Syrian refugees in Gaza face different ordeal
Gaza City - When Wareef Hameedo fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012, he never imagined that he would end up in the Gaza Strip, another volatile Mideast spot ruled by Islamic militants but also under an Israeli military siege.
However, the 35-year-old mechanical engineer changed his career to cooking and made it big in Gaza, rising to fame with tasty and creative Syrian dishes. In 2014, he inaugurated his restaurant, calling it Soryana — Arabic for “Our Syria” — in one of Gaza’s best neighbourhoods.
He also married a Gazan woman journalist, who had interviewed him about Syrian refugees going to Gaza.
Hameedo said his journey to Gaza still haunts him, saying: “It was long, full of pain, suffering and difficulties.”
He said he fled Aleppo to Turkey overland, partly on foot, then on to Egypt by boat, crossing into Gaza in May 2013 on foot through a smuggling tunnel under Egypt’s Sinai border.
“When I failed to find a job in Turkey and Egypt, I came here and here I am, still here,” Hameedo said.
While in Egypt, where he worked as a chef for corporate banquets in Cairo, Hameedo said he struggled and concluded he must leave.
He said, “I had to choose between a risky boat trip to Europe or go to Gaza” as a Palestinian acquaintance had advised him.
He picked Gaza, joining its population of 1.8 million straining under a tight Israeli siege imposed after the Hamas took control of the area.
Despite Gaza’s moribund economy, widespread destruction caused by the war with Israel in July 2014, unemployment nearing 50% and widespread poverty, Hameedo is a success story.
But it is not that rosy for the other 300 Syrian families, who have been arriving at Gaza since the Syrian uprising began in 2011.
Syrian Asma Kassar said she has not been able to find a job since she fled Syria with her Palestinian husband and their two children to Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza in September 2011.
“We’re unable to pay our apartment rent, which is $145 a month,” Kassar said, adding that the family was also unable to pay utility bills.
In all, 28 families among recent arrivals are native Syrians, while the rest are of Palestinian extraction who were born or lived in Syria. The exact number of the individuals is unclear but in Gaza a family averages seven people.
The Syrians interviewed in Gaza said they thought their stay in the Palestinian enclave would be temporary and they had expected to be gone before summer 2014, which included the Israeli war.
“It was horrible, long and hard times for us but it’s nothing compared with the endless war in Syria,” insisted Hameedo. Recalling what he said was an “arduous” trip to Gaza, Hameedo explained that he left Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, after he lost his home and restaurant in the city.
“My family had already been in Turkey for six months and they are still there,” he said. He noted that he walked more than 7 kilometres to reach a safe area, away from bombings and fighting in Aleppo, then crossed into Turkey.
Hameedo was barely able to make ends meet in Turkey. He said most Syrian refugees were confined to refugee camps, where they received food, shelter and aid from relief organisations, but were not allowed to work. As a result, many Syrians rented apartments in Istanbul or moved on to Europe or Arab countries, including Egypt.
In Cairo, Hameedo said a Palestinian acquaintance said he had a friend who was opening a restaurant in Gaza and he wanted Hameedo to work with him. I told him: “Are you crazy? I ran away from the war in Syria to go to another war in Gaza?”
“I said, ‘No way.’” But he changed his mind because “I thought I should give it a try.”
His Syrian passport has since expired and, because there is no Syrian embassy in Gaza, he is left without valid identification.
Gaza’s Syrian refugees established an association led by Anas Qaterji, another Syrian who fled Aleppo. He spoke of the hardships facing them and their attempts to return to Syria or continue on to Europe.
“We’re caught in a dilemma. We have struggled to get here but how can we leave again to see our families in Turkey and other places?” wondered Qaterji, whose association acts as a representation office for Syrians in Gaza.
“Through the association, we try to assist our Syrian refugee community, helping its members find jobs, give them little cash assistance to have them get by until our crisis is resolved,” he said.
Kassar said many Syrians have found it hard to mingle with Gaza’s local community.
“Besides the different customs and traditions, we don’t want to get attached to friends in Gaza because that will make it harder for us to leave back to Syria in the future,” she said.