Nassar al-Adeeni has vivid memories of how an uprising began in Syria more than five years ago.
At least 15 children were captured and tortured in Deraa, the city where he lived, after graffiti critical of the Damascus government was found on a school wall. The authorities’ “barbaric deeds were the main factors behind how the uprising spread quickly,” Nassar said.
Nassar took part in protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government. The protests were violently suppressed.
Nassar was arrested in 2012. After a few months in captivity, he managed to trick the guards and make a daring escape through an opening in a fence. He was astonished when he realized he had successfully escaped the confines of the hellish prison.
Nassar, now aged 26, is the only male child in his family. They are Palestinian refugees, who lived in Syria until a few years ago.
Nassar’s mother, Samar, was “scared to death when I was captured,” he said. “She was afraid that I would be killed – as happened to some other people inside the jails.”
Once Nassar escaped, Samar felt there was no option other than to flee Syria. She and her family headed to Egypt in 2013, the year that the country’s elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was ousted in a coup.
“The situation in Egypt was extremely tense at the time,” Samar said. “We felt that we were not welcome there.”
As a result, the family left Egypt and entered Gaza through underground tunnels that were in operation at the time.
Samar was immediately shocked by the living standards in Gaza, which has been under a tightened Israeli siege since 2007. “Human dignity is being strangled here,” she said. “It is in no way better than what we went through in Syria.”
Having fled a civil war in Syria, the al-Adeeni family had to endure Israel’s 51-day bombardment of Gaza in July and August 2014.
Unsure where to go, the family rented an apartment in Gaza City’s al-Zaytoun neighborhood during that attack. “I had to move to save my family,” Samar said. They had previously lived in the Tel al-Hawa area of the city.
The family used its savings to pay the rent. With its money running out, the family is now searching for alternative accommodation.
Nassar, a law graduate, has been unable to find work in Gaza, which according to the World Bank in May 2015 had the world’s highest unemployment rate.
“The situation here is worse than I ever imagined,” he said.
Samar said that she “missed our spacious home in Deraa, our kind neighbors and the happy days we had in the past.”
“We are waiting impatiently for any chance to leave here and go back,” she added. For the time being, they will remain in Gaza. The tunnels through which they entered have been closed.
They are fearful of what has happened to their friends back in Deraa. “I do not have any contact with them now,” said Nassar. “I really want to hear that they are okay.”
No helping hand?
The al-Aldeeni family – like others who have fled Syria to Gaza – have a history of displacement. The family is originally from al-Majdal, a village in the Galilee region of historic Palestine that was attacked by Zionist forces in 1948, resulting in the mass evacuation of its residents.
Israel has refused Palestinian refugees to return, in contravention of international law.
Syria hosted 12 camps for Palestinian refugees. Of them, five have either been destroyed in the ongoing civil war or become inaccessible to aid workers from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
More than 200 Palestinian families have moved from Syria to Gaza, according to Atef al-Aymawi, who heads a committee to support these refugees.
After arriving in Gaza, the refugees from Syria have been “left stranded,” he said. “They are in terrible situations but are not considered eligible for special assistance.”
For many of the families concerned, the only aid they have received are food parcels from UNRWA and from charities. They have not received assistance in finding work from the government in Gaza, al-Aymawi said.
“People in Gaza are already suffering under the siege,” he said. “But that does not mean these families shouldn’t be given a helping hand.”
Making ends meet
Nabeel Abu Nahel rues the day he decided to travel to Gaza.
Life in Gaza is “like hell,” the father of five said. “I used to have a stable job in Syria. I had a nice home. Everything was fine. But now we have to adapt ourselves to unbearable situations.”
His family now lives in a three-room apartment. Abu Nahel is struggling to pay the rent of 500 shekels ($130) per month.
“I want to get back [to Syria] as soon as possible,” he said. “But I cannot put my family’s lives at risk. I cannot go back there unless security is restored.”
Taybeh Ahel moved to Gaza from Syria in 2012. The 48-year-old mother was confronted in Gaza with multiple financial problems.
“I had to pay the rent for a small apartment,” she said. “And apartments are very expensive to rent in Gaza these days. Also, one of my sons was about to start university so I had to find money to pay his tuition fees.”
Ahel set up a small business to try and ensure that she had an income. She prepares traditional Syrian dishes in her apartment and sells them to people in Gaza.
“I started by making a small number of meals,” she said. “Then my work grew so I hired other women to prepare food for larger numbers of people.”
Her business has “lessened my family’s economic problems,” she said. “We no longer have to wait for other people to help us.”
Her 17-year-old son, Mutasim, has been particularly active in the business. He both cooks food and delivers meals once they are ready.
“We are lucky that we have been able to make our own living,” he said. “I have promised to help my mother whatever way I can. It would be too much for her to bear on her own.”
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.