud Ghanem, 30, graduated with a business degree from al-Azhar University in Gaza seven years ago. He tried his best to put his skills to use at home but wasn’t successful.
A grocery store that he set up in Gaza turned out to be a loss-making enterprise.
At the beginning of 2020, he emigrated to the United Arab Emirates. In May, he was laid off by the food company he worked for in Dubai.
Ghanem came back to Gaza in late September.
“When I returned to Gaza, I went back to zero,” he said. “Life is decent and satisfying in the UAE; we didn’t need to worry about things like electricity shortages. Coming back to Gaza means returning to the same problems that were there before I left: the problems with electricity and water, Israel’s bombs, the same political situation.”
He is planning to leave again once new opportunities present themselves for emigrants.
“I know that emigrating for a second time will be harder than the first,” he said. “But I will try to get out. There is a generation of lost youth in Gaza. Emigration is a way for us to make something of our lives.”
“Some people consider emigration to be a sign of weakness,” he added. “In fact, it takes strength to leave our families and the place where we were raised. It takes time to get established in other countries. We have to start from scratch.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.